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High Desert State Prison, Susanville, Lassen County, California.

As shocking as the crimes covered in the latest investigation of conditions in California’s prisons is the fact the same abuse, racism and corruption continue.

“Guards at an isolated state prison have created a “culture of racism,” engage in alarming use of force against inmates and have a code of silence encouraged by the union that represents most corrections officers,” reports the Sacramento Bee.

The problems have been exacerbated by High Desert State Prison‘s relative isolation in the high Sierra town of Susanville which has a population of only 16,000. The prison holds more than 3,000 prisoners despite only being designed for 2,300.

The report 2015 Special Review: High Desert State Prison, Susanville, CA (PDF) by the California Inspector General details rising violence in special housing units designed to protect vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, gang dropouts and prisoners with physical disabilities.

“So-called sensitive-needs yards, which are supposed to shelter inmates likely to be attacked in the general population, instead were “just as violent” as the rest of High Desert — “with gang politics meting out abuse and punishment for drug and gambling debts and extorting vulnerable inmates for protection, all of which is exacerbated by the tacit acquiescence of custody staff”,” reports the fastidious and essential Paige St.John for the Los Angeles Times.

The report describes use of the N-word and the derogatory insult “wetback” being used routinely by guards. Prisoners report Green-Walling which is a form of unity and silence that guards adopt to hamper investigation. The California prison-guards’ uniforms is green.

More shocking, but not surprising, the guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, advised its members not to cooperate and filed a lawsuit and collective bargaining grievance in a bid to hinder the investigation, says Inspector General Robert Barton.

“The union sent a letter last month to Gov. Jerry Brown and every state lawmaker in what Barton called “the latest strong-arm tactic … to obstruct the … review and attempt to discredit the OIG in advance of the release of this report”,” reports the Sacramento Bee.

Read the full report: 2015 Special Review: High Desert State Prison, Susanville, CA (PDF)

“I thought it was about the right policies and the right principle. It is really about the money.”

Jeanne Woodford, Former Warden of San Quentin and Former Secretary of the CDC, on the California prison system.

On one occasion in the past, I drew both criticism and praise for an unapologetically emotive tone. In that instance it was on the colliding social issues of Hospitals, Schools & Prisons.

Yesterday, with Beds in Gymnasiums: Prison Guards and Prison Overcrowding in California, I feel I may have ventured into similar territory as per my thoughts on the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). Consider this post a back up and not a back down of my previous sentiments. Consolidation is good for the soul.

So, allow me to describe two important podcasts I listened to yesterday and today and hopefully the dots will join themselves.

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF FOLSOM & CALIFORNIA PRISONS

Folsom Embodies California’s Prison Blues (NPR) traces the decay of the California Department of Corrections from heights I wasn’t even aware of. Apparently, in the late 70s Folsom Prison was the shining light of progressive American prison cultures. All prisoners lived in their own cells, virtually every inmate was enlisted in a program or had a job, and upon release very few of them returned. It was record envied across the US.

Today, over 4,400 men live in the facility designed for 1,800. Folsom is entirely segregated by race. Education, rehabilitation and work programs are down to a few classes with a waiting list of over 1,000. Folsom and California has the worst recidivism rate of any state – over 70% will return to prison within three years.

The real juice of this podcast is the look at the history of this situation: the lobbying millions of the CCPOA, the disguised money, the pandering and the electioneering. Jeanne Woodford, an inspiring and honest inside voice, talks about how the CDC was hamstrung by the CCPOA’s power. Her sentiments are echoed by the Secretary who succeeded her.

LEVEL OF INEQUALITY vs. LEVEL OF AFFLUENCE

For the past twelve months British comic/rabblerouser, Mark Thomas, has made sense of the global recession by interviewing ‘good’ bankers, economists and policy gurus. All of these are available via podcast.

Professor Richard Wilkinson talks about Western nations and their success/failure in providing a good quality of life for their citizens.

The theory backed up by reputable statistics (WHO and others) is that social problems are more acute in countries with the most inequality. Affluence has nothing to do with social harmony. Wide differences in affluence can destroy social harmonies.

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Wilkinson notes in countries such as Japan, Sweden and Finland the richest 20% are 4 times richer than the 20% poorest. In Britain, US and Portugal the richest 20% are 9 times richer than the poorest 20%. In the more inequitable countries depression and mental health problems are more widespread; there is more friction in family life as reflected in the harshness of the unjust society. Wilkinson questions the psychological landscape of western nations and asks, “What sort of society I am growing up in? Will I be fairly treated?”

Inequality is about dominance – not reciprocity – which explains why the harshest sentencing (subjugation) exists in America – the most unequal of societies. Wilkinson goes on to discuss prison systems and how their harshness is in direct correlation with social inequality. IT’S A MUST LISTEN.

On the increase of the prison population in the US, Wilkinson quotes estimates that only 10-20% of the increase is due to increased crime.* The remainder is due to more punitive sentencing.

In possession of this information, we must think about how crime, sentencing and prisons relate to society – YES, PRISONS ARE WITHIN NOT OUTSIDE OF SOCIETY. And that said, I’ll be making a return on this blog to discussion of our exposure to, and consumption of, images of prisons and prisoners.

*Both the UK and the US have been incarcerating more and more people, while crime has been falling.

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