15

Lawmakers to probe state prison conditions

The Bay Area lawmakers who chair the Legislature’s public safety committees announced Friday that they’ll hold public hearings on state prison conditions that have lead to a months-long inmate hunger strike.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said the hearings might begin this fall and continue into 2014, focused upon confinement conditions in maximum-security prisons and long-term solitary confinement as both a prison-management strategy and a human-rights issue.

Tom Ammiano“The Courts have made clear that the hunger strikers have legitimate issues of policy and practice that must be reviewed,” Ammiano said in a joint news release. “The Legislature has a critical role in considering and acting on their concerns. We cannot sit by and watch our state pour money into a system that the US. Supreme Court has declared does not provide constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement and that statistics show has failed to increase public safety.

“California continues to be an outlier in its use of solitary confinement, which has been recognized internationally and by other states to be an extreme form of punishment that leads to mental illness if used for prolonged periods of time,” Hancock said in the release. “Since many of these inmates will eventually have served their sentences and will be released, it is in all our best interest to offer hope of rehabilitation while they are incarcerated – not further deterioration.”

Hancock and Ammiano urged an immediate end to the hunger strike so that energy and attention can be focused on the issues that have been raised. The inmates have succeeded in bringing the issues to the public eye, they said, and there’s no need for further sacrifice or risk.

Dolores Canales, a member of the inmate strikers’ mediation team and mother of a convicted murderer in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State, said the prison activists appreciate the lawmakers’ action.

“Ultimately it is up to the hunger strikers’ themselves as to when and how they will end their protest,” she said. “But as their advocates on the outside, we feel positive about today’s developments.”

1

Skinner, Ammiano undecided on prison plans

Don’t mistake the Assembly Budget Committee’s unanimous passage of Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison plan Thursday for a clear sail through that chamber.

Committee chairwoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said Friday that the committee acted largely in order to beat the deadline for fiscal committees to move bills to the floor – not because every member agrees completely with the plan put forth by Brown, Assembly Speaker John Perez, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway.

She demurred when asked whether she prefers this plan to the alternative put forth by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. “All of this stuff is still being discussed and negotiated,” she said.

She’s not the only Bay Area liberal lawmaker who’s undecided on which plan to side with.

Aug. 16 was the last day for policy committees to meet and report bills, so the Brown/Perez/Huff/Conway plan doesn’t have to go through the Public Safety Committee, chaired by Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.

I asked whether Ammiano would care to discuss the competing prison plans as chairman of the committee that would’ve had to hear them had they come earlier. “I think he’d rather stay away from the hypotheticals, and has yet to make a decision on how to vote when the Brown/Perez bill gets to the floor,” spokesman Carlos Alcala replied late Thursday afternoon.

1

Steinberg’s prison plan seeks 3-year extension

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s alternative to Gov. Jerry Brown’s state-prison plan involves relies on asking for three more years to solve the overcrowding problem.

Steinberg, D-Sacramento, unveiled Senate Democrats’ plan this morning in a letter to Brown and to the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuits that led a three-judge panel to order California to further reduce its inmate population by this year’s end.

Darrell Steinberg“The federal courts have put us in the untenable position of either releasing thousands of inmates from our prisons early, or putting our prison capacity on steroids by renting new prison beds at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars for years to come,” Steinberg said today. “Neither option makes any sense. We can do far better, and would be wrong to give up now.”

Steinberg said his plan would “achieve a durable solution” to prison overcrowding by reducing crime through performance-based grant programs. These grants would incentivize counties to expand proven rehabilitation, drug and mental health treatment programs for criminal offenders. This is modeled after a 2009 effort which, in just two years, reduced new prison admissions by more than 9,500, with $536 million in state savings over three years.

Also, the state would create an Advisory Commission on Public Safety to analyze and recommend changes in California’s sentencing laws.

But that won’t do the trick by Dec. 31, so Steinberg is asking the plaintiffs to agree to extend the deadline by three years. He wants all parties to the lawsuit to agree to let an independent state panel evaluate and determine proper population levels for California’s prisons based on standards and practices employed by correctional administrators across the country.

The state is under a federal court’s order to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of this year. California already has reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 since 2006 – more than half of which was via 2011’s “realignment,” which spun some offenders out to county jails instead of state prisons.

The one thing on which all the leaders in Sacramento agree is that granting early release to thousands of inmates in order to meet the deadline isn’t an option. Brown, joined by Assembly Speaker John Perez, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, yesterday unveiled a plan that calls for quickly leasing in-state and out-of-state prison capacity, including county jails, and contracting with community corrections facilities; suspending the closure of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco; and spending up to $315 million to make it all happen.

“Governor Brown has a well-earned reputation as a good steward of the public purse; throwing this expensive Band-Aid on a hemorrhage threatens to undermine our hard work,” Steinberg said Wednesday. “We cannot build or rent our way out of overcrowded prisons.”

UPDATE @ 10:37 A.M.: The plaintiffs say they might be willing to grant the extension Steinberg seeks. Here’s the statement they just released:

“We are ready and willing to sit down with the Governor and his counsel to discuss ways to end federal court oversight. Senator Steinberg’s substantive proposals are acceptable to us and we are open to an extension of the date for compliance with the three judge court’s order if an agreement produces an effective and sustainable approach that will resolve the chronic overcrowding problem in the state’s prisons. The actual amount of time must be arrived at through these discussions.

“We strongly support Senator Steinberg’s proposal to provide local governments with resources to reduce and prevent crime by treating offenders in the community, and to establish a public safety commission. That commission will be charged with making recommendations based on solid evidence to reduce recidivism by holding individuals accountable in the most effective and least costly way. His solution demonstrates that the state can achieve a real, sustainable approach to safely reducing and managing the inmate population without further federal intervention and wasteful spending on more prisons.

“The Governor’s plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the prison system for low risk prisoners will not make the public any safer. Without reform of the sentencing laws California’s prison population will continue to grow, making it only a matter of time before the prisons will once again exceed the population cap and prompt a renewed Court order requiring further reductions in the prison population.”

UPDATE @ 12:00 P.M.: Brown says it wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.

“It would not be responsible to turn over California’s criminal justice policy to inmate lawyers who are not accountable to the people,” the governor said in a statement issued a few moments ago. “My plan avoids early releases of thousands of prisoners and lays the foundation for longer-term changes, and that’s why local officials and law enforcement support it.”

6

Brown, some lawmakers unveil state prison plan

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle – most of them, anyway – rolled out a plan today to satisfy a federal court order to limit the state’s prison population while avoiding the early release of thousands of prisoners.

In the short term, the plan is: Lock ‘em up somewhere else.

The plan unveiled by Brown, Assembly Speaker John Perez, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway calls for quickly leasing in-state and out-of-state prison capacity, including county jails, and contracting with community corrections facilities; suspending the closure of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco; and spending up to $315 million to make it all happen.

“This legislation will protect public safety and give us time to work with public officials and interested parties to make thoughtful changes in the overall criminal justice system,” Brown said in a news release.

But while state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he agrees with preventing any early inmate releases, he said Brown’s plan has “no promise and no hope.”

“As the population of California grows, it’s only a short matter of time until new prison cells overflow and the Court demands mass releases again,” Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in his own news release. “For every 10 prisoners finishing their sentences, nearly seven of them will commit another crime after release and end up back behind bars.”

“More money for more prison cells alone is not a durable solution; it is not a fiscally responsible solution; and it is not a safe solution,” he said, announcing he’ll unveil Senate Democrats’ alternative plan at 10 a.m. Wednesday. “We must invest in a durable criminal justice strategy, which reduces both crime and prison overcrowding.”

The state is under a federal court’s order to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of this year. California already has reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 since 2006 – more than half of which was via 2011’s “realignment,” which spun some offenders out to county jails instead of state prisons.

Brown, Perez, Huff and Conway said they’re also seeking long-term solutions.

“This process will leave no stone unturned as we investigate what can work to make improvements,” Perez, D-Los Angeles, said in the news release. “We will consider every option from updating sentencing laws; to giving local governments and law enforcement the necessary tools. And certainly we will examine broader policy questions that prevent crime, like improving education from preschool to higher education and on programs that break the cycle of poverty.”

Huff, R-Brea, said Senate Republicans will support the plan “because we believe the safety of California families should be our first and foremost priority” and allowing the early release of so many inmates “is simply unacceptable.”

Conway, R-Visalia, said today’s plan incorporates some ideas that Republican lawmakers had put forward. “We will continue to work with the Governor and the Speaker to find sustainable solutions that will honor the court’s demands, while keeping Californians safe.”

Activists who’d like to see the prison population reduced, not just moved around, are disappointed.

“Gov. Brown has turned his back on his own earlier proposals to the court, which detailed smart, sustainable alternatives for California to reach the court order,” said Courage Campaign executive chairman Dr. Paul Song. “Instead, the Governor is choosing to throw hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars down the black hole that is California’s broken prison system. This wasteful spending will prevent the restoration of funding to education and other vital services, which continue to suffer from devastating cuts made during the Great Recession. Funding those services would do more to keep Californians safe than further expansion of the prison-industrial complex.”

12

Groups sue Bowen over inmate voting rights

Three groups sued California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and San Francisco’s elections director Wednesday, asking the court to ensure that more than 85,000 people sent to county jails instead of state prisons under the recent “realignment” can vote.

All of Us or None, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and the League of Women Voters of California contend that low-level, non-violent offenders should be able to cast ballots this year and beyond.

The state’s First District Court of Appeal ruled in 2006 that people serving county jail terms as a condition of felony probation are entitled to vote under California law. Bowen in December issued a memo to county clerks and registrars advising them that no felon sentenced to county jail instead of state prison under realignment is eligible to vote. The state Justice Department backed Bowen up in a letter issued Monday.

This new lawsuit, also filed to the First District appellate court, argues people sent to county jail under realignment are neither “imprisoned in state prison” or “on parole as a result of the conviction of a felony” – the statuses under which the state constitution would deprive them of voting rights, under the 2006 case.

Excluding Californians with criminal convictions from voting is at odds with the California Constitution and contradicts a central purpose of realignment, which is to stop the state’s expensive revolving door of incarceration by rehabilitating and reintegrating individuals back into society, the lawsuit argues. The plaintiffs seek a court order letting such people register for November’s election before the Oct. 22 deadline.

Bowen’s spokeswoman said the office won’t comment on pending litigation.

The three organizations are represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Social Justice Law Project, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

“California’s courts have a proud tradition of protecting our fundamental right to vote,” ACLU Managing Attorney Jory Steele said in a news release. “Here, this is particularly important because disenfranchisement has such a disproportionate impact on people of color.”

Willie “Sundiata” Tate, 67, San Leandro was behind bars from when he was 16 until age 30; now he’s a volunteer community organizer with All of Us or None, and believes that its especially important for society’s less powerful to have access to the voting booth.

“If all of us were to get out and be active, it would and could make a difference, from the community level to a society level,” he said. “As a formerly incarcerated person, it’s very dear to me that everyone who has been locked down has the chance to help put in place policies that can have a positive impact on lives of people who are incarcerated, and on people who are vulnerable to incarceration.

People risked and lost their lives so African-Americans could have the right to vote, he noted.

“Especially on issues that are local and important in the state that I live in, I want that vote,” Tate said. “And I want that vote for everyone, not just for myself.”

13

Bill on media access to prisoners advances

The Assembly voted 47-22 today to pass a Bay Area lawmaker’s bill that would lift the ban on media interviews with specific inmates in California’s prisons.

Since the ban on pre-arranged inmate interviews went into effect in 1996, bill author Tom Ammiano noted, eight versions of this bill have been vetoed by three governors.

“Independent media access to prison inmates is a critical part of keeping our prisons transparent and accountable while providing information to the public,” Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said in a news release.

“Despite the thousands of prisoners who participated in a state-wide hunger strike last year over conditions in the prisons, it was near impossible to get unbiased information about what was happening due to these restrictions,” he said. “Inmates kept in secure housing units (SHU) have no visitation or telephone privileges and information about their solitary confinement punishments are largely unknown to the public even though a disproportionate number of inmate suicides occur in the SHU.”

Ammiano said he’s carrying AB 1270 to increase transparency and public accountability from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which has a $9.2 billion budget.

Sumayyah Waheed, campaign director for the Books Not Bars program of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said in Ammiano’s release that prisons tend to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind for anyone not directly impacted by them. “That’s a recipe for rampant abuse, which is too often the story inside prisons. As taxpayers, we have a right to know what goes on behind prison walls. This bill offers a much-needed step forward in making prisons accountable to the public.”

Full disclosure: The California Newspaper Publishers Association (of which my employer is a member) and the Pacific Media Workers Guild (of which I’m a member) among this bill’s supporters, as is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and an array of civil-rights groups. There’s no registered opposition to it, according to an Assembly committee analysis from last week.

Still, three Democrats – Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata; Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills; and Norma Torres, D-Pomona – crossed the aisle to vote with most Republicans against the bill. The only Republican who voted for it was Steve Knight, R-Palmdale. And 11 members – four Democrats and seven Republicans – didn’t vote.

The bill now goes to the state Senate.