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California Schemin'

Will Pennsylvania copy California's ill-advised prison policy?

One reassuring thing about living in Western Pennsylvania is that few things start here. As a result, it is always possible to get a good two-year heads-up on what is coming down the pike by watching events on the coasts. It is always instructive to keep an eye on an acknowledged bellwether like California.

Thanks in large part to the big-time clout of the California Prison Guards' Union, the Golden State was way out in front of the curve in the phenomenal increase in prisons and prisoners that occurred nationally over the past couple of decades. By backing mandatory minimum laws and draconian sentencing guidelines, the union was able to ensure that more and more people ended up in prison. It also led the way in pressuring lawmakers to ensure that only prosecutors got appointed to judgeships; defense attorneys were mostly ignored. All of this effort resulted in 130 percent more prisons in California since 1984, and a ten-fold increase in the number of prisoners. Talk about job security.

The rest of the country followed suit. Jesse Jackson has lamented, "The only public housing built in the last 10 years has been jail cells."

There is, of course, more to the story. With the forces already set in motion, the prison-building boom has failed to keep up with demand. The California system is currently holding an all-time high of 168,000 convicts, twice its listed capacity.

Most of the people I met in prison didn't like each other out on the street, and there was little reason for them to start once they got inside. The results of overcrowding have been as one would expect. Experiments have shown that if you keep jamming lab rats in a cage, they will eventually start killing each other. California's rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assault is the highest in the country -- more than three times the national average.

The latest manifestation of this problem is the meltdown of California's over-burdened county jails. A couple of weeks ago, Los Angeles County's jam-packed jail system was home to five racially motivated brawls. On Monday of the following week, there were two more disturbances. On Saturday there was widespread rioting that left one prisoner dead and more than 100 injured. Another convict has died since. On Thursday, in an effort to relieve tensions at the Pitches Detention Center, officials brought in 70 clergy members and a couple dozen media members to talk with inmates. A fight broke out shortly after they left.

If this beef spreads statewide -- and recent mass transfers into the state system of county-jail inmates, who are probably holding grudges, seem to guarantee that it will -- the whole state system could be in deep trouble.

Fortunately, Gov. Schwarzenegger has a plan. Under the guise of moving female convicts closer to their families, where they might also receive education, job training and drug and alcohol counseling, the governor proposes transferring some 4,500 of them to privately owned community facilities. To me, that begs the question: If they didn't have to be in prison, what were they doing there in the first place?

But serendipitously, the move would free up space to temporarily relieve overcrowding among male convicts while Schwarzenegger pushes his plan to build -- you guessed it -- more prisons.

In Pennsylvania, we also experienced a cancerous growth of prisons. Sixteen of the state's 26 prisons have been built since 1986, 10 since 1993. The number of convicts has nearly tripled from 15,000 to 42,500 in the last 20 years. All of the new capacity doesn't seem to have done much good. As in California, the county jails are packed.

According to a blog by Rosemary L. Gido, a professor of criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, "As 2006 begins, prisons large and small, rural and urban, struggle to house and separate, find and habilitate pretrial and sentenced, local, state and federal detainees and inmates … using a model that has largely never worked." The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania is calling for a statutory change requiring more convicts to be sent to state rather than county lock-ups. But the state system is already full. So, what's the answer? In California it's to build more prisons. I figure that Pennsylvania will follow suit.

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