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Los Angeles | Patt Morrison

Rob Inmates of the Chance for a Future? It Oughtta Be a Crime

May 13, 2003|Patt Morrison

The weekend just wouldn't be the weekend if there weren't something in the paper to get me good and mad.

I don't know your formula for a great day off, but caffeine and outrage do it for me every time. I usually don't have to read any farther than the front page for a good dose of cupidity or stupidity, but last Saturday I got as far as this section, the California section, before I found it:

My colleague Jenifer Warren's story about how the state's prison guards' union is trying to sink a shiv between the shoulder blades of one of the two programs in the state prisons that let inmates earn community college degrees.

Gee, the union says blandly -- it only wants people to know it's wrong to educate the scum of the earth. And it wants to do its part to shave away at the California deficit (and the huge $5-billion-plus lump that is the Corrections Department's budget?).

So how much is this enormous sum the union thinks is so vital to the public pot -- a sum now being squandered on letting criminals crack a book? About $750 per inmate. Multiplied by the 280 inmates now enrolled at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, that's ... $210,000.

$210,000. About the salary of two of the 110 prison guards who earned molto overtime last year because of a slick new OT/sick-time policy for the 23,000 members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

That would be the same union that negotiated a sweetheart pay-raise deal for its members, who'll be getting 37% more by 2006. The same union whose members can retire at age 50 with 90% of their salary. The same union that's fattened Gray Davis' political piggy bank by more than $3 million in five years, and hasn't been stingy with other politicians either. The same union that whisked the state's political leaders off to Maui last winter for a "conference" after that exhausting election.

$210,000 is about 1/2,500th of the half-billion dollars the guards' labor deal may wind up costing California, but you've got to nip these things in the bud, before they get even bigger, like -- wash my mouth out with soap -- an obscene $500,000.

The union's already killed off one community-college-degree-by-video educational program at Chuckawalla Valley state prison in Blythe. Now it's gunning for Ironwood. Maybe it's afraid all those educated cons will get out and go to law school.

*

Graduation day at Ironwood is June 13. The warden will speak. The president of Palo Verde Community College, whose video courses the inmates take, will speak. As the college students file in wearing the caps and gowns the prison keeps for its high school GED graduates, the prison band will play the Elgar music that makes people think of commencement as surely as the "William Tell Overture" makes people think of the Lone Ranger.

Afterward, there will be a couple of sheet cakes, and punch. As program director Rick Babb remembers from other graduations here, "You'll have the crying mothers and the proud wives and the proud children, and the inmates just strut." For maybe the first time in their lives, this is something they haven't fouled up.

Prisoners who once balked at getting up for breakfast began arising at 2 or 3 a.m. to study, via video, in their cells. They stood down threats from other inmates that they better not study. Now, says Babb, one shot-caller tells his crew to sign up for classes.

And a few have asked about a remote-learning bachelor's degree, a prospect Babb is discussing with a Missouri university -- if the inmates promise him "at least a 4.0 And they say, 'Don't think we won't.' "

Both Babb and Warden James E. Hall plead enlightened self-interest: As Hall likes to say, "If somebody who buys a house next to me happens to be an ex-felon, I've rather have one who's college-educated and making something of himself."

And Babb has loaded his slingshot with the ammo to shoot back at the critics: A college degree tends to keep a man from backsliding to his old ways. Of 100 Arizona cons who earned the kind of two-year degree that Ironwood inmates do, only 10 got sent back to the slammer, instead of the usual 60.

"I've done the numbers," Babb tells me. "The potential saving statewide runs into millions and possibly billions. And instead of paying $27,000 or $28,000 to house them when they return, now they're out as productive citizens, and taxpayers" -- who in time may gripe about the cost of coddling those creeps in prison.

*

In his 28 years working in the state's prisons, Hall has watched attitudes toward inmates swing to extremes, "like a pendulum ... It seems to be somewhere in the middle of the road now, depending on who you talk to."

Should prisons have libraries when schools don't? Should prisoners have health care when more than 20 million working Americans don't? There's an O. Henry story about a bum who kept committing petty crimes on Christmas Eve just so he could get tossed in a nice, warm jail for the night -- but the genial cops kept letting him off, saying, "It's Christmas."

There are people who think it's Christmas year-round for prison inmates. Square meals? This is California. Thin is in. Haircuts? Sheer vanity. And shoes -- who needs shoes? It's warm. And if it's too warm, run across the hot cement -- you can use the exercise.

Don't e-mail me about how hard it is to be a prison guard. Of course it's hard. But it's the guard's choice to do the job -- just as it's the inmate's choice to do the crime.

For sheer pettiness, you can't beat the memo last month from the prison guard union, that its members should boycott every prison-backed blood drive and picnic and fund-raiser until Warden Hall pulls the plug on the college program.

Whenever I saw one of those Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson prison movies, I always wondered why it was they called the prison guards "screws." Well, now I know.

*

Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays.

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