In a political about-face as sudden as it is short-sighted, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared that the way to fix the state’s problem-wracked prisons is by building more of them and locking more convicts up inside them.
For the last two years, Big Arnold has pushed for a range of progressive reforms in the nation’s biggest prison system, from releasing low-level female drug offenders into halfway houses to bringing back education and treatment programs – even adding the word “Rehabilitation” to the Department of Corrections official name.
Why? Because the prison population has hit a record 170,000, and reducing it makes obvious sense in a cash-strapped state that spends over $7 billion a year on incarceration and still has one of the worst recidivism rates in the country. Schwarzenegger was the first governor in years whose campaign wasn’t bankrolled with the help of the prison guards’ union, one of the state’s most profligate political donors, which freed his hand on correctional policies. But now, suffering from sagging poll numbers and facing a fall election, Schwarzenegger has made an alliance with the powerful union; to prove it, this week he called for the construction of two brand new $500 million prisons, and for the defeat of a ballot initiative that would weaken California’s notorious “three strikes you’re out” law which has put thousands of minor offenders behind bars for life.
As a federal court investigator put it, Schwarzenegger is abandoning “one of the most productive periods of prison reform” in the state’s history and giving the guards’ union back a “disturbing” degree of say over incarceration policy. C’mon, Arnold – it wasn’t that long ago that you were fighting for the freedom of all humans!