In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s severely overcrowded state prison system had resulted in such poor prison conditions that they were in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Accordingly, the court ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to take immediate action to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 prisoners.
Though the state has reduced the number of prisoners in its 33 prisons from 150,000 in 2009 to about 119,000 prisoners today, a federal three-judge panel has rejected Governor Brown’s recent request to delay the order, ordering the state to further reduce its prison population by approximately 9,600 by the end of the year.
Under pressure to comply with the court’s order, Governor Jerry Brown continues to shuffle prisoners from state prisons to county jails and other facilities and process potential medical-related and elderly releases, in addition to proposing increased use of for-profit prisons both in and out-of-state. California currently has approximately 9,000 prisoners in private prisons in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arizona, and just last month, Governor Brown extended the state’s contract with CCA for the three out-of-state private prisons for an additional three years.
Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, who supports the governor’s proposal, believes that sending prisoners to privately operated prisons, even if they are thousands of miles from home, is a better option than early releases of people convicted of more serious offenses, claiming there aren’t many low priority prisoners left in the system.
With the year’s end just months away and the purported lack of people convicted of low level offenses left in the state system, Gov. Brown and California leaders appear to be in quite the bind. Joe Baumann, chapter president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., historically opposed to privatized prisons, has said, "He's pretty well painted into a situation where he has no options left."
Advocates disagree, saying that simply locking prisoners up in different places is a shortsighted approach to the larger problem. Don Specter, a lawyer for prisoners who have sued the state over prison conditions, said, "It’s expensive. It doesn’t do anything to further rehabilitation... It just perpetuates the same policy."
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-6), though he agrees that contracting beds to meet the court’s requirement is a better option than early releases, has also insisted that the state spend more money on substance abuse treatment and mental health programs. Steinberg said, renting prison beds “does not do a single thing to reduce the prison population on the long-term basis,” and that investing in these types of programs “keeps people out of prison once they leave.”
Today, it was reported that the California legislature has begun discussing the amount of money needed to bail the state out of its prison crisis. Senator Steinberg plans to push for more funding for rehabilitative programs, while Senator Jim Nielsen (D-4) has asked Brown to call for a special session to develop permanent solutions to the state’s prison problems.
While the fate of 9,600 California prisoners and the state’s prison system remains unclear, what is clear is that the crisis in California is welcome news for private prison companies, CCA and GEO Group. During their quarterly earnings calls last week, CEOs of both companies described the situation in California to their shareholders as a lucrative opportunity for growth. CCA, who has suffered decreases in both shares and revenues, is particularly eager to bank on California’s crisis, continuing to house prisoners currently in their out-of-state facilities for an additional three years, and potentially 4,000 more if federal judges grant Governor Brown’s request to do so.
California has some big decisions to make and little time to make them. Meanwhile, what can we learn from this debacle? We should reflect on the harsh reality that private prison companies like CCA and GEO Group, both notorious for cutting corners, mismanagement, and human rights abuses, continue to reap billions from mass incarceration in the U.S. For states with overcrowded systems like California, Vermont, Hawaii, and Idaho, CCA continues to profit from the shipment of incarcerated people across the country, far away from their families and support systems.
The state of California and our nation as a whole must wake up to the fact that our reliance on incarceration, especially for-profit incarceration, must end. Governor Brown should say no to private prisons and get serious about rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration, keeping families together, and strengthening communities. The time is now.