Get Smart on Reporting Prison Costs: A View From Inside


A recent story by Bill Boyarsky, the political correspondent for Truthdig and former city editor, columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Los Angeles Times was headlined: “Are reporters missing the real story about our criminal justice system?”

Two paragraphs later he wrote, “I'm wondering if I've already lost some of my readers. Who cares about criminals? Some of the journalists I met last week said they get the same reaction from their editors”

As a prisoner currently serving time in California, I can offer some useful advice.

Prisons are like boats. They are constantly leaking; and they take a tremendous amount of money to keep afloat. Unlike boats, though, prisons are operated and maintained through the use of taxpayer money?lots and lots of taxpayer money. They suck this money into a morass of poorly operated, historically racist, poorly designed buildings full of prisoners,

Prisoners with only the hope that they will get out some day, and not much more.

The damage to the taxpayer is evident. Look at the way California is struggling with education. Look at how we are juggling best case/worst case scenarios of higher cost to college and university students; and worse, layoff notices to teachers who are responsible for children at the most crucial point in their education.

In addition, the taxpayer must take responsibility for setting this economic juggernaut on the course it is on.

Rather than producing less crime and better communities, the taxpayer has created a monster. Every roll of toilet paper, every bar of soap, all the food eaten, and a multitude of other items are paid for out of the taxpayer's pocket. Not to mention the largest cost aside from the custody staffing cost: medical costs.

It doesn't seem to relate in the mind of those who are ultimately responsible for the costs of our government and the CDCR [spell this out pls] specifically, that what they want has constantly escalating costs.

Hidden costs connected to that vote for the 'tough on crime candidate' who promises more and better laws to take those criminals off the streets, including the three strikes law are bringing California to the brink.

The taxpayer wants to be safe in her community. She also wants her property safeguarded. This is a reasonable desire and one which we have an expectation will be fulfilled by the governments of our country, our state and our community.

Even those in prison have these reasonable expectations. When the safety of taxpayers is factored into the budget for the state, the county and city there are trade offs.

Look at the trade offs that created a prison system that is not only broken—but where all the attempts to fix it have been inadequate to the job. Sometimes, things are too far gone to patch up.

There needs to be a totally new approach. What is unfixable in this situation needs to be discarded.

Unfortunately, this is almost impossible to do. The infrastructure is too entrenched, too unwieldy; and those in charge of your safety are unwilling to take a chance on anything new. The appearance of being soft on crime has a long history of being used to defeat opponents in political races.

So what can be done?

I say that there is a way to take large chunks of this unwieldy relic of the past and make it work in the twenty-first century with twenty-first century tools. We can use tools that work in other areas of behavior management. That course needs to be debated and argued widely.

This then, is why editors need to examine the following statement by one of the attendees at the Three Strikes Symposium recently co-hosted by John Jay College's Center on Media, Crime and Justice and the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.

“The journalists' challenge, said Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Connie Rice, is “to connect the dots,” to put all these elements into a coherent, compelling story.

Boyarsky continues; “That's a big challenge, and journalism may not be up to it. At the end of the meeting, the hard facts of life in today's media climate intruded. One reporter said her editors weren't interested in the subject because they didn't think the readers cared.

Readers care. They just are fed too much information that is packaged for minimum thought, and doesn't rock the boat. When something is written in isolated snippets they just ignore the uncomfortable information.

Money talks loudly and journalists have exploited this in other arenas, so why not here?

It is disgraceful to use prisons as warehouses instead of places of hope and change. With Hubble we can see all the way to the ends of the universe, but can't put a man in prison and send him home with any hope of staying free and productive.

Educating readers is a job for the editors to take on in this three strikes world.

All politics are local, and when the guy you voted for wants you to support a tough on crime platform, you can be sure he is more interested in getting elected than being tough on crime. We are already tough on crime.

When an egregious crime happens in your town and the news cycle feeds on the victims' family's grief, you can be sure the axiom “If it bleeds it leads” is more important to the news program than the victim and those who have suffered the loss.

So editors, I have a challenge for you.

Give your best reporters the job of finding ways to engage the reader in ways that will make a difference in your communities, because in the end everything is local. The Three Strikes Law is a good place to focus your attention now, instead of in reaction to the initiative that is coming in 2012, as surely as the dawn comes every morning.

Barry Littleton was sentenced to a 48-year term for rape. He is currently in California's Soledad Prison and expects to be released in 2013 after serving half time on good behavior.

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