« Interesting review of closing penitentiaries due to the prison economy | Main | Reflecting on community intuitions about justice and punishment »

September 6, 2009

Seeking deep throughts in reaction to "The Recession Behind Bars"

Today's New York Times includes this fascinating op-ed, headlined "The Recession Behind Bars," which is authored Kenneth Hartman, who is nearing the end of his third decade in prison following a 1980 conviction for murder that led to an LWOP sentence in California. Here are excerpts from this must-read piece:

The past 25 years were generally prosperous for California; the economy boomed and fortunes were made in the sunny San Fernando Valley.  But during this time, the lives of prisoners became much drearier.  We were forced into demeaning uniforms, with neon orange letters spelling out “prisoner,” and lost most of the positive programs like conjugal visits and college education that we had had since the ’70s.  Money was flowing outside the prison walls, but new “get tough” policies against criminals were causing our population, and our costs, to soar.

It is a quirk of California politics that it is among the bluest of states but has some of the reddest of laws.  No politician here ever lost an election for being too tough on crime or prisoners. Consequently, all through the ’80s and ’90s billions of dollars were poured into a historic prison-building boom.  Private airplane pilots tell me it’s easy to navigate at night from San Diego to Los Angeles and on up the Central Valley to Sacramento by simply following the prisons’ glowing lights. Good times in the free world meant, in here, ever-longer sentences, meaner regulations and ever-decreasing interest in rehabilitation.  “Costs be damned; lock ’em up and be done with it” became the unofficial motto of the Department of Corrections.

The last time I received a visit from my family, in early July, the air-conditioning in the visiting room had been broken for more than a month.  This matters because my prison is in the high desert north of Los Angeles....  The next day I asked one of the administrators what could be done to get the air-conditioning fixed, and he told me an amazing story. The free-world contractor who services the prison’s air-conditioning systems had refused to come out to replace the part that was broken, because the state owed the company tens of thousands of dollars in back fees and could pay only in i.o.u.’s.  There would be no cool air until the state’s budget negotiations were concluded.

Now that the economy is suffering, there is talk of reforming the prisons, of reviving the discredited concept of rehabilitation, of letting some prisoners out early.  Some people have even mentioned doing away with the death penalty because of the exorbitant cost to the state of guaranteed appeals.  For those of us who have endured a generation of policies intended explicitly to inflict pain, this has a surreal quality to it. After all, it was only a year ago that the state authorities were planning the next phase of prison expansion.  Obviously, all the passionate arguments that have been made about the moral wrongs of mass incarceration, of disproportionately affected communities, of abysmal treatment and civil rights violations were just so much hot air.  Only when society ran out of ready cash did prison reform become worthy of serious consideration. What this says about the free world is unclear to me, but it doesn’t feel like a good thing.

The talk in here contains an element of schadenfreude.  When the TV shows legislators complaining about how deep in the hole the state budget is, laughter fills the day room. Our captor turns out to be simply inept....

From my cell I can also observe the inner roadway on which prison vehicles pass.  A fleet of new, shining-white super-security transportation vans still drives by daily.  Leviathan hasn’t quite adjusted to the Golden State’s diminished firmament.

This snippet and the rest of the op-ed is perhaps more about modern sociology than modern economics or criminology.  But, whatever label readers might attach to the piece, I hope deep thoughts will follow in the comments as we reflect on work, the economy and American society this Labor Day weekend.

September 6, 2009 at 12:42 PM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e20120a54f7426970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Seeking deep throughts in reaction to "The Recession Behind Bars":

Comments

Mr. Hartman has done well. He has an excellent academic resume with multiple publication in left wing propaganda organs. He won a $10,000 essay prize. He is married, and is the proud father of a daughter, despite having committed his murder at age 19.

Meanwhile, his victim is still dead, and the victim's career is still faltering. Any prisoner picking up on academic skills becomes the darling of the America Hater left wing. This is a prisoner running his con and the left is enabling him. One could argue, given his prior habits, he may relapse in his addiction, and suffer far worse than he does now. He under appreciates the value of prison to him, and not just to the hundreds of victims spared his criminality.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 6, 2009 4:20:13 PM

Although Hartman killed at 19, he is a killer. Unlike some nations that value life cheaper than we do and release murderers after only fifteen years or so; we Americans still place a life for a life. Hartman was sentenced to life without parole so any programs to educate him beyond the needs of prison, or any program such as conjugal visits (also known as family reunion programs) to keep inmates tied to outside family members is a total waste of money and value to society. If we care for those incarcerated, let us plan for those that are jail populations or prisoners who will ultimately be released. Hartman, if you get a chance to read this, stop your crying and ranting. Only a fool or fellow psychopath would feel concern for your thoughts. You will be housed and fed, given television to watch, air to breathe; which is a hell of a lot better than the poor victim who is six feet under ground. Hartman, accept the verdict and understand that where there is life there is hope, but hope for you is not freedom, nor creature comforts. Just hope that you do your time and don't harm any of your fellow inmates.

Posted by: MARcel | Sep 6, 2009 4:39:45 PM

The deep thought. Mr. Hartman's achievements rebut his argument. Prison has been great for him. It saved his life, and made him a great writer. There is a 50% chance he would have died before age 30, in his criminal lifestyle on the outside. He is in total denial about its value to him. It gave him everything he has, including his life, not to mention a license to kill with absolute immunity, not even James Bond has.

As to A/C. Almost no one around the world has it, not even rich Europeans or Japanese. Worse. No A/C and no deodorant. Man o man, phew, try a crowded train in the summer in Europe.

Went to take a leak in an expensive Paris restaurant. The head was a hole in the ground. Glad I did not have to do more, with my weak legs. Imagine falling in, and having to have to be extricated. Oh come on, at $200 a meal, they could buy a $50 toilet. No.

Also, no A/C. Nowhere in France except the movies. No one heard of a $10 screen door or window. You leave open the window to get a little breeze, you get eaten alive.

In many prison systems outside the US, food is not included. If the family does not bring any, the prisoner does not eat.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 6, 2009 5:12:27 PM

There is some backstory to this story.

California Prison “Sunshine” Bill Passed by Wide Bipartisan Margins Now Goes to the Governor

By Frank D. Russo

The California Senate has completed final legislative approval of SB 1521 by Senator Glorai Romero, who is the Senate Majority Leader, on a bipartisan vote of 27 to 8. This is an important prison reform bill that allows reporters access to prisoners held by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) , the largest prison system in the country. It previously passed the Assembly by a vote of 71 to 1.

(It was vetoed.)

So what of all the MSNBC documentaries of Lockup at California and other prisons? Corrections has complete editorial control. It's a government infomercial.

Posted by: George | Sep 6, 2009 5:57:24 PM

I wonder why Mr. Harrison was talking to a prison administrator?

Maybe George is on to something but if so that would mean the editors of the NYT are suckers. That is not impossible they have been suckered before.

Posted by: John Neff | Sep 6, 2009 9:30:02 PM

John Neff, suckered how? The administrator obviously didn't know, and had no reason to suspect, Hartman's lawyer would smuggle a letter out and even less reason to suspect the NY Times would publish it. *

California issued IOUs for some time and contractors were not all that happy.

* I have to real reason to believe any lawyer really smuggled anything or any reason to believe it would be against the law if a rent seeking lawyer did so. That line is only in there for propaganda drama. Fire with fire and all that.

Posted by: George | Sep 6, 2009 11:22:36 PM

John Neff, why suckered? Could the administrator have reason to suspect Hartman's lawyer would smuggle out a letter that would get published in the NY Times? *

California issued IOUs for some time and contractors were not happy.

* A lawyer probably did not smuggle out the letter and it probably would not be against the law anyway. That is in there for propaganda drama. Fire with fire.

Posted by: George | Sep 6, 2009 11:28:50 PM

Hartman's was a very good opinion piece, and I liked that rounding out with the unnecessary, fancy new prison cars coasting along the prison road.
An even more accurate portrayal of animal life in prison is that set out in the Todd Willingham piece in the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann.
Sheesh, what this country has become. It's positively frightening.

Posted by: FluffyRoss | Sep 7, 2009 7:59:17 AM

I don't think any of today's posters have a loved one imprisoned. So, these remarks reveal that fact. The A/C he was referring to, he said "the a/c in the visitor's room was broken." The inmates dont expect a/c, but, when they are lucky enough to get a visit once or twice a year from their beloved family, it means a lot to them to minimize the awful ordeal of a prison visit with the thousands of "impossible rules" and the intimidation of their loved ones. So, this is one thing they still care about. They have been taught to not care about them selves. They have been conditioned to believe they are worse than worthless. And, don't forget, a significant percentage of these are innocent men. It could be you. And, SC, I hate the ridiculous examples you use. On the other side is my son who was falsely accused by his 15 year old step daughter of indecent liberties. He got 24 years. The step daughter's mother was getting a divorce, and she told the daughter to accuse. The mother called me three times, during pre trial, demanding several thousand dollars to prevent her from having her daughter increase the charges. I didn't have any way to get her the money, so the charges were increased each time. Now, my son is dying in prison. He is not allowed to see his son, so the son is suffering to death also. I am suffering. And the so called "victim"??? Well, her mom got the house, the cars, all the expensive items my son had given her over their ten year marriage. She moved in her new boy friend as soon as my son was convicted. She married the b/f. They have a new baby. They sleep right there in my son's bed. (a family heirloom, my mother gave to my son.) They have parties. The step daughter goes to proms, graduated from H S, is going to college, and is having a happy life.

Both sides are the extreme, but your example is so dumb, yes dumb, SC. You can do better than that.

Posted by: DLJ | Sep 7, 2009 12:18:05 PM

Each person in prison is an individual, as different as you or I. They have their own reasons for everything they have done. In many cases, drug addiction has altered their emotions and thinking to the point where they have committed violent and horrible crimes. In other cases, unlivable conditions in their families pushed them to the brink. In other cases, kids, 19 or earlier, who do not have fully formed prefrontal lobes and who cannot make long-term decisions or control their impulses like adults can (the prefrontal lobes don't develop fully until about one's mid -twenties) and they can be led into situations where they make decisions that will alter the course of their entire lives. The concept of "an eye for an eye" is an antiquated prescription for dealing with wrongdoing. It does not take into consideration everything we know about how the brain works, the effects of poverty, abuse and depravation on the individual, and it does not address mental illness and vast degree of social ills related to criminal behavior. Certainly, there are full-blown psychopaths that should be kept in prison for life. They are rare and a special category in terms of whether or not they can be rehabilitated. But the legal system does not take science into account, nor do they see things in any other way other than black or white. Yes, the victim is still dead, and that is a tragedy, but the final step in any healing process is understanding how you erred, or how you were wronged, and using that knowledge to make necessary changes and to give back to and help others based on the special knowledge you have gained. Any correctional system that does not allow for this step is condemned to keep offenders from fully developing and truly knowing why they cannot continue behaving in the way they have. The unintended effect of this is that society becomes hard and competing religious ideals of compassion and redemption move toward extinction. It has also ruined certain communities and put into place generational trends that will be hard to break. Beliefs such as this lead to fascism and the formation of police states. It has also lead to bankruptcy in several states due to over-bloated prison systems. Rehabilitation and reform do work. Other states have instituted rehabilitation programs and undertaken sentencing reform and are finding success. Real public safety will come from putting people back on the street who are prepared educationally and vocationally, and who have done the really hard work of changing themselves and their lives. But if we do not give them the tools and the opportunity, then the shame is on us, not on them. We cannot continue to run our prison systems based on fear and ancient religious prescriptions. We need to look at the research evidence and base our policies on what has been shown to be effective.

Elaina Jannell, Ph.D.
AFSCME Local 2620

Posted by: Elaina | Sep 7, 2009 12:59:37 PM

DLJ: Here is better, since you may not be familiar with my loving criticism of the lawyer profession. They know I am here to help, and most love me and are grateful for my help. Only a few disgruntled left wing malcontents make personal remarks out of frustration in the traverse.


Thank a vile feminist victimization whore lawyer and their vile male collaborators. The hunt is on for the productive male. There are millions of men who have been victimized by the lawyer profession. They should get together and do something to help our nation end this onslaught against family, innocent people, and the very nation itself. I am sorry to hear about your son. In a divorce situation, all allegations should be presumed to be false, a form of hate speech falsely elicited by the lying, hate filled, anti-family feminist lawyer.

I support hiring a lawyer to terrorize the weak defense lawyer into counter attacking. Most sex crime convictions require a confession in the absence of objective evidence. I support destroying the legal career of the family killing feminist lawyer, male or female prosecutor. I support sending the daughter to jail for lying to the police. These lying girls are, of course, coached by their mothers, by biased, unprofessional feminist male hating female police, and by a female psychologist, who put words in her mouth. All family destroying feminist perjury suborning lawyers go to jail. I would like to see the judge arrested, given a fair trial for an hour, and executed by a hooded police officer in the basement of the courthouse, right after the guilty verdict for insurrection against the constitution. All his bogus supernatural utterances come from a Church, and betray the oath he took. If any professional, such as a psychologist, was involved in the false testimony, consider suing them for malpractice. Confessions are a hurdle, but not insurmountable. To deter. The defense attorney should have done total discovery, including e-discovery, on all adverse parties, including the judge. See if the defense was adequate. Any lawsuit against a lawyer helps our nation.

If the innocence rate in the death penalty, after $million has been spent to avoid a mistake, is around 20% (really unknown, since the 3000 prisoners on death row have not been tested), the rate in lesser charges may be 50%. The lawyer is in utter failure in the criminal law, save for generating massive lawyer employment, the rent. In a divorce situation, innocence may be as high as 90%.

The lawyer is a criminal lover because the criminal is a pretext to make money off useless procedures from the Medieval Church. The insurrection of the vile criminal lover lawyer knows no limit.

If anyone is interested in forming direct action groups of victims of lawyer treason, there are good intellectual, moral and even patriotic justifications for such. Bring the suffering home they falsely inflict on our lawyer besieged nation to this criminal syndicate that controls the three branches of government.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 7, 2009 2:20:09 PM

Dr. Janell: Is your union a public employee union? Naturally, the majority of prisoners will require massive amounts of treatment by members of your union. If it is public worker union, yours is the face of rent seeking evil. I will not bother rebutting you. You are lying or being silly. For example, morality is pretty much set in at age three, after hearing the word, no, at age two. As to frontal lobes, crime peaks in the twenties, not in the teens. Those who were criminals at age three are still criminals at age 23. And large amounts of wealth have no effect on their criminality. See Mike Tyson. It is highly offensive to poor people to falsely call poverty a factor in crime. The rate of criminality among the poor is the same as among the rich. This is a Commie lie to redistribute wealth from hard working taxpayers to government workers.

Nothing you say has the slightest validity because of your job. It is self-serving, rent seeking PC garbage. You are not as low as the rent seeking lawyer, but you live on the same floor of moral reprehensibility.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 7, 2009 2:43:08 PM

"the face of rent seeking evil"...is "seeking" a verb, so that the "face of rent" seeks evil? or is that a whole hyphenated, pilled-up lunatic rant on rent, as in "face-of-rent-seeking-evil? I couldn't translate. Where can I find an illustration of this face of rent?

"Commie lie"--is this contained in a 1950s manifesto? or is this likewise in the library of some nutcase with an overflowing medicine cabinet?

Posted by: FluffyRoss | Sep 7, 2009 5:22:23 PM

Fluffy - if that IS your real name - this brings up the question of why the rent-seeking, cult criminal enterprising AmeriKKKan lawyer hates America.

Productive males, the target for years of this cream skimming virus, know the real truth. Behind your "rules" of grammar and 1214 Medieval "reason", the truth lurks.

123D. We have more than enough criminals to throw a few away, letting the ACLU liberal traitors focus on truly high-level representation for the chosen few felons.

Posted by: Redundancy Claus | Sep 7, 2009 7:29:40 PM

Let me make this clear, becaue you dumbasses (a lawyer term of art) can clearly benefit from the learning of the Redundancy. Anything any of you say doesn't matter because you have been indoctrinated, forgetting even your 10th Grade world history. Only I - I, with my cutting edge legal education with which I do not make a living - can show you the truth. When I'm not working at Arby's.

Posted by: Redundancy Claus | Sep 7, 2009 7:32:32 PM

If anyone else posted three straight comments, it would be self indulgent. When I do it, it is because only I, through sheer persistence, can show you what I need to know. 123D. What does it take to get through to you? Aside from trying to learn what you're actually talking about, that is, which I do not have to do because of rent seeking.
SEE: Wikipedia, et al.

Posted by: Redundancy Claus | Sep 7, 2009 7:34:23 PM

Fluffy: If Dr. Janell would post her picture, you could gaze on the synecdoche of rent seeking. Rent seeking is a form of armed robbery. If you refuse to pay your taxes for transfer to worthless people like her, armed people will help you pay. It should be considered a malum in se.

Insurrection against the constitution is the charge leading to the arrest of the lawyer hierarchy, their one hour fair trials, where the sole evidence will their decisions, and no lawyer gotcha in any collateral corruption. Then the sentence for this crime should be carried out in the basement of the court, by a hooded police officer.

Rent seeking is the charge leading that may lead to the arrest of every lawyer, including transactional lawyers, who have ever written a legal utterance above the sixth grade reading level. To be fair to them, lawyer gibberish should be criminalized formally.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 7, 2009 8:45:45 PM

Red: You are becoming obsessed. You are memorizing me. It starts that way. Do not fall in love with me. It has happened before because it is so easy.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 7, 2009 8:51:08 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB