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CA Legislative Horror Show

Due to our very long lead time (I write this on March 7th) it's difficult to report on fast moving stories like the goings on in the state house. As you read this, who knows what may have happened since this story was written. But that said, here is "the latest" from the California Legislative Horror Show.

AB 411, introduced by assembly member Bordonaro, would greatly reduce the number of prisoners eligible to participate in the family (trailer) visiting program. Those convicted of crimes relating to murder, manslaughter, sex offenses, or anybody doing life without parole would be prohibited from having trailer visits.

Not to be outdone by the state assembly, James Gomez, Director of the CA Dept. of Corrections (CDC) filed an application for "emergency" regulatory changes to the California Code of Regulations which. would prohibit family (trailer) visits for any prisoners convicted of murder; with a life top; manslaughter or attempted murder of a family member; specified sex offenses; in close custody, ad seg, SHU, a reception center or on death row; convicted of narcotics trafficking, in prison or out; or who has received a disciplinary charge within the past year.

Gomez is applying for emergency regulations pursuant to CA Penal Code §5058(e). At the California Senate JudiciaryCommittee hearing on the bill that became Penal Code §5058(e), representatives for the prison system told the committee members that the procedure would only be used in case of rioting or general insurrection. Not surprisingly, they lied. .

In Pro Family Advocates v CDC, a Marin County superior court issued injunctive relief prohibiting the CDC from enforcing family visiting restrictions contained in last year's state budget. The CDC appealed and lost. Now they are attempting to undo the court's order (and then some) through the regulatory process.

Curiously, a similar scenario was played out in Washington state this January and February. The legislature proposed bills that would restrict trailer visits, and the DOC responded by issuing an emergency Division of Prisons directive that is in many ways more restrictive than the proposed legislation!

California AB 411, in addition to the trailer visit restrictions, would require prisoners be charged a $3.00 fee to marry, make a will, or create a power of appointment.

Not to be outdone by the state assembly or the CDC, a CA senate bill (SB 470) was introduced two days after Gomez filed for his emergency regulatory changes. SB 470 would abolish all family trailer visits-period. It also states that prisoners would be henceforth prohibited from: (a) Possessing or using tobacco products, (b) Using weights or weight lifting equipment, (c) Participating in contact sports as a part of recreational activity and (d) Viewing any television program that contains violence or sex, as determined by the Director of Corrections.

SB 470 also prohibits the CDC from selling "coffee, candy, tobacco products, or other commodities not deemed essential to an inmate's health and well being ...." SB 470 also states that "the CDC shall require of every able-bodied prisoner [at least they didn't say 'inmate'] imprisoned in any state prison as many hours of faithful labor in each and every day at his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by the rules and regulations of the Director of Corrections." It goes on to mandate that the CDC shall develop work programs to manage the operation and construction of prisons as self-sufficient as possible," and that if enough jobs can't be created to keep every prisoner faithfully employed, they "shall be assigned to manually produce electricity."

According to the L A Times, on February 26th about 1,000 prisoners in C-block at the CA state prison in Lancaster went on strike, refusing to come out of their cells for meals, recreation or job assignments. One prisoner quoted in the Times article stated the obvious response to proposals to take all privileges away from prisoners-even as trivial as the right to purchase candy and soda pops on the commissary-and strapping them to human electrical generating machines all day. "What incentive would a man have to do right? You ain't got nothing to lose." The wife of another CA prisoner was quoted as saying, "What you're doing is creating a desperate subclass with nothing to lose."

Whatever "perks" or "privileges" prisoners have today were won through the often violent struggle of the 60's and 70's. Prisoners struggled then because conditions in the prisons were so oppressive that they "had nothing to lose." The states eventually gave prisoners the "perks" and "privileges" not because the prisoners were demanding them, or because they thought the prisoners deserved them, they were implemented as a way to restore and maintain order.

But as a unit case manager in this prison said to me the other day, "People forget. The legislature forgets about the riots in the 70's, and your average person on the street certainly doesn't remember when these places [prisons] were burning. They just forget. "

Sources: LA Times, Sacramento Bee, Info for Public Affairs (an on-line database), and letters from a CA reader.

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