Prison Blues

Visiting time at Wasco State

My heart doesn't bleed for all criminals. A friend recently paid another kind of visit to neighboring Corcoran prison, to a parole hearing, where he had to breathe the same air as the man who cold-bloodedly murdered his stepdad in Anaheim two decades ago. Behind bars, he has only continued committing mayhem upon his fellow man since then. They could flush his ilk down a toilet for all I care, if it weren't that our system also has a proven talent for sticking innocent men on death row.

Innocent or guilty, they're in there at our expense. We're paying $26,894 per year to incarcerate Norm and each of his neighbors (not counting the costs of law enforcement, prosecution, prison construction, settling lawsuits over guards shooting and raping inmates, and sundry expenses). That amount's going up, as our Gray Governor, in the same season in which he slashed a billion from the state budget, has pushed through a heaping pay hike to the rank and file of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, boosting the average guard's annual pay of $55,000 to an estimated $74,000 by 2008, plus higher retirement benefits.

It is here that we leave my friend Norm—he'll stay put for a couple of years—to ponder briefly why we have so goddamned many people in prison. The guards' union spent $2.3 million to help elect Davis last time and already has $660,000 invested in him this election cycle. (They play both sides, previously raining similar largesse upon Pete Wilson.) They have opposed reforming drug laws, supported three strikes laws and fight their needed repeal or reform. In short, they oppose anything that threatens the steady flow of raw material to their human warehouses.

"We're just blue-collar guys getting our voices heard," they argue, and their work is certainly less pleasant than the prison builders and others who get rich off crime. Being a guard is probably like working on an alligator farm: boring as snot because all alligators do is sleep and feed, and nerve-shattering because if you get sloppy and the mood hits him, the alligator will chomp your knee off.

But they are spending millions influencing what should be above influence: justice. And they're raiding the coffers of our greatest hope for keeping kids out of prison: education. The state spends about $6,000 per year educating a student, nearly 4.5 times less than it spends imprisoning him once he screws up. Seventy-three percent of our classrooms are more than 25 years old. Statewide, teachers average $48,000 per year. Even in upscale Newport Beach, the starting pay for a teacher is $34,528, which after 25 years tops out at $47,519. (If you've got a master's and 75 units of additional education, the pay starts at $41,500.)

Most teachers work their asses off in the classroom and put in countless unpaid hours. Some spend thousands of dollars of their own money on classroom supplies because schools have no funds for them. And if you think a teacher's job is much less dangerous than a prison guard's, you haven't been to a school lately.

There's a lot more to ponder about prisons and schools, but for the nonce, what does it say about us as a civil society that the only time we're willing to spend decent money on a kid is after we've tried him as an adult?

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