Despite wide-ranging criticism of and scandal in California’s $6 billion-a-year prison system, the state legislature this year declined to adopt many substantial prison reforms before closing their legislative session last week. “A year ago, I believed we had a real window of opportunity to reform the prison system in a drastic way,” Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, told the Los Angeles Times. “But all we’ve really had is empty rhetoric. No one has the political courage to take on this system and demand real change.” Most cite the lobbying influence of California’s powerful prison guards union.
The Times called it a “a year of top-to-bottom scandal” in the prison system. Officer beatings of two young inmates were caught on videotape and broadcast nationwide. A convict bled to death in his cell after howling for hours. Whistle-blowers testified about corruption and coverups – while wearing bulletproof vests. And severe crowding forced some lockups to house inmates in the TV lounge. Last month, a federal judge in San Francisco weighed in on the mess, threatening an unprecedented takeover of the prisons. Yet only a handful of prison bills – addressing such things as inmate health care and smoking behind bars – found the votes needed for passage. But most of the bills will result in mere tinkering with a 164,000-inmate system that needs an overhaul, critics say.