Harder time

Hartman, Kenneth

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Editor's note: Last summer Kenneth E. Hartman, an inmate serving a life sentence for murder without the possibility of parole at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County, sent us an essay on California's prison system - a system that he believes is on the verge of a meltdown. Since then, the credibility of Mr. Hartman's warnings have only been enhanced by the dramatic legislative hearings held in Sacramento on the alleged corruption and cover-ups going on behind prison walls. Harder Time Every day in California a substantial proportion of the vast prison system is in a state of lockdown. More than a decade into a "get tough" approach to managing the prisons, violence between prisoners and against the guards has increased to unprecedented levels. Mass riots involving hundreds of men, many of them armed, have occurred at all of the maximum-security units and many of the lower-security facilities. Coordinated attacks on prison guards have resulted in serious injuries. Racial animus pervades the system, top to bottom. Crisis barely begins to describe the condition of California's prisons today. Topping off this frightening reality, the state's fiscal debacle promises to eviscerate what little is left of positive programming options. The warden of the California State Prison, Los Angeles County, a maximum-security institution housing more than 4,000 men near Lancaster (though it's designed for no more than 1,200), recently announced that upwards of 48 educational and vocational positions will be redirected to so-called reception centers, where inmates will spend anywhere from two to three months, getting assessed. On the prison yard, though, this boils down to still more men standing around with nothing productive to occupy their time. The California Department of Corrections has a budget of more than $5 billion a year. Thirty-three institutions throughout the state from the Oregon border to San Diego hold more than 160,000 prisoners. That works out to an incarceration rate of 464 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, judging from the numbers, prisons are a lot more violent than they used to be. In 1993 there were 3,562 assault and batteries. In 2002 that number was up to 6,840. Assaults on staff are also up: In 1998 there were 2,312 such assaults; in 2002 there were 2,795. Beginning in the early 1990s, after the so-called Prisoner's Bill of Rights was repealed, a series of programs were taken away. The family visiting program, implemented by then-Governor Reagan, was severely cut back and completely denied to all life prisoners. After first instituting limitations, all weights were removed from the prisons a few years ago. Shortly afterward, a policy of grooming standards was initiated throughout the prison system, with military-style haircuts for all. Personal property restrictions limiting each prisoner to no more than six cubic feet of property - about the size of a medium-size television - were introduced and strictly enforced. Personal clothing has essentially been eliminated at every custody level. In the past couple of years the trend has accelerated. All depictions of nudity, including photos of loved ones, have been banned. Both community college and vocational education has disappeared in all but two of the prisons, and in those prisons vociferous opposition from custody staff leaves the programs' continuation doubtful. Paid job assignments for prisoners have been greatly limited. Mail, to and from prisoners, except with their attorneys, is now routinely read by staff, for any reason or no reason. Phone calls to loved ones and friends are heavily surcharged to provide a hefty kickback to the state. Prisoners are routinely strip-searched, monitored, forced to march in single-file lines, and daily subjected to a regime that demands conformity to the rules on pain of punishment immediately exacted. All of these restrictions have been brought about under the rubric of "safety and security." In fact, that concern has trumped all other concerns, all other objectives. Yet, ironically, this tougher, more punitive approach to correctional management has made the prisons less safe. I am serving a life sentence without parole for killing a man in a fistfight in 1980. When I came to prison, the situation, though far from ideal, was considerably more humane. Prisoners enjoyed the protection of the Prisoner's Bill of Rights, a landmark piece of legislation passed in 1975 that guaranteed us a small measure of dignity and allowed me to retain some of my status as a human being. If I wanted to grow a beard or wear a red shirt, write a private letter to the local newspaper, or open a personal bank account, I could do so without much interference. Today, I can't. The prison system has decided that I can no longer lift weights. My visiting is highly restricted, subject to arbitrary delays and an ever-changing set of rules. The availability of education, vocational training, and self-help groups is now practically nonexistent for most prisoners. The budget cuts proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger will only eliminate more programs that serve prisoners. Of course, if all these restrictions had resulted in increased safety and security for prisoners and staff, there would be a certain justification for their implementation, despite their regressive nature. Sadly, the reverse has happened, with riots occurring all across the prison system, from Pelican Bay to Folsom to Calipatria deep in the low desert. (At the prison where I'm being held in Lancaster, I remember looking out my cell window in December of 2001 and seeing a parade of ambulances speeding by the fence to collect the wounded from a riot at the prison.) Hard on the heels of these tragedies have come attacks against guards, of increasing frequency and ingenuity. There is an inevitability to all of this that reads like a pulp-fiction novel. Overcrowding, highly punitive rules, lengthening sentences, and reactive policies have led to catastrophic outbursts of violence throughout the modern history of corrections in America. As far back as the 1950s, after a nationwide series of prison riots, the American Correctional Association blamed the violence on inadequate financial support, enforced idleness, overcrowding, and unwise sentencing and parole practices, among other things. Those were the very same factors cited when the Attica Correctional Facility in New York exploded in violence in 1971, as well as when prison riots occurred in other parts of the country. Of course, it's not just the prisoners who suffer. As California's prison guard union reports, up to ten assaults on officers are now occurring each day in the California prison system. Which goes a long way toward explaining the unions low morale and high turnover. There is only one group of professionals who have both the expertise and standing to prevent the all-too-predictable explosion from occurring: lawyers. They are the only ones who prisoners can still correspond with in confidence. They are also the only ones who cannot be denied access to us. If the system is going to be rescued from meltdown, it's the lawyers who will have to do it. There are already a few lawyers who've stepped up to the plate to try to improve conditions, but they are overwhelmed. More California lawyers need to become directly involved in challenging unfair and repressive policies. Formal chains of communication between prisoners and interested lawyers willing to investigate claims of abuse and mistreatment need to be created. Local law firms need to regularly interview prisoners at all of the prisons, which will have the effect of easing tensions. Lawyers also need to periodically tour prisons to make their presence felt. That will head off trouble before it starts and curb excessively punitive practices. Prison reform is hard work. But in a society of laws, those of us without power and influence look to lawyers to level the playing field. The catastrophes that await us will harm the whole of our state, prisoners and free people alike. But they are completely preventable with the right input and pressure.

Author: Hartman, Kenneth

Author Location: California

Date: June 2004

Genre: Essay

Extent: 4 pages

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