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Why isn’t ‘prison reform’ seeking an effective demand for change?

March 26, 2017

by Anthony Robinson

“A criminal justice system is a mirror in which a whole society sees the darker outlines of its face. Our ideas of justice and evil take on visible form in it, and thus we see ourselves in deep relief.” – “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison” by Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton

“USA, Prison Capital of the World” – Art: Arkee Chaney, A-71362, P.O. Box 112, Joliet IL 60434

The criminal justice system, as an instinct to protect itself and profit from its agenda, protects “criminality” as an inherent reaction and vision of poor people of color. Those who are the most victimized by crime are not those in positions to make and implement policy. Therefore, the image of crime has ethnic connotations that create class disparities that accept an “us against them” social policy which paints crime as a social activity of poor people of color, and punishment as a task of the privileged class to maintain order.

For people of color who go through society marginalized and treated as “likely suspects,” being stigmatized often results in socialized molding of such low expectations that crime is regarded as acceptable behavior patterns to live in. Society has been institutionalized into accepting the failure of the criminal justice system in fighting crime as long as that “fight” continues to disenfranchise poor communities of color.

As more and more citizens in America are becoming more supportive of prison reform, whether through a humanitarian appeal to the heart or more practical arguments like relieving the economy of the tax burden that prisons cost society, it becomes practical to ask what is being mirrored in the criminal justice system – and how is society owning up to that reflection?

Even on the heels of prison reform measures like Propositions 36, 47 and now 57, what is the criminal justice system and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in particular mirroring and what can society say about its image as it sees “the darker outlines of its face.”

What is being mirrored in the criminal justice system – and how is society owning up to that reflection?

“The criminal justice system came into existence in an earlier epoch and persists in the present because, even though it is failing – indeed, because of the way it fails – it generates no effective demand for change,” say the authors of “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison,” Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton.

This quote pinpoints an important perspective to measure what effect the propositions and reform measures are truly having upon the prison system. In order to answer that question, it is necessary to take a look inside the system and dare to see those the system is most failing as necessary components of the answers. The problem is that the prisoner is not recognized as valuable beyond the use of mirror “subjects” as a narrative for reform.

“Prison reform” has become synonymous with “legislating” and bill writing which, don’t get me wrong, has a role to play. But the more fundamental effect that is not being measured is where the prisoner is left in the aftermath of these propositions.

Who was the writer who said, “If you want to see the true measure of the society look to how it treats its prisoners?”

I’m writing from California Men’s Colony, a Level II maximum security facility with a re-entry hub. There are probably 20 self-help programs offered along with 20 different religious and spiritual services offered throughout the week. The programs here, from the outside looking in, would imply that this facility believes in prisoners and their rehabilitation, but that is not necessarily true.

California Men’s Colony, under the auspices and direction of Warden Josie Gastelo, is the most racist prison I’ve been to in my 17 years locked up. There is a crime that exists right in the middle of the penal system that is and has gone unpunished for decades.

Who was the writer who said, “If you want to see the true measure of the society look to how it treats its prisoners?”

That crime is “racism toward prisoners.” Racism toward prisoners can be defined as “an indifference towards the growth, stability and well-being of prisoners that is so intense it impedes basic human exchanges of decency and respect for the other person solely because of the stigma of him being a prisoner.”

The problem seems to be that with the prison reform bandwagon, the public is applauding and voting for restorative justice – and being sold on that narrative – while the staff of CDCR are still being trained with an emphasis on retributive justice, i.e., punish them before helping them, better yet punish them more effectively by not helping them.

Racism toward prisoners can be defined as “an indifference towards the growth, stability and well-being of prisoners that is so intense it impedes basic human exchanges of decency and respect for the other person solely because of the stigma of him being a prisoner.”

In an article published in Prison Legal News (December 2016), insight on CDC guards’ perspective on “prison reform” was revealed in the inordinate amount of overtime pay doled out to employees. As delineated in the article, some CDCR officials make more in overtime than their base pay. In one case, a lieutenant who made $200,000 in one year was paid $225,000 or so in overtime, and there is a case of a doctor who made over $200,000 in base pay and over $225,000 in overtime pay in the same year.

That is nearly half a million dollars doled out to each high ranking CDCR official throughout California’s prison facilities. When you answer that at least 10 high-ranking prison officials per facility in the 33 or more prisons in CDCR’s system are bilking the state for the same amount in excessive pay, the numbers get interesting.

The problem seems to be that with the prison reform bandwagon, the public is applauding and voting for restorative justice while the staff of CDCR are still being trained with an emphasis on retributive justice.

One of the intended consequences of all this excessive overtime is to incentivize and reward the employees who are racist towards prisoners. The CDCR employee who is rewarded with enough overtime to pay to exceed his base pay is not the employee who is costing CDCR more by helping inmates rehabilitate themselves, but the one who is going to write false disciplinary reports and give false testimony at hearings; the doctor who receives the overtime is going to save CDCR money by cutting off an inmate from the effective, more expensive treatment; the teacher is not going to teach the student how to pass the curriculum because they get paid for students being in the class and are only concerned about filling seats.

Is this what the public is bargaining for with “prison reform”? CDCR is determined to take captive as many funds and resources allocated toward rehabilitation and reroute them toward administrative interests. Currently CMC West is building a dining facility and a new medical facility on grounds. Where is the money coming from to simultaneously fund such projects?

CDCR has become profitable because the way in which it fails prisoners “generates no effective demand for change.” Will the public continue to refuse to take notice, or will the next proposition hold prison officials accountable for their racism toward prisoners?

Will the public continue to refuse to take notice, or will the next proposition hold prison officials accountable for their racism toward prisoners?

Send our brother some love and light: Anthony Robinson Jr., P-67144, CMC E9-12L, P.O. Box 8101, San Luis Obispo CA 93409-8101.

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3 thoughts on “Why isn’t ‘prison reform’ seeking an effective demand for change?

  1. Tony Medina

    Prison Reform is a Wall Street Joke on Main Street. Wall Street Criminals Profit Big-Time on Prisons. So Let's talk 90% Abolition of Prisons. Most people, 90%, in prison can safely live in the community. But Wall Street Profits won't let this happen.

    Reply

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