Friday, March 2, 2012

By By "Bad Beds"! Hello Dignity?

California's Secretary of Corrections, Matthew Cate, held a press conference today to announce that as of the end of February, the last of California's notorious "bad beds" have been removed. The substantial local and national media coverage of this "event" (including KQED California Edition, and the Washington Post) included links to the Department's own front page web treatment of this story which billed the beds as "iconic" and their departure as a clear signal of California's progress. These triple bunked "temporary" manner of housing inmates in the gymnasium, hallways, and utility rooms of the state's numerous prisons persisted for over two decades, including as many as 20,000 inmates at a time, and stood at the very center of the historic Brown v. Plata decision last May upholding the sweeping population reduction order that is without doubt the major cause of the reduction of over 17,000 prisoners since it was decided.

The Department's coverage is fascinating on a number of levels. They have clearly embraced the mission of downsizing which the state (under then Attorney General Brown) had recently defended in the Supreme Court as unnecessary to resolve constitutional violations and a clear and present danger to Californian's. According to the CDCR's web-article:

“Non-traditional beds became the iconic symbol of California’s prison overcrowding crisis,” CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate said. “Now, gyms once filled with inmates in triple-bunk beds are open and can be used for their intended purpose. This demonstrates how much progress California has made in improving inmate conditions and employee safety.”

Moreover, Cate (and presumably Governor Brown) are signalling that the move is not only necessary to establish conditions that are not cruel, inhuman, and degrading, but also to creating a more effective rehabilitative penal regime. If the beds are "iconic" it is because they stood for a whole penal regime that had lost its bearings in both human rights and penology. If the prisons can now return to their "intended purpose" then the past two decades during which that purpose was abandoned by the state stands as a shameful chapter in our history.

The Department chose a potent symbol to showcase the empty space suddenly available, Deuel Vocational Institution, a prison built in the 1950s to embody California's then internationally advanced commitment to rehabilitative programming by placing relatively young inmates together with a range of vocational training programs for skilled and semi-skilled employment upon release. That mission continued for sometime after California abandoned rehabilitation as a penal goal in the 1980s but in the course of the 1990s the uncontrolled population growth of mass incarceration transformed Deuel by 2002 it had become a "reception center" a prison delegated to holding prisoners entering prison (whether for the first time or after a violation of parole) which became among the most overcrowded sites in the chronically hyper overcrowded system. In 2003, which was operating at as much as 238 percent of design capacity suffered a riot in which both prisoners and correctional officers were injured. Governor Schwarzenegger visited the prison soon after and declared the system broken.

With the last of the "bad beds" being rolled away in a video posted on the website, the Department promises:

The building is now being restored to its intended purpose as a place for inmate recreation and rehabilitative programming.

More reassuring would be a promise by the state of California to assure that the dignity and human rights of prisoners and correctional officers would be protected in the future, whether or not the federal courts are breathing down our necks. What would that require?

The Department is making progress on reducing overcrowding and its public statements are an important form of transparency and even accountability that has been sorely lacking in the past. Indeed, the web-article not only includes a video of the last "bad beds" being rolled away but also set slide show of images of what the "bad beds" looked like filled with people serving their prison sentences in what looks like the temporary shelter set up to assure the survival of refugees fleeing a disaster (only for years instead of weeks). But the Department is a politically controlled agency that could easily find itself used again to plan and execute human rights violations on a broad demographic scale as occurred in the past.

First, we need a commission to investigate for the public record how the state found itself operating prisons that attract words like torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. This is not Honduras where poverty, spiraling crime, and corruption are the order of the day, or Mexico, but we had prisons that belong in the same frame as recent news stories about the fire the killed hundreds in an overcrowded and chaotic Honduran prison (Guardian coverage here) and a murderous riot by one prison gang against another in Mexico to cover over an escape of elite gang members abetted by guards (coverage in the Guardian here).

Given the severity of the human rights problem in California's prisons and its duration for more than two decades, retrospective documentation should lead to prospective preventive techniques. The commission could become a California Committee for the Prevention of Torture, or CAL CPT, modeled on the European CPT; a body of legal, medical, human rights, and criminological expert investigators with the authority to inspect any prison, mental hospital, or indeed any place of confinement, in order to warn state government of the potential for degrading conditions to form and how to prevent it.

Realignment, the package of statutory changes that has sent most parole violators and many low level felony convicts to county justice systems rather than state prison and which is the major cause of the drop in prison population, is important, but it does not reflect a true repudiation of the state's extremist commitment to penal incapacitation, reflected in our sentencing laws. The legislature (or a commission appointed by it) needs to seriously revisit the entire California penal code to clean out and reframe its 19th century core and the vast accumulation of repetitive crimes and the absurdly long arbitrary sentences that destine so many Californians to years in prisons that serve neither to reflect just retribution or any real crime control benefits.

Supermax prisons, known in California as Secured Housing Units or SHUs, where prisoners are locked down 23 hours a day, 7 days a week, have long raised troubling questions about their propensity to lead to mental distress or illness. California's version of Supermax is extreme on every level, involving more prisoners, for more of their sentences, under worst conditions (including double celling in lock/down). All states should revisit their use of these prisons, but given California's proven propensity to create cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions under the justification fo security, large scale use of SHUs should cease (lock downs and disciplinary isolation would remain as tools for security).

1 comment:

Jonathan Simon said...

The front of the March 13th NYTimes showed a color photo of women prisoners in jumbled bunk beds in an irregular area of a Honduran prison, to illustrate a story about chronic hyper overcrowding in Honduran prison. While the subject of the Honduran prisons is salient because of the terrible fire at one of those facilities last month that killed hundreds of prisoner. But no one who has paid attention to the California prison crisis could help but notice the obvious resemblance to California's bad beds. Matt Cate and company surely get that point and must be very pleased that this coverage runs after the last California bad bed has been packed away (for now).