Folsom blues

Behind the imposing stonework walls of Folsom sit thousands of inmates, but they’re just a few of the many that this state holds. California can boast that it has the biggest prison system of any state after a flurry of prison construction in the ’80s and ’90s. It has reportedly got its hands on more inmates than the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons. Quite an accomplishment. But it is merely the convergence of the powerful triad of politics, money and fear.

Anti-social baby boomers with easy access to guns brought increases in the crime statistics 30 years ago and gave conservatives an issue that voters could overreact to. Afraid to walk the streets? Lock up everyone who commits a violent or non-violent offense and throw away the key. Politicians seized the opportunity to use that fear to get elected with promises of tougher penalties. And so the emergence of get-tough-on-crime laws. What has been called the prison-industrial complex sprang up to build more prisons and staff them with more guards. In turn, the guards’ union plowed its dues into the campaigns of get-tough politicians.

Caught up in this cycle were people who were lumped into criminal classes supposedly deserving of increased punishment, according to the voters and prosecutors. Last week we told you the story of a retarded teenager, David Maggi, who prosecutors wanted penalized in adult court (see “Disorder in the Court,” SN&R August 1). This week we look at a man convicted of a crime of passion who finds himself locked up for an eternity in the world of indeterminate sentencing (“No parole for you!” page 18).

Just one consideration is cost. A national study on criminal justice says aging inmates can cost taxpayers $70,000 a year. But what is the cost to our former reputation as a just people if extended incarceration and the criminal-industrial complex continue to be a trend?