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California Prisons Grow

Since 1973 the U.S. prison population has tripled. According to a recent study by the Sentencing Project, a record 1.1 million Americans are now behind bars at a cost of $20.3 billion a year. We now have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, far surpassing second place South Africa and more than four times as large as Great Britain. For black males, our incarceration rate is nearly five times that of South Africa. And while the U.S. has been busy building jails, the South African government and the conservative British government have been developing policies aimed at reducing prison populations.

This unprecedented warehousing of prisoners has done virtually nothing to reduce crime. In California, for example, the state spent $3.2 billion in the last decade to build prisons, mostly under Republican regimes, and the prison population has nearly tripled. Yet today the state has the nation's third highest violent crime rate--and the prison system is the most overcrowded in the country. [Editor's Note: Last year in Washington State, at the height of a similar prison-building binge, violent crime increased 5.8 percent statewide and 8.5 percent in King County.] Meanwhile, as corrections budgets soared not only in California but in states across the country, other services, including education and various social programs that could help keep people out of jail, have been slashed due to lack of funds.

In fact, prisons are being built faster than California can afford to open them. Delano State Prison, a new $186 million, state-of-the-art penitentiary, has sat empty for more than a year due to lack of funds. A new $214 million, 2400-bed Riverside prison will not open until October 1994, partly because the money isn't there. Last year, the Legislature approved $600 million in bonds for the prisons near Soledad, Susanville, and Madera, a debt that will more than double in several years, in addition to the operating costs.

Yet the number of prisoners is surging forward faster than expected. By June, there will be 8,000 more prisoners than expected, at an additional cost of $50 million this fiscal year and many millions of dollars more annually thereafter. For one thing, prisoners reincarcerated for parole violations are serving more time because, says a department spokesman, "the CDC is concentrating on the most serious types of violations, such as drug use." It costs the state an average of $22,000 to keep a prisoner for one year at designed capacity, and about $12,000 if the facility is overcrowded.
Pelican Bay Prison Express

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