California’s recent prison reforms require housing solutions
Tuesday, September 24, 2019
President Trump recently suggested the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should address pollution from California’s homeless population, mainly waste and hydraulic needles flowing into the ocean.
Criminalization of homeless and undocumented populations in California is integral to the state’s mass incarceration policies, which produced privatization as an initial solution to overcrowding.
The state has been attempting its own carceral cleanup, as the Legislature recently passed AB 32, which bans new and renewed private correctional and detention facilities contracts by 2020 and seeks zero inmate presence in private facilities by 2028.
A uniquely Californian hand-wringing reluctance accompanies prison privatization efforts. In 1986, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the state’s first private facility, Hidden Valley Ranch.
The article states three reasons for low-security facility privatization: “economy... flexibility... and overcrowded facilities.” The federal Immigration and Naturalization Service agency led the charge, using “contractors to run four of its 11 detention centers for suspected illegal immigrants.” This was 33 years ago.
Those oft-cited reasons are now under scrutiny, as barely regulated private facilities dole out systemic neglect, especially in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.
As part of this growing privatization scrutiny, people are also scrutinizing corrections-detention privatization financing. After a privatization wave led by GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) and CoreCivic (Corrections Corporation of America), public pressure resulted in JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, SunTrust, BNP Paribas, and Fifth Third Bancorp divesting from private corrections facilities.
To back these claims, legally guaranteed financial transparency — like the Private Prison Information Act — would allow accurate capital investment monitoring of otherwise inaccessible prison company coffers.
This current monitoring inability highlights divestment campaign limitations; money flow is notoriously difficult to track. Outright facility/contract-banning initiatives, like California’s AB 32, are more direct guarantees toward the anti-privatization goal. But AB 32’s language may doom the anti-privatization effort to failure from the outset.
AB 32 calls for no new or renewed private facility contracts after Jan. 1, 2020. The other deadline is eight years later: “After January 1, 2028, a state prison inmate or other person under the jurisdiction of the department shall not be incarcerated in a private, for-profit prison facility...the department may renew or extend a contract with a private, for-profit prison facility to provide housing for state prison inmates in order to comply with the requirements of any court-ordered population cap.”
To summarize, AB 32 institutes anti-contract provisions effective in only 3.5 months. However, it also maintains state facility overcrowding as a possible legal condition for continued privatization after 2028.
Overcrowded facilities, using contracted healthcare services, led to federal oversight and an overcrowding reduction mandate. Coleman/Plata v. Schwarzenegger argued that poor health services in state-run facilities was unconstitutional, leading to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 upholding of California’s overcrowding reduction order in Brown v. Plata.
AB 32 is part of the post-Plata reformist zeitgeist. But when we consider how AB32 interacts with other population reduction and reform measures — like three strikes reform Prop. 57 — it couldn’t be a better example of California’s labyrinthine corrections climate.
It’s commonly acknowledged many enter prison because adequate jobs and housing are a scarce commodity. As overcrowding is reduced through various measures, including early release, a major challenge is the increased demand for affordable housing. Background checks and employment prohibitions haunt the formerly incarcerated upon release.
In 2016, HUD employed the Fair Housing Act to address housing discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, especially immigrants and people of color, stating: “Policies that exclude persons based on criminal history must be tailored to serve the housing provider’s substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest and take into consideration such factors as the type of the crime and the length of the time since conviction.”
A 2018 Prison Policy Initiative study reports formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. Only as recently as 2015 has the lifetime ban on food stamps and benefits for drug felons been lifted.
In San Francisco, the homeless problem is a complex interface of employment, corrections, and real estate cultures. The term “warehousing the poor” aptly captures how the prison system became a twisted solution to wage stagnation, unaffordable housing, and social service cuts. While prison reforms are laudable, a social safety net is required to see them through.
Releases produce more people seeking housing in a bloated rental market. In San Francisco, one-bedroom apartments have soared to a median price of almost $3,700 per month, with L.A. weighing in at around $2,000 per month.
Meanwhile, California’s minimum wage creeps up incrementally. By 2020 it will be at $12 an hour for companies with less than 25 employees and $13 for companies with more than 25 employees. You can’t pay rent for even a one bedroom on a full-time minimum wage income in the state’s major urban areas.
If your answer here is higher education, consider that by 2015: “...corrections accounts for almost 9 percent of California general funds, while UC and the California State University system receive 5.2 percent.”
The math is stark: if California doesn’t fix its affordable housing problem, we will see a new generation of inmates populating facilities. Then add returning inmates who may have previously received early releases through progressive reform efforts to those transferred back to state facilities, and we have a policy justification to maintain the very private facilities that AB32 claims to ban.
It’s designed for failure, regardless of intention.
As of June 2019, California’s private prisons hold 2,222 inmates requiring transfers. Next to Texas, California has the most immigrant detention centers, numbering at 120 — according to the Department of Homeland Security. This bill impacts four private facilities warehousing up to 4,500 people. Together, the number of inmates in all private facilities requiring transfers is around 6,722.
The AB 32 language prioritizes overcrowding reduction over private facility reduction because of legal considerations. This is a legislative loophole worthy of steadfast monitoring. Add the criminalization of homeless and undocumented people, which feeds revolving facility doors, and there’s your ingredients in a recipe for overcrowding disaster.
Speaking of loopholes, prison companies strategically define themselves as real estate investment trusts (REITs) qualifying for massive tax breaks, even while private prisons grow less popular and key lending institutions now refuse corrections companies.
REIT strategists at the private prison firms, such as GEO Group and CoreCivic, face financing hurdles in a politicized climate, but their public-private prison building partnership strategy thrives in other states.
The fact that companies with public corrections contracts can buy land while favoring carceral warehousing over affordable housing is tantamount to making homelessness the law. Affordable housing complexes need to follow HUD guidelines for relative safety, cleanliness, accessibility and the like. Prisons and detention centers don’t.
What really needs a cleanup is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s bureaucratic pollution, including outstanding public-private facility contracts, instead of the litter produced by homeless people who either have done or might face time in private and state managed warehouses.
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