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  January 23, 2017

Rattling the Bars: The gradual abolition of prisons across the United States except for California

As prisons close across the United States due to deficits in state economies, California refuses to follow this rational trend by continuing to invest millions of its state budget into prisons and jails.
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Diana Zuniga joined the CURB staff in November of 2012. She brings to the coalition years of community organizing and leadership skills honed in campaign work for the Latino Voters League, the Southwest Voter Registration Project and Drug Policy Alliance. Based in Los Angeles, Diana provides leadership and support to county-level struggles about realignment, and works to develop a deeper and broader base for CURB in Southern California


EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I'm Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore.

Recently a number of prisons have been closed across the United States and I want to look at that phenomenon. And so, joining me today to explain what's been happening, is Diana Zuñiga, who is the statewide Coordinator for the Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Diana, thanks for joining me.

DIANA ZUÑIGA: Thanks for having me.

EDDIE CONWAY: Can you explain, I see in Pennsylvania, two prisons have been closed, and I see in a number of other states, New York, Florida, Illinois, etcetera, prisons are being closed. And there seems to be a move in California to have prisons closed there, can you explain what's going on?

DIANA ZUÑIGA: Yes. So, in several different states, The Sentencing Project, actually just released a report that talked about the closure of prisons in states throughout the country, but also the re-purposing of facilities. So, I know in states like New York, there's been facilities that have been closed, and been kind of used to create re-entry facilities for women that are coming out of incarceration.

There's another case, where another closed prison was used to create a partnership with movie producers, and kind of generate revenue in that way. So, there's several different models that are in The Sentencing Project report, that really talks about prison closure and the repurposing of prisons.

In Pennsylvania, there's already been a lot of, kind of, media acknowledgment of the fact that the legislature over there wants to actually begin moving forward on the closure of two particular prisons. There's organizations like Decarcerate PA, that have been fighting for prison closure in that particular state for a number of years. And now, actually, the conversations are moving forward into being a reality for Pennsylvania.

In California, however, we're seeing that there's more and more spending going towards corrections. And we are, as a coalition of community-based organizations, we're kind of trying to move forward the conversation around prison closure.

Right now, California is slating to build a new prison, called The California Leadership Academy. Which is basically being proposed as a campus-like facility that will be, basically, a university setting, for folks that are incarcerated in the California prison system.

At the same time, California, and the California Department of Corrections specifically, is coming up with an analysis on the 12 oldest prisons in California, and basically wants to figure out how to either refurbish, or replace those 12 oldest prisons. So CURB, and its member organizations, are kind of at the forefront -- trying to push California to think about prison closure, and to analyze the ways that other states have been able to close prisons, and think about repurposing methods instead.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. It seems to me that the opposition is coming from labor unions across the country, in terms of the unions that represent the correctional officers. They're filing suits to try to block that. Why is that?

DIANA ZUÑIGA: Yeah. I mean, I think what's happening right now is, there's a lot of different lobby efforts, a lot of different interests that are targeting our state elected officials, to basically delay the talks of prison closure. I think these kind of policies to move forward on prison closure, and prison repurposing, are inevitable when, in California, we're seeing a large decline of the prison population.

In this year's budget, that was released a few weeks ago, we saw that there is going to be a .7% decline in the prison population in California, because of several different voter mandates that have been passed. Like, Proposition 36, 47 and 57 in California. So, even though there's interested parties lobbying our state elected officials to keep prisons open, we as a coalition, think that there's a huge opportunity, given all of these different prison population reduction policies that have passed. To really think about prison closure, and really inform and educate our elected officials, and our community members, that we can start the conversation on prison closure. As other states have already started moving forward on that.

EDDIE CONWAY: Well, I see that in a lot of cases, prisoners are just being transferred from the state prisons to the county jails, in Florida, in California and other places. Does that make the living conditions for prisoners better?

DIANA ZUÑIGA: So, in California what happened, in about 2011, was a policy was implemented called, Public Safety Realignment. This actually re-directed people, basically shuffled people, from state prison to county jail. It allowed for anybody that was convicted of a non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual, offence after 2011 -- they would serve their time in a county jail, instead of state prison.

And anybody that was in a state prison serving a sentence for a non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual, offence before 2011, would be on county probation, instead of state parole. So, basically what they did was, they shifted responsibility for particular people, from the state level to the county level. This, for California specifically, has not been as helpful as we would like. What it has resulted in is about 40 out of 50 counties building new jails. In order to be able to house this new population that county sheriffs are now in charge of, due to Public Safety Realignment.

A lot of our work right now is really thinking about shifting funding away from the operation of these facilities, into community-based services, in the places that folks live in. So, this could look like, mental health, housing support, and you know, the list could go on. 'Cause we know that there's a lot of needs in our communities. So, this kind of shifting of people from state prison to county jails has actually brought some negative things for us.

And then the first thing I was talking about was really the issue of building additional jails. But I also think it's presenting an opportunity for us to really reach out to our local elected officials, to ask them to do something different, and divest from incarceration, while redirecting the money into community-based services.

So yeah, this policy has brought some negative, and definitely some opportunities for growth and positivity, that could impact the people that we advocate on behalf of.

EDDIE CONWAY: I see that some of the prisons, and you mentioned this early on at first, have been repurposed to house homeless people, and to create community sports arenas, and that kind of stuff. Is that something that you're pushing for in California?

DIANA ZUÑIGA: You know, I think we're a little far from the repurposing conversation right now. I think what we're really asking elected officials to do, is to just analyze what could be done. Instead of refurbishing, or replacing existing prisons. It seems that the, kind of, California Department of Corrections analysis is very short-sighted, and is kind of setting California up for a continued capacity of incarceration. Instead of actually leaving room for community members, and impacted people, to be able to discuss what can be created instead.

In the political moment that we're in, states and localities need to be very creative in the ways that we are deciding to protect the social safety net. Deciding to protect our community members, within our states and counties. And we don't think wasting money on refurbishing and replacing prisons is the answer. And we're calling on our elected officials, to basically stand with us, and try to think of creative ways that these facilities could be closed. Possibly repurposed, based on what folks need in the areas where these prisons are at.

And also imagine how we could continue to reduce populations which we've been successful at, in the California Prison System right now. There's so many things that we could do instead, and think through, instead of just analyzing how to refurbish and replace facilities that are falling apart -- and are continuing the trauma that our community members are facing -- the folks that are incarcerated in there specifically.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, is there a concern about the loss of money when the Trump administration gets in power? And a loss of healthcare benefits for prisoners, is that a concern in California?

DIANA ZUÑIGA: I mean, I think it should be a concern overall. I mean, I think a lot of people are predicting what could possibly happen, based on what a Trump administration can bring us. And I think, right now, it is a lot of, kind of, predictions. But based on some of our research, what we found was, that California stands to lose $20 billion under the Affordable Care Act, if something like Obamacare is cut.

So, this is something that could negatively impact all community members in California, those that are incarcerated, and those that are not currently incarcerated. So, we think... we know, that these are speculations at this point, but they could be actual concerns that then impact the fiscal sustainability of our state.

And for that reason, elected officials need to think of creative ways to really cut the costs of a rising prison budget, and focus on pursuing aggressive parole and sentencing reforms. That will help us save money, and really utilize that money for services and healthcare and housing in our communities.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Thank you, for that update and please join me again in the near future, so I can get another update from you.

DIANA ZUÑIGA: Sounds good. Thank you.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. And thank you for joining Rattling the Bars.




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