On May 23, the US Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision ordering California to release tens of thousands of inmates from its overcrowded prisons on the grounds that their living conditions—including lethally inadequate healthcare—were so intolerable as to be “cruel and unusual punishment.” For years, California has stored its prisoners like so many cans of soup; stacked in cells or bunk beds in squalid conditions that breed violence and disease. A 2008 NPR report on massive overcrowding at San Quentin State Prison found 360 men caged in what was once a gymnasium: “Most of these men spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in the gym,” NPR reported, describing it as “a giant game of survivor.” The day before the Supreme Court ruling, four prisoners were seriously injured at San Quentin when a riot broke out in a dining hall.
Prison numbers have dipped in recent years, but with nearly 2.4 million Americans behind bars, mass incarceration remains a national crisis. In California, home of a notorious “three strikes” law, parole violations represent more than half of all new prison admissions, and three of four prisoners are non-white. It’s an extreme example of what has happened across the country.
Michelle Alexander, a former ACLU lawyer in the Bay Area and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has pointed out that the rush to incarcerate has gotten so out of control that “if our nation were to return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release four out of five people behind bars.” Arriving in California for a series of events just after the decision came down, Alexander spoke to me over the phone about the ruling and what it means.
Liliana Segura: What has the response been in California to this ruling?
Michelle Alexander: I have seen in the media here a fair amount of fear-mongering. At least one law enforcement official [Mark Pazin, the Merced County sheriff and chairman of the state’s sheriffs’ association] was saying that he was worried that there would be a “tsunami” of crime that would wash over communities in California. “We’re bracing for the worst and hoping for the best,” he says, projecting to the public that they ought to be very worried that all of these criminals busting loose from prison may well wreak havoc on their communities.
What is most disturbing to me about this rhetoric is that it fails to acknowledge that all of these people were coming home anyway. It creates the impression that people who are returning home to these communities wouldn’t have been but for the Supreme Court ruling. And if there’s any reason to be concerned about potential crime when they return, it’s largely due to the legal barriers that exist to effective reentry into communities. People return home from prison and face legal discrimination in virtually all areas of social and economic and political life. They are legally discriminated against employment, barred from public housing and denied other public benefits.
Governor Jerry Brown has planned to address California’s budget issues by transferring a bunch of state prisoners to county jails, and the head of the California corrections system says that “our goal is not to release inmates at all.” Part of what is interesting about this decision is that Justice Anthony Kennedy mentioned the “lack of political will in favor of reform.” Is it always going to be politics that stalls even incremental changes?
I think this opinion illustrates how broken our politics have become. Here we are in California, a state that has been careening toward bankruptcy, and yet there is enormous resistance to releasing nonviolent, relatively minor offenders, people who, I think it’s important to emphasize, might not have been doing time at all if they had been arrested thirty years ago. We now sentence people to prison for years for types of offenses that once received just probation or days in jail. So these people who we’re so afraid of returning to our communities, they might well not have been serving time at all had they been arrested a few decades ago, before the War on Drugs and Get Tough movement really kicked off.