Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dazed and Confused: Broke California faces an 8 Billion Dollar Prison Hang Over

I can understand the pain and shock that many Californian's felt this morning as they perused headlines in their local paper and took in the number 8 Billion, as in an 8 Billion dollar court order to pay that the state, currently in full budget crisis mode, may have to pay immediately (read Mathew Yi's reporting in the SFChron).

Its like reading the fine print on your credit card website as you try to comprehend a massive change in the interest rate being charged on your huge balance. Only times millions.

The state's revenues, flush during the long real estate boom, are now as dry as the creeks here at mid-summer. Even the most insulated public institutions, like the UC system, are taking a 10 percent "haircut" on their budgets.

For decades now prison spending has expanded regardless of where the state was in the economic cycle. The 88 prisoners in the state for every 100 thousand free people, when I moved here to attend college at Cal in 1977, had grown by more then six-fold when I moved back to teach at that college (for the best account of how the real estate surpluses fed the prison boom, see Ruth Gilmore's Golden Golden Gulag: Prisons Surplus, Crisis, Opposition, in Globalizing California). But during most of those years the pains of that growth were smoothed by budget surpluses in the good times and bonds in the bad, readily agreed upon by elected officials who mostly agreed that prison spending was good for Californians, sort of eating your vegetables, very very expensive vegetables.

But now a huge amount of money is being called due, not by smiling politicians who claim to have our back, but by a law professor who answers to a federal judge, who answers to the Constitution. Nobody's claiming this will make us safer (the usual spoon full of sugar) but instead, legal, even moral obligations that we haven't been told to worry about for a long time. Welcome Guantanamo, California style.

The money, which will pay for some eight new prison hospitals, and a dental facility, as well as massive remodeling of existing prison medical facilities, is a testament not only to the length and depth of this prison boom but to the total disregard for anything other then locking people up as cheaply and rapidly as possible. Governor George Deukmeijian, (1983-1991) used to quip that it was better for the state to have worry about how to house criminals, than for citizens to find criminals in their houses. That sounded like common sense, and it may be true (at least for the minority of prisoners who were burglars on the outside), but now that so many of our houses are in foreclosure, and the state's fiscal house is in full crisis, we must look at this commonsense with new eyes.

Start with what a loss this will be. The 8 billion which would have paid a substantial portion of the cost for bringing health insurance to all Californian's will pay for facilities that will only be used by prisoners and which will become mostly useless if we can ever succeed in shrinking the base of our massive prison population to something even remotely reasonable.

In the short term, that massive economic signal to medical professionals everywhere to come join the ranks of the prison health system, will raise the costs of health care for every single Californian and probably all but dry it up in the poorer corner of the state.

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