They’ve been packing them in California prisons for decades, far past capacity. Now, thanks to the ACLU, the Supreme Court has ordered the state of California to lower the prison population to the number of prisoners facilities were designed to hold.
That means tens of thousands of prisoners will just be set free:
It is one of the largest prison release orders in the nation’s history, and it sharply split the high court.
Justices upheld an order from a three-judge panel in California that called for releasing 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners. Since then, the state has transferred about 9,000 state inmates to county jails. As a result, the total prison population is now about 32,000 more than the capacity limit set by the panel.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said California’s prisons had “fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements” because of overcrowding. As many as 200 prisoners may live in gymnasium, he said, and as many as 54 prisoners share a single toilet.
Kennedy insisted that the state had no choice but to release more prisoners. The justices, however, agreed that California officials should be given more time to make the needed reductions.
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling “staggering” and “absurd.”
He said the high court had repeatedly overruled the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for ordering the release of individual prisoners. Now, he said, the majority were ordering the release of “46,000 happy-go-lucky felons.” He added that “terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.” Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with him.
Let’s look at the cause of this problem. California’s prison population is far over capacity. Why?
The “three strikes rule,” promoted by one of the most powerful lobbies in California — The California Correctional Peace Officers Association — is part of the problem:
In three decades, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. The union has contributed millions of dollars to support “three strikes” and other laws that lengthen sentences and increase parole sanctions. It donated $1 million to Wilson after he backed the three strikes law.
And the result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.
The above article also details the union’s involvement with a victim’s rights PAC that lobbies to keep prisoners in prison, increasing the prison population.
[Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the union,] does not deny that the two are closely connected.
“We support a number of victims’ rights groups,” he said.
When asked why the correctional officers union is involved in victims’ rights at all, Corcoran said: “There are people that think that there’s some sort of ulterior motive, but the reality is we simply want to make sure [the victims'] voices are heard.”
But Corcoran acknowledges that the union has benefited from the increase in the prison population after these laws passed.
The union has also lobbies against the use of private prisons in California. They don’t use union guards:
In California, the first group of private facilities — Eagle Mountain among them — opened in 1988, a time when the inmate population was mushrooming. With state-run prisons bulging, inmates had begun challenging the conditions of their confinement and judges were issuing orders that threatened to lead to widespread releases unless crowding was eased.
“The hallways were filled with double bunks and the inmates used buckets to go to the bathroom,” recalled Craig Brown, undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Corrections Agency at the time.
“We were just desperate for space,” Brown added. “Building new prisons was one answer, but that took too long. So the privates became part of the mix.”
Privatization appealed to the Republican governor at that time, George Deukmejian, as well as to his GOP successor, Pete Wilson. But from the start, the private facilities were bitterly opposed by the labor union representing prison guards, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
The union fought privatization in part because it does not represent guards at the company-run facilities. But Brown, now a lobbyist for the union, said its opposition goes beyond that: “Government’s job is 100% to protect the public. With the privates, the job is to make money.”
Though California’s private prisons have won high marks from state officials and independent auditors, some private lockups in other states have been dogged by violence, mismanagement and escapes.
Over the years, the union has used such horror stories to help sway California legislators against any effort to expand private prisons, which have been limited in the state to housing small numbers of low-security inmates. The union has distributed news clippings of private prison problems elsewhere in the country, as well as a CBS television “60 Minutes” segment on troubles at a Corrections Corp. of America lockup in Ohio.
Davis was sympathetic to the union arguments. Two years ago, he proposed closing five of the nine private prisons, saying that he opposed the concept of privatization in corrections and that the tumbling population of low-security inmates made them no longer necessary.
Defenders of private facilities cried foul, suggesting that Davis had been motivated by politics. The prison guards union, they pointed out, was one of Davis’ biggest campaign contributors — having spent $2.3 million to get him elected in 1998. In 2002, a few weeks after Davis proposed closing the five private prisons, the union gave him $250,000.
It’s a one-two punch. Unions fight to keep prison populations high, then fight the construction of new, privately owned prisons which would ease the overcrowding.
And private prisons could have been the answer.
This article explains how a private prison corporation built a prison in nine months, had it operational in a year. It held three thousand.
But rather than that, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association used its power to keep facilities from being constructed, helping to create the situation we have today.
It’s incredible the union still has the nerve to accuse the corporation of greed.