Root change

It’s news to nobody that California’s prisons have careened out of control these last decades with an ever-growing prison population of 167,000 (a more than fivefold increase in just a generation), with an inflexible bureaucracy, an obdurate prison-guards union and brutality scandals galore.

Everybody acknowledged that the system was broken. And a few proceeded to actually do something about it.

People like Senator Gloria Romero started banging the drum for prison reform, and eventually others, most notably Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, joined the campaign. Two years ago, the state launched what seemed a genuine endeavor to reform the behemoth that is the state prison system. This took courage, especially given the political power of the CCPOA (California Correctional Peace Officers Association) and the voting public’s propensity to favor initiatives and candidates that take a “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice.

Well, improvements were undertaken, some more aggressive than others, though they were stymied somewhat with last week’s surprising announcement that pro-reform Corrections Director Rod Hickman will resign from his post.

But that’s not all. In “Prison futures” Sasha Abramsky asks a crucial question about the reforms: What if, however well-intentioned, the changes under way never really attack the source of the spiraling prison-growth problem? He’s referring to sentencing policies—the three-strikes law and mandatory drug-sentencing codes—that continue to lock up nonviolent offenders for long stretches and then continue endlessly rotating them back into the system.

There’s no doubt that it’s hard for a large institution to stop doing what it’s gotten used to doing. This certainly is going to be true in the case of the state prison system. It’d be the same if that institution were a private corporation, a state department or a country’s government.

One reform strategist, Alan Glassman, told SN&R that it often takes a long time—10 to 12 years—to change the culture of a large institution, such as the state prison system. I don’t doubt it. Let’s hope the reformers’ goals become clearer so the payoff turns out to be worth the wait.