2020–2021 California Budget Report Card: Prisons.

With the Governor’s yearly budget scheduled to be released on January 10th, 2021, this article intends to briefly analyze the previous year’s budget and assess its validity. First up: prisons.

Image Source: AP Photo (Eric Risberg)

Governor Newsom’s 2020–2021 Budget Act allocated $13,352,940 to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), whose mission is to “facilitate the successful reintegration of the individuals…by providing education, treatment, rehabilitative, and restorative justice programs, all in a safe and humane environment”. With the Governor’s 2021–2022 budget being released on January 10th, 2021, this article intends to backtrack and determine if the budgets provided for various sectors were legitimate. While the mission statement of the CDCR intends to reflect shared goals and visions with prison reform advocates, and alternative methods endorsed by prison abolitionists, we must dig deeper beyond the surface level in order to truly determine the legitimacy of their department, and the budget which they have earned in this past year.

A satisfactory performance will justify a similar budget, and a troublesome performance would demand a reconsideration of the valuation previously provided.

An Overview of the 2020–2021 CDCR Budget.

Image Source: California Department of Finance

The CDCR budget consists of 8 key programs, ranging from administration to parole operations to health care services. Though it is true that COVID-19 has reduced the state inmate population by about 21%, there is reported to be great uncertainty as to whether this decrease will stay in place, not due to crime rates but due to the pandemic’s uncertainty combined with the federal jurisdiction involved with overseeing prison responses to pandemics. However, the Legislative Analyst’s Office is confident that legislation supporting reduced inmate, parolee, and juvenile detention will encourage the 21% decrease to become the new average for prisoner population, which will save the state of California roughly $1.5 billion by 2024–2025 and would result in the closure of 3 prisons. They claim that this will “slow down” the cost growth of the CDCR, meaning that projected increases are still likely despite all these changes. Yet, in a separate LAO report analyzing correctional spending increases despite reducing inmate populations, some of the reasons cited for these increases included improvements in: inmate health care, employee compensation via pensions and raises, and the return of furloughed workers.

CDCR cost increases would have been much greater had the inmate population not drastically reduced due to legislation and the pandemic.

Of the major program changes highlighted in the CDCR budget, which means budget items which have substantially changed since the previous year’s budget, they will be categorized by changes that save money and changes that add to the budget. Projections for future years on line items were not included- only the figures for the present year.

Saving Money (Amount Saved, Most to Least). (1) $30 million to reduce funding for the Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment Program due to COVID-19. (2) $23.2 million due to capped parole terms. (3) $18.5 million to reduce funding for prison maintenance projects due to the pandemic and current fiscal conditions. (4) $8.1 million to eliminate the Integrated Services for Mentally Ill Parolee program that has proven to be ineffective in reducing recidivism. (5) $7.4 million for Consolidation of 8 Fire Camps not at capacity. (6) $3.7 million on Reception Center Process reduced to 30 days from 90–120 days: these are where incoming inmates are housed and processed. (7) $4.2 million related to operational changes at re-entry facilities that allows federal funding to cover resident health care instead of state funding. (8) $3.1 million to suspend a seven-year pilot program by the Division of Juvenile Justice as there is only one participant in the program. (9) $2.7 million due to changes to Good Conduct Credits, a program initiated via 64% support on Proposition 57 in 2016.

Spending Money (Amount Increased, Most to Least). (1) $37.6 million for necessary roof replacement projects at California State Prisons in Sacramento.(2) $16.7 million to provide modified work assignments for staff with medical conditions (ex. pregnancy) to allow continued work. (3) $9.7 million to establish new water system protocols to control Legionella bacteria and minimize the risk of illness at the California Health Care Facility. (4) $5.9 million to provide increased staffing and infrastructure support for the Statewide Telepsychiatry Program which improves access to mental health care for patients at remote institutions. (5) $3.8 million to retrofit 64 intake cells across the state for suicide prevention. (6) $2.9 million for increased cybersecurity protections. (7) $1.3 million to establish a Youth Offender Rehabilitative Community at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. (8) $943,000 to expand the CDCR equal opportunity complaints program to promote objectivity and fairness in investigations. (9) $377,000 for an electronic health care data process to transfer health care records quickly for inmates being released, placed on parole, or transferred to another prison.

The Takeaways from These Additions and Decreases.

One of the most concerning observations about the major cuts were that multiple initiatives were being eliminated. The CDCR was forthright in claiming the lack of efficiency with some of these programs, but that then raises a greater red flag: these programs are often used to justify not only their mission statement, but the fact that they are truly accommodating to the needs of the inmates. Not only does the failure of these programs indicate otherwise, but it also speaks to the shocking recidivism, or return, rates of released prisoners back to the system: the incompetency of the CDCR in this realm is noted in a scathing report from January 2019 by the California State Auditor entitled “Several Poor Administrative Practices Have Hindered Reductions in Recidivism and Denied Inmates Access to In‑Prison Rehabilitation Programs”. The fact that this year’s budget did not reflect a push for new initiatives is somewhat concerning, but the likely justification for this is COVID-19, since cuts were made to programs due to the inability to fully implement them. The Public Policy Institute of California also found that length of sentencing did not improve the likelihood of a no-return prisoner; this fuels the argument for many prison reformists and abolitionists who note that prison merely increases disparities, and does little to promote public safety and reduce crime. Finally, in terms of reducing the prison population for the pandemic, it turns out that all the 3500 people paroled or released to community supervision were already meant to be released a month later, thus not reducing the long-term population to combat COVID-19.

Secondly, while $18.5 million was spared on prison maintenance projects, those savings were wiped due to the need to spend double on an emergency maintenance project in Sacramento prisons. This raises a broader question about California’s ability in creating humane, liveable conditions for prisoners, something which the Prison Policy Initiative tackles.

This leads us to our next point- the budget does not reveal the intricacies; California’s execution of pandemic regulations in relation to prisons has apparently been quite shaky.

Image Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Why did California receive such a horrible grade? Of course, there appears to be no state succeeding with prison management, which reminds us that it is an arcane method of punishment. This poor management has led to health experts asking that prisoners are prioritized in receiving vaccines. 9.6% of prisoners in California are reported to have COVID-19 as of December 2020, something which they have failed to control since early on- a chilling article by the Guardian in May 2020 exposed the prison pandemic silently occurring in California, causing inmates to send distressed messages. Finally, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Governor Newsom and Attorney General Becerra for a variety of reasons related to poor management of COVID-19 for prisons, even noting that juvenile prisoners were being denied masks, hand sanitizers, and more.

Aside from COVID-19, looking at the broader status of California’s prisons, the results are still abysmal. Not only does California’s incarceration rate exceed the rate of many countries, but our Black and Latino communities are overrepresented whilst our white and Asian communities are underrepresented. The state is not a leader in wages for incarcerated workers (not that the states leading are paying liveable wages), and jails in California were reported to charge up to $17.80 for 15-minute phone calls. Finally, a major point of discussion has been the exploitation of prison labor for fighting fires. The Prison Policy Initiative provided key insights about this discussion in a blog from 2003- yes, 2003. It has not changed today, and if anything, the financial disparities are likely greater today than before.

Prisoners contributed 3.1 million hours fighting fires in California last year, earning only $1 an hour. By contrast, the average forest fire fighter in the U.S. earns $17.19 an hour, or $35,760 a year. Prisoners working on public works projects earn even less, $40 a month.

Using prisoner labor saves the state of California $200 million a year, $80 million in salary and $120 million in employee benefits and security costs. With almost one-third of minimum security prisoners moved from behind razor wire and onto the fire-lines, corrections costs are therefore lower.

The program is not limited just to adult prisoners. Last year the California Youth Authority contributed 684,000 slave-hours to firefighting, saving the state $3.9 million. Of course, it does not appear any of the savings were redirected into college scholarships for previously incarcerated youths.

Prisoners take the jobs because it reduces their sentence, gets them outside, and pays better than the typical prison job. But there are risks. Four years ago a prisoner was killed when he fell 150 feet down a slope fighting a Ventura County fire. The prisoner profiled in the San Diego Union Tribune, Peter Quintana, explained how prisoners are so desperate to earn money or shorten their sentences that they jeopardize their own health working in unsafe conditions for low wages.

Most recently, Governor Newsom vetoed SB 369, which would have established the California Reentry Commission focused on developing a new health and safety agenda for those returning home from custody, on the grounds that his public-private partnership was already dedicated to achieving the goals outlined in the bill. Returning Home Well was launched by Newsom in August, with the state contributing $15 million and with philanthropic organizations contributing the other half.

Yet, with the continued alarming rates of COVID cases in California prisons, I firmly believe that Governor Newsom was in no position to veto such a bill- it displays ego more than it does rationale. Considering that Governor Newsom has not done anything to reduce California’s reliance on slave labor either, it seems that he lacks the “progressiveness” which he is so applauded over when it comes to incarceration and prison policy.

If the population cannot be drastically decreased, then increases in the budget should be considered for purposes of COVID care, for physical purposes and for acknowledging the psychological trauma created by the state themselves. The welfare of prisoners is directly in the hands of the state- they have lost the liberty to make public health and quarantine decisions for themselves, and it has been at their expense more than that of the state. The state has faced scrutiny, while the prisoners have unnecessarily faced life-and-death in an outbreak that many believed the state had the ability to control. In the long-term, the entire process needs to be assessed, from the people involved in choosing who to arrest to the systems that control the fate of prisoners even beyond their sentences.

Share your thoughts on the situation below. Do you agree with my assessment?

Alisha Saxena is a senior at the University of California, San Diego majoring in Political Science-Public Law and minoring in African American Studies. She currently conducts research with RepresentWomen to advocate for ranked-choice voting and for increased women’s representation by means of alternative electoral systems. You can contact her at alsaxena@ucsd.edu.

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