mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
California's Prison Nightmare


Speaking of failed states, California’s prison system is dysfunctional and broken. Earlier this year, a Federal Appeals Court found that the state had yet to comply with the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that conditions in its prison system amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” The three-judge Appeals Court panel issued a stern rebuke to Governor Jerry Brown, threatening to hold him in contempt if he doesn’t begin to make serious progress towards resolving funding and overcrowding issues in the state’s prison system.

Stories like these aren’t helping Governor Brown’s case: The Center for Investigative Reporting has revealed that doctors for the prison system coerced female prisoners into being sterilized. According to the report, nearly 150 inmates at two women’s prisons were illegally pressured into having the operation between 1997 and 2010. Staff reportedly targeted repeat offenders and women likely to return to jail in a rather gruesome ploy to cut future medical expenses due to prison pregnancies.

Meanwhile, at least 30,000 inmates began a hunger strike yesterday, demanding an end to solitary confinement policies that allow California to keep suspected gang members isolated for decades without the right to have their case reviewed. The hunger strike is meant to show support for ten inmates at the Pelican Bay State Prison who have filed suit against California and are currently seeking class-action status.

While that case will have to be decided on its merits, both stories are further evidence of breakdowns in governance. Enforcing the laws and properly punishing criminals are among the most basic functions of government. It’s hard to see California as anything but another failed state if it is failing these fundamental tests.

[2010 photo of CA inmates sharing bunk-beds in a gymnasium repurposed for their incarceration. Photo courtesy Getty Images.]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Nick Bidler

    My guess: they’ve seen this happen before, as a ploy by the prisoners to get… something. Special treatment? Better food?

    • Corlyss

      Perhaps an insight from an agency I used to work for will serve.

      The union at IRS was, and probably still is, the most aggressive federal workers union. They are on the cutting edge of employer-employee relations in the federal setting. In our corner of the legal shop (the 40 or so attorneys that dealt with everything other than taxes, i.e., the legal administrative needs of a government agency), the only people who ever progressed to management within the Chief Counsel’s Office came from the branch that did personnel law. Once I enquired why this was so, what made the personnel branch so special. “They deal with the union,” I was told. “So? I still don’t get it,” says I. “Ah, well, you see the Congress isn’t very sympathetic to the jack-booted tax thugs, so we have a hard time getting things for the agency if we don’t pitch it as a benefit or aid to the workers. And for that we need the cooperation of the union. People who have dealt with the union officers know how to get things we need.”

      Here’s my point: the prisoners are a constituency in the state nexus. The prison guards and their union feed off that constituency. The legislators feed off the prison guards and the beneficence of the union and their relation to the constituency. More taxpayer money will find its way into the system. It most likely will never reach the prisoners, or only a very little of it will, but the system will continue to flourish.

      • AD_Rtr_OS

        It’s the same everywhere….
        Albert Shanker on why he didn’t advocate student friendly policies in education as head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO):
        When the students become union members, I’ll represent them!

        • Corlyss

          Awesome quote, AD. Relatedly, did you ever see Woody Allen’s Sleepers?

        • Kavanna

          At least Shanker was honest about whom he was representing.

      • papertiger0

        IRS union? PBS union? Prison Guards union? Everyone of them are a stink in the nose and a thumb in the eye of a free republic.
        Prison Guards with a union and a raise?

        Prison guard is a baby sitting job. In a just world it would pay minimum wage.
        You could fire every one of them today, ala Reagan and the air traffic controllers, and replace them all before nightfall.

        Actually in a just world there wouldn’t be a minimum wage.

        • Corlyss

          The National Treasury Employees Union represents IRS and other agencies’ personnel. Google it sometime and watch the horrors unfold. I’ve mentioned here before the fact that the NTEU has a veto on every commissioner nominated; if they don’t like ’em, they don’t even get nominated. And every nominee has to promise the union that no union employees will lose their jobs as a result of automation, which explains 1) why it took almost 20 years to get digitized filing of taxpayer-prepared 1040s; why even with efile they still have 100,000 employees, half of which are data entry clerks. When people speak of cutting back the IRS, if they are not talking about the Base Closure model for reductions, they aren’t serious.

          I agree with you. The Feds should never have allowed unionization of Fed employees, but having done it, there’s zero chance of getting the decision reversed. They have an equity right in the continuance of the practice.

  • Phil Snyder

    Oddly enough, one of the more powerful public employee unions in CA is the Correctional Officers’ Union. It lobbied for more prison time, more prisons. The union also lobbied for more and more crimes to be punished by longer sentences.

  • dhowell969

    Of course Commiefornia is a failed state. Name one successful communist economy, other than China which more closely resembles a totalitarian capitalist nation.

  • kriskanya

    What’s wrong with having repeat offenders sterilized? Seems like these doctors did a service.

    • Corlyss

      SCOTUS ruled it unconstitutional back in the 40s or 50s. Smacked too much of recently discredited Nazi eugenics policies. One would think that even the prisoners’ consent would be dismissed as “coerced” under the circumstances.

    • papertiger0

      To bad they didn’t pick up your mom. That would be a service to the national IQ average.

  • SDN

    “Stories like these aren’t helping Governor Brown’s case: The Center for Investigative Reporting
    has revealed that doctors for the prison system coerced female
    prisoners into being sterilized. According to the report, nearly 150
    inmates at two women’s prisons were illegally pressured into having the
    operation between 1997 and 2010.”

    Remind me again which party runs the state? Rick Perry never had this issue. Neither did Sarah Palin. But of course it’s the Republican War on Women.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service