The California political system’s dysfunctional dance around its prison system continued yesterday with legislative Democrats rejecting most of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s undercooked plan. They adopted his general approach, but spent less. In the end, this may set the stage for at least a partial federal takeover of the long-troubled system.
Schwarzenegger called for spending some $6 billion to build two new prisons, move low-security female and male inmates into more community-based facilities, send illegal immigrant inmates to other states, and create social re-entry centers for those about to be released. Instead, the Legislature’s counter package would spend just under $1 billion. That money would be used to add more than 5000 beds to existing prisons, move female inmates, and plan for new facilities for inmates with special medical and psychological needs and for the re-entry centers.
But few believe that this is any real solution. Here California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) president Mike Jimenez discusses the long-term prison need in this NWN video. The Democratic plan would fund only a third of the expanded beds sought by the administration; officials warn that 16,000 inmates are currently sleeping in gymnasiums and classrooms rather than cells or dormitories.
Many political pros know that prisons are not high on the list of voter concerns. Says one high-ranking Democratic consultant: “Inmates can be stacked like cordwood in there for all the public cares.”
Indeed, prison bonds were part of Schwarzenegger’s original Big Bang Bonds infrastructure package from his State of the State address in January. Democrats had no problem with removing prison construction from the package that appears on the November ballot.
Democrats do support Schwarzenegger’s plan to move some female inmates into private prisons, but it’s unclear that private operators, wanting control over their facilities, would accept the requirement in both the Schwarzenegger and Democratic plans that unionized correctional officers be employed in the facilities.
In political terms, the prisons are a lose-lose proposition. There is no mass constituency that cares about the prisons. They are a place to warehouse failure. When Democratic legislators forced the removal of the prisons from Schwarzenegger’s big bonds package, there was no public outcry.
In the absence of a broad constituency that cares, particular interests have developed tremendous sway. The powerful prison guards union, with a massive political fund derived from highly lucrative contracts, intimidates politicians of all stripes.
The union played primarily on the Republican side of the fence at first in gubernatorial politics, famously doing an independent expenditure campaign on behalf of Pete Wilson in his closely fought battle with Dianne Feinstein in 1990. While it wasn’t the only reason Wilson, then a U.S. senator, beat the former San Francisco mayor, it alarmed many Democrats. The following year, then state Democratic Party chairman Phil Angelides and his political director, Bob Mulholland, instituted a plan to make the prison guards union part of the Democratic structure, as well as the Republican. Soon the guards were “underwriters” of state Democratic conventions.
Now, for many reasons, the prisons are a mess, and there is no real state solution in sight. Says one Democratic politician: “I hope the feds take over. We can’t handle it.”