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It's a Crime to Build Another Prison

November 25, 2001|ERICA ETELSON | Erica Etelson is an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild

If there's one thing California doesn't need, it's another prison.

When Gov. Gray Davis asked all state agencies to submit plans for reducing their budgets by up to 15%, the Department of Corrections proposed trimming $688 million from its budget by closing an as-yet-unnamed existing prison and cutting education, drug rehabilitation and counseling programs for prisoners.

But who would have imagined that the department's austerity measures would also include the construction of a $335-million prison in the Central Valley town of Delano? So the department is going to close one prison and spend $335 million on a new one in the face of a $12.4-billion state budget deficit.

Beyond the apparent contradiction, it's clear that California does not need a new prison. The Corrections Department already has more beds than prisoners. The state's prison population is on the decline, and the department's most recent projections forecast about 25,000 fewer prisoners than was predicted just a year earlier.

Moreover, with the passage of Proposition 36, the measure dealing with substance abuse offenses, thousands of people with drug-related convictions will be diverted to treatment programs.

When California voters passed Proposition 36, they sent a clear message that they are more interested in funding programs that keep people out of prison than paying the astronomical price tag for incarceration. After a 20-year prison-building binge, California has learned the hard way that more prisons don't make communities safer.

But the Department of Corrections, beholden to the powerful prison guards union, isn't interested in proven alternatives to incarceration. The department's philosophy on prisons and crime and punishment can be summed up in five words: "Build 'em and fill 'em."

The Corrections Department stubbornly clings to its plan for the Delano prison--the town's second such facility--despite a firestorm of local opposition, a lawsuit and more litigation threatened by environmentalists, who allege that another prison will stretch the community's resources to the breaking point.

Because it is to be funded through bonds, the ultimate price tag for the Delano prison could reach a whopping $600 million, with $132 million in annual operating costs.

At a time when the state is facing a budget crisis, there ought to be a law against wasting this kind of money on a prison we don't need.

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