U.S. politicians from both major parties are talking about the end of “mass incarceration” as a means of saving both money and lives, but despite recent reforms aimed at reducing the number of people behind bars the state of California is spending billions of dollars to build new jails.
“What we’re seeing is that although there’s a lot of discussion around sentencing reform for people with low-level convictions, there’s little if any talk around actually closing jails and prisons,” Lizzie Buchen, an advocacy coordinator at Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), told teleSUR. Indeed, according to a new report from her organization, California has authorized $2.2 billion to finance new jail construction
Despite its reputation as a bastion of social liberalism, California is second only to conservative Texas when it comes to putting men and women behind bars: the United States incarcerates more than 2.2 million people, with well over 200,000 of them in California prisons and jails. Because of severe overcrowding, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to slash that population and it has responded -- in part by transferring over 8,000 inmates to facilities in neighboring states.
In November 2014, voters in California took matters into their own hands by passing a referendum, Proposition 47, that reduced the penalty for many nonviolent property and drug offenses and led to the early release of thousands of prisoners. According to a new report from CURB, the measure could end up “reducing or eliminating jail and prison sentences for 40,000 people per year.”
But mass incarceration is big business in California, supported not just by the private contractors that provide food and health services in the state’s prisons and jails, but by the state’s liberal governor, Jerry Brown, and the powerful prison guard union. So even though the number of incarcerated people in California has finally, and slowly, begun to fall, that hasn’t led to a commensurate fall in prison and jail spending.
Out of California’s 58 counties, 23 “are already building new jails,” according to CURB’s annual report on the state of incarceration in the world’s 7th largest economy. Five are building “two or more jails.” And in terms of moving away from their reliance on incarceration, the report gave every county in the state a failing grade.
Los Angeles, the largest county in the United States, with a population of around 10 million people -- 17,000 of whom are behind bars -- is one of those doubling down on new jail construction. In August, the county’s Board of Supervisors approved a new jail for men that is expected to cost over $1 billion and another one for women projected to cost about $200 million. It also spends $3.2 billion a year on the local sheriff's department.
The language used to justify the new construction should be concerning to those who think the kinder, gentler speeches of today’s politicians, with their emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, necessarily means diverting dollars away from the system of mass incarceration. The new 3,885-bed men’s jail in Los Angeles, for instance, is to be called the “Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility.”
These so-called “social service jails” do offer mental health and substance abuse treatment, but they also reinforce the idea that social problems such as homelessness should continue to be dealt with using state coercion.
“Although such jails may sound like positive steps,” says CURB’s report, “they are still jails: They forcibly remove people from their families and communities, seclude them in locked cages, and deprive them of autonomy, dignity, and any sense of control.” And these jails are still staffed by sheriffs, with CURB noting that deaths of people in the custody of California sheriff’s department have risen 65 percent in the last year.
There’s another problem, according to Lizzie Buchen: While today’s jails are being built on the back of more liberal rhetoric -- rehabilitating the inmate rather than merely punishing them -- those new jails will not necessarily be overseen by bleeding-hearts until the end of time. “The political pendulum continues to swing,” she told teleSUR. “New felonies can be created and reduced sentences can always climb back up.”
The threat that jail construction poses to the long-term goal of ending mass incarceration is apparent. “If you're pouring money into building new cages,” said Buchen, “vested interests will see to it that they are filled.”