More than 6.5 million Americans are in prison or have served time there. That's 1-100 adults living in the U.S., the highest incarceration level in the world, according to a new report by the Justice Department. In California and New York, more tax dollars are spent on prison corrections than higher education. Many other states are catching up.
Troy Jones, a 44 year old black male, originally from New Orleans, Louisiana understands these stats from the inside out. He has served time in California's prisons 6 times and now, is trying to reintegrate again. At 6'3 with sharp features and a G.Q. weathered look, this time, he walks away from the Laguna Beach homeless shelter with a job. His smile is filled with compassion and relief because he has a place to live and work. Both at the shelter. Underneath his smile, if you look close, you might notice the creases and lines from years of figuring out how to survive, over and over.
When asked how he started doing time, Troy looked at the ground humbly and responded, "I started my prison career late. Before getting caught up in the system, I was a basketball player. I walked on at L.S.U. and left with bad knees. I finished at Southern University where I majored in criminal justice. Then, I came to California on vacation and ended up on probation for a drug charge. Probation turned into a prison sentence. The next 12 years flew by in a blur of razor wire, gun towers, the sounds of block guns booming, and blood spilling at Soledad, Chino. Ironwood, Wasco, Lancaster and Corcoran."
Troy looked up from the ground and the humble look was gone. A look filled with the focus of survival, mixed with pride trying to hold it all together filled his eyes.
When asked how he saw so many prisons, he shifted from foot to foot and responded, "Revolving door justice really means a released prisoner is unprepared to face freedom. Freedom becomes the streets. Hustle time. I have to accept the blame for not finding a job fast enough but the felony I carried along with having the parole department breathing down my neck made employment feel impossible. I asked the parole department for help but they never offered any viable resources. Instead, they intimidated and pressured a no hope feeling, with an overzealous attitude that said we want you out of rich Republican Orange County where we have to keep the price of our real estate at a premium."
When asked to elaborate, Troy's eyes hardened. "When I got released from Lancaster Prison, the time before now, I rented a room from a sober family willing to give a parolee a chance. Then, during a parole department home visit, a dozen law enforcement vehicles skidded to a halt and swarmed the house. As they pulled up, I watched the neighbors peek out windows and walk outside and knew any hope of staying there was gone. My parole officer and a bunch of steroid looking gang task force detectives on amphetamine entered and searched my room and every common room. I walked out with the owner I rented from with my head down. Who would rent a room to someone like that? Someone like me? I felt that tiny ray of hope go out like a flickering candle about to get extinguished as the pressure closed in like a noose. On the streets again, drugs became a remembered tool to find a couch to sleep on and survive. Back to prison again. The vicious cycle continues..."
The link between education and crime is found in recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice: 75% of state prison inmates in California didn't complete high school; 59% of federal inmates also did not. Less educated inmates are also more likely to return to prison once released at 77%. The typical offender is undereducated, unemployed and living in poverty before incarceration.
In the past decade, many U.S states have cut their budgets for education funds to compensate for rapid growth in prison populations, and prison construction. The components connected to the tough on crime political platforms are becoming transparent.
With California as the leading example, in 1994, Republican Pete Wilson received $440,000 dollars from the prison union to help him win governorship. Two terms and eight years later, Gray Davis did the same thing to solidify the prison union to the point that if anyone running for governor didn't go with the flow a threat of recall would greet them. This trend created over crowded prisons where early release or triple bunked inmates became the solution. The triple bunks caused violent riots and to many stabbings and was deemed a health hazard. Currently, California is the state with the largest prison population at 187,000 inmates filling 36 prisons. The total bill for running the Prison System stood at $5.7 million in 2004. Less than a decade later, 30,000 gaurds--less than a tenth of the teachers union-- became the biggest financial contributors to politicians and legislators. Tough on crime morphed into something worse by 2010. California created 1487 new laws to generate cash for projects and solidify the prison state.
Governor Swartzenegger went right to work by attempting to put an R at the end of CDC. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That didn't actually happen but the governor stopped an out of control prison union, acting like the mafia, from increasing their salaries. The power of the union caught up to the terminator governor. Their spokesman did try to impeach him. Then, the Three Strikes question came up again in Proposition 66. A possible solution to deal with California's overcrowded prisons. It was meant to remove two non-violent charges: petty theft and certain residential burglaries. Pressured with political suicide by being looked at with a soft on crime stance, the intimidated governor became the prison union's spokesman stating on television that the law would "release thousands of rapist and child molesters out onto the streets"- a shameful lie. Other projects that have proven to help prisoners such as drug diversion have been removed by the power of California's prison union.
The question is are tough on crime policies and high rate of returning human beings back to prison actually deterring crime?
Troy's poker face absorbed the question. He shook his head no and said, "The politicians can spin the numbers but the real deal is this tough on crime shit is only building bigger criminals. In California we are segregated by race and violence solves problems and scared drug addict kids join gangs to deal. California' prisons breed gang affiliation, validation and allegiance at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. Tough on crime is creating more crime. We need to get more compassionate. All we learn in prison is to stay healthy and alive you better know how to make a knife, hide it, and observe well enough to use it before one gets used on you. Do you want that kind of violently built inmate getting released into your community? California started this prison state mess so they should clean it up with a bold new solution. The misguided youth that get sent to prison need to learn a trade or get schooling to learn how to live and pay bills. Otherwise the gangs become their guides.
In prison on drug charges, I felt inspired to start writing--to bring a view never before seen, and to show that the path we are on is only building bigger criminals. Roll Call by Glenn Langohr-Amazon http://www.lockdownpublishing.com Out of prison, I started sending inspirational postcards into prisons to help other prisoners see a better future through writing and art.
Kirkus Discoveries, Nielsen Business Media firstname.lastname@example.org
A harrowing, down-and-dirty depiction-sometimes reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic-of America's war on drugs, by former dealer and California artist Langohr.