deathstar californiaNow, imagine that this company is protected from bankruptcy and government interference. Protected because the government owns and operates the company.

It’s California’s Prison Industry Authority. The moment of insight, a clarity of vision, an intuition about the motion and direction of the history that one is a part of.

The collection of impressions merging with the collected data of a life, boiling to the surface of consciousness, and melding between the synaptic gaps to form an opinion that becomes part of ones character, informing action.

The day that it was reported that California was spending more on its prison system than its schools was one of great insight for me.

I could hang in there with all the pseudo tolerance and liberalism, the shallow acquaintances, the nuclear stockpiles of prozac where the toilet paper was meant to be, the crystal wearing uber people who clawed one another’s eyes out to be closer to heaven when the sh*t hits the fan, the apathetic search for truth through the shameless humiliation of one another on daytime television, the waste, human and environmental, the day to day functional hypocrisy, but… in the end, witnessing the mind boggling and methodically systematic creation and destruction of an underclass in a prison system unparalleled in the western world, reversed my manifest destiny. The Beverly Hillbillies in reverse.

The seeds of the multi-billion dollar California prison industry were planted firmly while Ronald Reagan was still governor of the state in 1978, when the controversial Proposition 13 was passed by the voters in an attempt to lower property taxes in a booming market. In the fine print of the bill was a clause fundamentally changing the distribution of public funds from a general fund, where allocation was based on need, to one where the taxes stayed in the district that they were collected.

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For more than twenty years California schools were the envy of the country, and respected worldwide for their free tuition and high profile staff. The rich had no reservations about sending their kids to public schools in the egalitarian way that many German schools function today, amid the same budgetary challenges and fiscal threats (often excuses) faced by Californians a decade ago.

The low rent districts suffered almost immediately, class size up 50%, money becoming scarce at precisely the time when computer literacy would separate along class lines who would succeed in the 90’s.

As the cold war came to a close, the American media found new demons in drugs and crime. Cocaine use was rampant from the board room to the streets, and a new form of the drug, although similar in chemical form; rock or crack cocaine, became the form used in the inner cities.

The idea of mandatory sentencing, establishing minimums of time served for a particular offense, and effectively limiting the amount of judicial discretion for first time offenders, poured thousands of ‘first timers’ into a system that reached capacity in 1988.

Depressed small towns in central California bid for over $5 billion in new prison contracts, fully supported by a fear driven public saturated with ‘true crime’ stories, and exposes on violent inner city gangs. By 1994 more than 273,000 mostly men (170,000 actively serving at anyone time), were in the hands of the criminal justice system. In 1980 the inmate and parolee population together as less than 50,000.

Over 40% of black males between the ages of 20 and 30 could expect to serve time in jail at some point, most for drug crimes, many of these revolving around crack cocaine, whose mandatory sentence was 8 times higher than that for powder cocaine, primarily a ‘white’ drug. In 1992 the US Public Health Service estimated that 76% of illicit drug-users in the US were white,14% black and 8% Hispanic. Yet in California 71% of all drug-possession offenders sentenced to prison were black and Hispanic.

The increase in prison guards associated with the rise in incarceration was equally dramatic. The number of prison guards was equal that of primary school teachers in 1995, and with an average pay of more than $100,000 a year were able to mobilize themselves politically as a formidable lobbying group in the states’ capital of Sacramento. Common opinion is that they have become the most powerful special interest group in California, obviously interested in reinforcing the emerging paramilitary condition of law enforcement, deemed necessary in the wake of the Rodney King verdicts and riot.

Haphazard shredding of the Bill of Rights with criminal profiling (black or Hispanic, nice car, fast food wrappers in the windows, etc. can legitimize a search), and the reintroduction for the first time in 40 years of chain gangs, as well as contract labor of inmates to corporations (The packing for Microsoft’s Windows software was done by prisoners at the Two Rivers Correctional Center in Monroe, Washington), are just the tip of the iceberg. 20 new prisons are meant to be built by the year 2000 in the state alone.

Since 1980, the percentage of the state budget of California dedicated to education has fallen 25%. The amount for prisons has risen 500%. Since it seems unlikely that the inner city kids selling the illegal drugs are flying them in with their own airplanes or helicopters, someone must be sanctioning it to get there.

By having lawmakers in the pocket of the big money prison industry, and a public that is comfortable with inmate labor (forget about workplace safety!), the largest gulag in the history of the US is only bound to get larger, more sadistic even, as the freedom of inmates to read whatever they like has already been limited, and a serious legislative attempt to chemically castrate sex offenders is in the works.

The system has become so integrated that the Death Star analogy occurred to me as I searched for an epicenter that could be used to unhinge this moral chaos.

In the end, as a taxpayer I felt like a cog in their machine, ultimately clouded every sunny day, by the false smiles and the ‘have a nice day’-ness, so far removed from the sinister undergrowth of fascism right down the street, and the once potent and optimistic California dream I have known.

“The prison population will rise to 7. 5 million early next century if the ‘get tough’ laws are implemented on a national scale in the U.S." – Criminal Victimization in the World, The Hague.