In June of 2005 California began opening the 5,000 man Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, the third most recent prison in the state’s prison expansion boom. In January of 2006, when the prison is expected to be fully operating, prison officials boast that it will be the first maximum security level IV in California with a variety of academic and vocational education programs. These academic and vocational programs, prison officials claim, is meant to “increase an offender’s chances of reentering society successfully.”
Academic and vocational programs are progressive and should be welcomed by all prisoners (so long as they’re not being used to reward those in protective custody or producing goods or service for profit), but what is not progressive is the expansion of more prisons, and the expansion of more prisons should not be eclipsed with the promised benefits of some academic and vocational programs. The claims and supposed good intentions of prison officials are hollow and misleading yet to the ears of those less politically conscious, these claims sound valid. The fact of the matter is, no amount of academic and vocational programs is going to significantly reduce the prison population. This is a textbook case of trying to treat a symptom instead of treating the disease.
According to the secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency (YACA) Roderick Q. Hickman stated “…prisons are designed to serve the public safety by keeping inmates in custody and preparing them for the eventual release…” Hickman’s statement has far deeper implications than what appears on the first glance, and quite probably deeper implications than he himself understands or would be willing to face.
In capitalist society where production is based on profit, instead of correctly basing it on the needs of all of society’s members as a socialist economy dictates, such a society whose production is based on profits inevitably results in and perpetuates social inequalities where a prison system becomes necessary to protect the wealth and privileges of the bourgeoisie and its beneficiaries.
Despite various degrees of fluctuation in the prison population no amount of reforms, academic or vocational programs is going to adequately resolve the existence of the prison system. Only through an ongoing transformation of society’s economic base and the property relations which it rests upon, from capitalism onto a socialist course, can the first steps of abolishing all social inequalities and a true continuous reduction of the prison system begin.
As the laws governing transformation dictates, all quantitative increases or decreases at some point leap to a change in quality and this is no less true of the increase of California’s over-populated prisons.
In the 1970s California Gov. Jerry Brown, in an attempt to deal with the symptoms of a class-divided society, signed legislation requiring judges to impose mandatory, and longer, prison sentences for a wide variety of capitalist created crimes, thus igniting the process of California’s prison boom. In 1978 California prisons held fewer than 21,000 prisoners. By 1984 this number had more than doubled to 43,328. And currently in the end of2005 the prison population has more than tripled at 163,7171 and continues to rise.
The pressure of this increase in the number of new prisoners and their populations has led to a qualitative deterioration on all aspects within the prison population itself.
Within several years the annual budget for California’s medical care has doubled over one billion dollars and is increasing. And yet this increase in medical spending hasn’t been able to keep pace with the medical needs of a growing prison population. In fact, as many prisoners are far too aware, despite this increase in medical spending, prison health care remains grossly inadequate and results in widespread medical neglect and numerous preventable deaths every year throughout California.
As for drug and other so-called rehabilitative programs (programs designed to treat symptoms while avoiding their root causes), they have for the most part been dismantled and in direct contradiction to the C.D.C. officials’ claim of trying to “increase an offender’s chances of reentering society successfully.” In reality the truth is quite the opposite. The everyday lives of the prisoners have deteriorated dramatically. Most of the productive aspects of prison life that were originally gained through prisoner struggles and designed to promote personal and social development (as far as social development is possible within the limits of a class-divided society), such as a family visits, educational programs for all, recreational programs, etc., have for the most part been eliminated while isolation units along with the CDC’s excuses for permanently isolating prisoners has expanded in an inverse ratio.
And although Roderick Q. Hickman is a reactionary proponent of the existing status-quo, he is correct for having acknowledged in the San Francisco Chronicle that the 5,000 man Kern Valley prison could not possibly be the last prison because the system holds twice the number of inmates it was designed for and is still adding more.
Does this signal an eventual overturn of Three Strikes and other similar laws? Doubtful. Is this an indication of a future transformation from state to private prisons throughout California? It’s worth considering but also doubtful, given the strength of the CCPOA, who would most surely oppose such a step.
But what is evident, not only are the objective conditions within California prisons ripe to struggle for improvement, but more importantly, through a united struggle within the prison population can further raise their political consciousness and continue to struggle to end capitalism-imperialism and all of its inherent contradictions, including the prison system as we know it today.
Sources: “Hard Time: CA s Prisons in Crisis, ” July 3 2005, San Francisco Chronicle.
This article first appeared in Prison Art Newsletter, January 2006