By Alec Goodwin
The War on Drugs has claimed yet another victim: the California prison system.
The United States Supreme Court has ruled in a narrow 5-4 decision that the prisons in California are so overcrowded that it violates the constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment, and that at least 33,000 prisoners must be put somewhere else.
Medical conditions were so bad that an inmate died every week. Mental health services were so poor that suicide was frequent. Quarantines due to virus outbreaks, moldy walls, broken pipes, and human waste smeared over the walls have also been frequent problems. Nowhere else in the entire country are conditions this poor.
Thirty-three of California’s adult prisons are over capacity; eighteen of them by more than 180%. California is in such dire financial straits that they simply don’t have the economic means to build more prisons to place the prisoners in. No one would be willing to raise taxes during a period of economic crisis. Prisoners could be transferred from prison to county jails, but that would just lead to overcrowding in the county system.
The only other option would be to release the prisoners back onto the streets, but that would raise public safety concerns.
What does the War on Drugs have to do with all of this?
Were it not for the War on Drugs, many of these prisoners wouldn’t even be incarcerated in the first place and the prisons wouldn’t be overcrowded. One-fifth of all of those incarcerated in California were non-violent drug offenders. Mass incarceration isn’t going to solve the drug problem; it has simply over-stressed the prison system.
The disproportionality of the war on drugs is stunning. In 2005, it was reported that for every 100,000 people, 5,000 black males were incarcerated. The number of white males incarcerated was less than 1,000. In other words, black men are more than five times as likely to be incarcerated as white men.
California does little to rehabilitate prisoners, leading to an unusually high recidivism rate. Offenders are simply locked up, then let out, and state officials act surprised when 54% wind up back in jail within two years. Many prisoners are incarcerated for minor things like parole violations, and their sentences rarely last more than a year. This debacle has cost California time, money, and the lives of its citizens. It’s time someone looked at the actual cost of our drug war and did the math.
Alec Goodwin, a college junior studying criminology at the University of Maryland, is serving as a Friends of Justice intern during the summer of 2011.