Pat Nolan: Take it from experience: Prisons need reform
By Pat Nolan
Special to The Sacramento Bee
Published: Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 1, 2009 - 10:45 am
To: My fellow conservative Republicans in the Legislature
From: Pat Nolan, Assembly Republican leader, 1984-1988
Re: California's prison crisis
I was as "tough on crime" as any of you during my eight terms in the Assembly. I received the Victims Advocate Award from Parents of Murdered Children. I generally favored stronger penalties and also introduced the Death Penalty Restoration Act.
I led the fight to build more prisons.
I was "tough on crime" to make our communities safer.
But then I witnessed reality – inside prison walls. After my conviction in the Shrimpscam investigation, I served 29 months in federal custody. I was appalled to see how little is done to prepare inmates to live healthy, moral lives when they return to society – and 95 percent of prisoners will be released and return to our neighborhoods. I was frustrated that participation in religious programs is often discouraged. And I was shocked to see many people serving long sentences for minor, non- violent offenses.
Our current system of sentences and imprisonment has veered terribly off course. It costs taxpayers plenty but does not make us safer. I'm partly to blame for California's current prison crisis. I supported the expansion of our prison system. But while spending on prisons continues to skyrocket, Californians are no safer than residents of other states that have cut their prison population.
Many officials brag about the drop in California's crime in recent years and claim that it was the result of greater incarceration. But what they don't tell you is that crime dropped everywhere. Indeed, some states that actually cut their prison populations have had a much larger drop in crime than California.
These states have shown that it is possible to cut the costs of prisons while keeping the public safe. The state of New York reduced the number of prisoners while also cutting its violent crime by 63 percent. In New York City, where most of the state's released offenders go, murders dropped from 2,605 in 1990 to 801 in 2007, even as the state was sending fewer offenders to prison.
And last year, even "tough on crime" Texas enacted sweeping reforms of its prison system that allowed it to cancel plans to build three more prisons. Led by two conservative Republicans, Rep. Jerry Madden and Gov. Rick Perry, Texas redirected a large part of the money saved on prison construction into community treatment for the mentally ill and low-level drug addicts.
The Lone Star State will soon cancel contracts to house 1,900 state convicts in county lockups – relieving the overcrowding in the jails and saving $28 million. And recently Texas announced that for the very first time, there is no waiting list for drug treatment.
Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina and South Carolina have reduced their prison populations as well as their crime rates and saved hundreds of millions of dollars. They reserve costly prison beds for violent offenders while punishing low-risk offenders in community facilities.
They realize that prisons are for people we're afraid of, and that it is a waste to fill them with people we're merely mad at. They use new technologies to monitor parolees' whereabouts and behavior, and more effective supervision and treatment programs to help them stay on the straight and narrow. These policies have allowed them to spend less on prisons while improving public safety.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's modest prison reform proposals are consistent with what Republican leaders in other states are doing – conservative solutions that limit the growth in prison costs while keeping the public safe. California will spend $10 billion on prisons this year. Are we getting the public safety that would justify this huge expense? Not by a long shot. California's recidivism rate is the highest in the nation: Seven in 10 released prisoners are rearrested. No other business would continue to operate with a failure rate of 70 percent. That is a terrible return on your investment.
But don't blame corrections officers for these problems. They are merely carrying out policies adopted by the Legislature without the funding needed to back up the long sentences. Why do conservatives defend a government system that costs so much and fails so often? You ought to be leading the fight to reform it.
This is an opportunity for you to do what I wish I had done as Republican leader of the Assembly – put conservative principles to work on reforming corrections.
Retiring Arizona Prison Watch...
This site was originally started in July 2009 as an independent endeavor to monitor conditions in Arizona's criminal justice system, as well as offer some critical analysis of the prison industrial complex from a prison abolitionist/anarchist's perspective. It was begun in the aftermath of the death of Marcia Powell, a 48 year old AZ state prisoner who was left in an outdoor cage in the desert sun for over four hours while on a 10-minute suicide watch. That was at ASPC-Perryville, in Goodyear, AZ, in May 2009.
Marcia, a seriously mentally ill woman with a meth habit sentenced to the minimum mandatory 27 months in prison for prostitution was already deemed by society as disposable. She was therefore easily ignored by numerous prison officers as she pleaded for water and relief from the sun for four hours. She was ultimately found collapsed in her own feces, with second degree burns on her body, her organs failing, and her body exceeding the 108 degrees the thermometer would record. 16 officers and staff were disciplined for her death, but no one was ever prosecuted for her homicide. Her story is here.
Marcia's death and this blog compelled me to work for the next 5 1/2 years to document and challenge the prison industrial complex in AZ, most specifically as manifested in the Arizona Department of Corrections. I corresponded with over 1,000 prisoners in that time, as well as many of their loved ones, offering all what resources I could find for fighting the AZ DOC themselves - most regarding their health or matters of personal safety.
I also began to work with the survivors of prison violence, as I often heard from the loved ones of the dead, and learned their stories. During that time I memorialized the Ghosts of Jan Brewer - state prisoners under her regime who were lost to neglect, suicide or violence - across the city's sidewalks in large chalk murals. Some of that art is here.
In November 2014 I left Phoenix abruptly to care for my family. By early 2015 I was no longer keeping up this blog site, save occasional posts about a young prisoner in solitary confinement in Arpaio's jail, Jessie B.
I'm deeply grateful to the prisoners who educated, confided in, and encouraged me throughout the years I did this work. My life has been made all the more rich and meaningful by their engagement.
I've linked to some posts about advocating for state prisoner health and safety to the right, as well as other resources for families and friends. If you are in need of additional assistance fighting the prison industrial complex in Arizona - or if you care to offer some aid to the cause - please contact the Phoenix Anarchist Black Cross at PO Box 7241 / Tempe, AZ 85281. firstname.lastname@example.org
until all are free -
MARGARET J PLEWS (June 1, 2015)