Kicking the Con(vict)...


Kicking the convict down the road

San Diego Union Tribune, June 2, 2011 AT MIDNIGHT

By Paul Sutton

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 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 poorly – were designed to do. And however convenient it might be to solve the state's prison crowding problems by shifting the burden from state prisons to the ill-equipped and already overburdened county jail systems, it is simply a terrible idea.

It is akin to “kicking the can (of correctional problems) down the road”: it is literally the a matter of kicking the convict down the road (i.e., from state to county jurisdiction. And that move will not help the problem, the public, or the convict. Things will become worse, plain and simple.

Los Angeles and San Diego are responsible for most of our state’s inmate population. Accordingly, they will be the likely target of most of the realignment effort. Over the past 30 years, I have visited and studied most of the jails in San Diego County and the largest of those in Los Angeles County. I have been in and out of most of the prisons in California – from RJD (Richard J. Donovan) on the Mexican border all the way to Pelican Bay on the Oregon border – more than a hundred times. I have seen the best and worst of both worlds – jails and prisons. And they are very different worlds. Each does some things well and some things poorly.

The tragedy of realignment is that we are proposing to shift tens of thousands of people from one system that is designed for one thing into another system that is designed to do an entirely different thing, as if the move does not matter. It is pure folly.

It is as if everyone believes – without knowing better or caring – that a bed is a bed, a cell is a cell, and a lockup is a lockup; that any one of them is as good – or bad – as any other. Nothing could be further from the truth: they are very, very different. And saying they are equally competent to do the same things does not make them so. Until someone with some sense – and some authority – stands up and makes that point loudly and clearly that jails are not prisons and cannot, by some alchemy, be made to act like prisons, we condemn ourselves to even more frustration, waste, expense, public harm, and human suffering than our current correctional system has wrought for generations.

Sutton is a professor of criminal justice at San Diego State University. He has written, spoken and produced documentary films about California prisons. He has conducted weeklong tours of California prisons for more than 2,000 of his students for nearly 30 years.