By Dan Aiello
After more than two months delay, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF), Chair of the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, arrives today at one of California’s Maximum Security correctional facilities to see for himself the progress the State’s prison system is making to address concerns of judges and reform advocates for the care of incarcerated Californians.
Earlier this year Ammiano likened California’s 33 prisons to “Gladiator Academies,” where Californians incarcerated for homelessness, victimless crimes like drug possession and those with mental illness must choose between “being victimized or victimizing others.”
For progressives and reformers, Ammiano has been like lightning across a Central Valley evening sky, exciting to watch, listen to and wait for his next press conference or issue to confront. He has attacked headlong issues legislators in competitive districts would never touch: Prop 13 reform, taxation and legalization of marijuana, civil rights for the state’s homeless, the erosion of privacy rights by the Patriot Act, equality for same-sex couples and transgender rights in housing and employment.
And now prison reform.
For religious and fiscal conservatives, Ammiano has likely been more lightning rod than lightning, his legislative efforts cause for alarm, concern and outright dismay, causing visceral reactions as the two-term Assemblyman seemingly reaches for third rail political issues with the reckless exuberance of a child who ought to know better.
Ammiano, however, is deliberate, strategic and determined to make changes the Assemblyman sees as both necessary and moral, and it is with determination that the Public Safety Committee Chair arrives today for a fact-finding mission to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Pelican Bay facility in Crescent City.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ammiano’s visit is welcomed by CDCR.
“When I heard about his plans my first thought was, ‘What took him so long,’” CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton told California Progress Report. “I wish more legislators would visit our prison system.”
Thornton admits the prison system has made mistakes, many of which were thrust upon it as the legislature cut from its budget money earmarked for re-entry programs like education, vocation-training, drug rehabilitation and counseling and mental health services – cuts that have led to California’s notoriously high recidivism rate.
“Look, if you’re going to cut social services, education and healthcare for senior citizens – even my own salary was cut, as were the salaries of most state employees, and that really hurt, believe me – why wouldn’t the CDCR experience cuts to [programs geared toward the successful return of parolees to society], asked Thornton. “But things have turned around, funding has been restored, and our recidivism rate is down.”
Thornton claims the CDCR might no longer be at the top of the nation’s list for its failure rate. “Everybody measures recidivism differently, so it’s hard to say, but I think we’re at 63 percent now,” Thornton told CPR.
California’s recidivism rate in 1980 was 32 percent, but has climbed steadily since. Thornton pointed out that California was a state that “passed a prisoner’s bill of rights before it passed a victim’s bill of rights in the 70’s,“ but times and attidudes obviously changed.
According to Ammiano’s Communications Director, Carlos Alcala, the Assemblyman has asked to visit the psychiatric services ward, the “short corridor,” an area designed for administrative segregation for inmates who have violated rules, and the Secure Housing Unit, or SHU, the reason Pelican Bay prisoners staged a long hunger strike in 2011 and the subject of a Public Safety Committee hearing last August where the CDCR agreed to establish new guidelines for defining which prisoners were classified as gang members and placed in solitary confinement.
Amnesty International determined California’s SHU’s were “cruel and inhumane punishment” in a report published last year.
The CDCR established its new policy in November.
Lieutenant Christopher Acosta, the Public Information Officer for Pelican Bay, said the warden and staff “definitely” was looking forward to the Ammiano visit.
Thornton says what the Assemblyman will find is a facility that is no longer overcrowded and hopes to garner support for the Governor’s motion to vacate the imposed 137.5% of design capacity. “We’re at 149%. That means we have Single bunking and some inmates share a cell.” Thornton points out the irony of CDCR being required, at 137.5%, a single inmate per cell, and at the same time being criticized for solitary confinement. “We can’t win,” said Thornton.
Alcala yesterday said he didn ‘t know yet, having not yet made the visit, but single celling inmates and solitary confinement, he thought we’re likely not comparable.
Regardless of political leanings, Ammiano’s Chairmanship has electrified the last two legislative sessions in Sacramento. And while his liberal leanings are obvious, Ammiano’s reasons for his positions have shown the Assemblyman is keenly aware of the cost to California taxpayers with legislation that would alleviate residential property taxpayers, cut costs or add revenue to the state’s beleaguered coffers.
In a January interview with CPR, Ammiano pointed out that California had as many as 46,000 parolees return to prison over a three year period for administrative parole violations including positive drug tests, missed appointments with parole officers or court hearings. And while these violations can be indicative of a return to criminal activity, at a cost of $72,000 dollars per year to house inmates, these returns amounted to nearly $1 billion dollars in costs to California taxpayers, “for a state essentially not any more safe,” said Ammiano. At $72,000 dollars a year, the state might better spend the money hiring additional police officers or providing mental health or rehabilitative services than housing an inmate for drug possession, homelessness, or mental illness, and Alcala believes the economics shouldn’t be a liberal or conservative issue, but an issue all Californians can agree on.
The CDCR houses approximately 119,000 inmates, a number expected to continue to decrease with realignment, as prisoners formerly sent to state prison will now be housed locally in county jails, sending only the most dangerous to the state system.