By Paul Sutton
midnight, June 2, 2011
As a professor of criminal justice, I am writing this during my 100th weeklong tour of California prisons. The tour is visiting eight prisons in five days. Today (May 26) was San Quentin, normally peaceful but the scene of a riot four days ago. Tomorrow, I lead 24 San Diego State criminal justice students into Folsom State Prison and Cal State Prison at Sacramento, which six days ago had its worst riot in 15 years.
I was in Pelican Bay State Prison on the day, 20 years ago, that the court ordered California to do something about the state’s deplorable prison conditions and inmate crowding. Coincidentally, I was in California Men’s Colony on the day (May 23) when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its most recent decision to force the state to find a solution to the problems the courts had recognized a generation before. In the interim, the debate has seen more heat than progress.
U-T reporter Matthew Hall’s piece (“Court rules state must cut prison population,” May 24) has raised some interesting points and has generated much additional heat – much of it symptomatic of why so little has changed over so many years when so much has needed to change. Much of the debate misses the point, and much of the interchange is based on bias, racism, prejudice and ignorance. That is both understandable and tragic.
There are many problems and many issues. They are both substantial and imminent. They will not be solved without careful and thoughtful discussion. And the forging of remedies simply cannot and must not be left to politicians or practitioners, if we are to find our way out of our current mess.
There are many aspects to this problem. The issues include big considerations like sentencing, parole, rehabilitation, budgets, the nature of incarceration and so on. Those are critical and must be part of any solution.
But there are other, obvious things, that no one is addressing. Perhaps those who know better are best served in this debate by keeping the public in the dark about certain critical realities and to let us argue about the irrelevant and benign. At the heart of the matter, for example, is the issue of so-called realignment, i.e., moving inmates from state prisons to county jails.
Despite the funding and logistical problems such a proposal raises, no one is addressing the plain fact that county jails in California are simply not equipped to handle offenders sentenced to longer terms than those offenders they currently hold. They not only don’t have the room, the staff, the facilities, the programs, the infrastructure, the philosophy, the training or the architectural requisites to do what realignment expects or demands them to do. Simply put, jails were not built, intended or capable of holding massive numbers of felons for long periods of time. That is what prisons – however badly – were designed to do. And however convenient it might be to solve the state prison crowding problem by shifting the burden from the state’s prisons to the ill-equipped and already overburdened county jail systems, it is a terrible idea.
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