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2004 Annual Meeting . . . Public Sociologies

Still Booming: Prisons in California

The second in a series of articles highlighting the sociological context of ASA’s next Annual Meeting location . . . San Francisco, California

by Megan L. Comfort, University of California-San Francisco

When you arrive at the 2004 ASA Annual Meeting’s San Francisco hotel, you will be approximately 18 miles from California’s oldest penitentiary, San Quentin State Prison. Constructed with convict labor between 1852 and 1856 as “an answer to the rampant lawlessness in California” (according to the California Department of Corrections, or CDC), the facility occupies 432 acres of prime real estate in Marin County, an affluent area north of the San Francisco Bay.

Apart from its enviable location and aside from housing the 608 men sentenced to death in the state, San Quentin resembles many other medium-security California prisons, operating at 180% capacity with a daily population nearing 6,000 male inmates. The institution employs 915 correctional officers and 633 “free staff,” with San Quentin’s first female warden, Jeanne Woodford, at the helm since 1999.1

Beginning in the early 1980s and continuing throughout the 1990s, the CDC undertook a prison building program unprecedented worldwide in scale and speed to keep pace with the generalized widening of the penal net and the escalation of mandatory minimum sentencing laws such as the infamous “Three Strikes and You’re Out.”2 San Quentin is one of 33 state prisons in California, 20 of which have been constructed since 1984. This penitentiary system, which houses 160,000 inmates on any given day, is the largest carceral system in the United States after the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and it consumes $5.2 billion a year, or 6% of the state’s General Fund for 2002-03.

Incarceration’s Shadow

Unlike the Teachers’ Retirement Fund, Medi-Cal, and California’s education, family, and mental health programs, the CDC escaped widespread and deep budget cuts in 2003-04 and continues to expand with the construction of a new maximum-security institution. By comparison, although the University of California’s enrollment increased by a fifth over the last three years to 192,000 students, it suffered a $450-million budget decrease for 2004 (bringing the state contribution to $3 billion) and thus is now borrowing money for the first time in a decade to cover operating costs, raising student fees, and delaying the opening of its tenth campus.

Meanwhile, although San Quentin and its denizens will remain 18 miles away during your stay in the Bay Area, you almost certainly will be in much closer proximity to others affected by incarceration as you mill about hotel lobbies, dine in restaurants, and attend sessions. As a result of the staggering rise in incarceration rates, large numbers of low-income, African-American, and Latino communities now experience arrest and criminal detention as routine events. For men, particularly those in their late teens and early twenties, this often means going to prison for a couple of years and then getting caught up in the “revolving door” of corrections, cycling between being released on parole and being locked-up for violating parole conditions. In 2000, two-thirds of California’s 119,000 parolees were “returned to custody,” the majority of them for failing to meet administrative requirements such as maintaining gainful employment, steering clear of other ex-convicts, or paying off their fines and court-ordered restitution. Hindered by their criminal records and the glaring gaps in their employment histories, those parolees able to find work typically do so in occupations where few questions are asked and limited skills are required: washing dishes, cleaning buildings, supplying temporary heavy labor, and—ironically—acting as security guards.3

Virtual Prisoners

For thousands of women, the ever-widening net of the criminal justice system triggers a similar cycle of arrest, detention, release, and re-arrest. However, given that about 5% of California’s prisoners are female, the majority of women experience “mass incarceration” as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, or girlfriends of inmates. Although legally free, these women live in the long shadow of the penitentiary when they spend hours behind bars visiting loved ones, adjust their work schedules and personal logistics to be available for expensive (and monitored) collect phone calls, engage in voluminous (and again, monitored) correspondence, and otherwise become transformed into “quasi-inmates” through the penal regulation of their conduct, physical appearance, sexual relations, and speech both within and away from the prison walls.

Despite the robust CDC budget and the impoverishment of many prisoners’ families, these women also supply the bulk of the “rewards” for good behavior (e.g., food treats or money) that are otherwise eliminated when correctional authorities “toughen up” their regimens. Meanwhile, as funding for social services like domestic-abuse intervention or drug treatment is cut, low-income women begin to view the penal arm of the state as a peculiar social agency of last resort and learn to use the correctional apparatus as a blunt instrument to “manage” violent or substance-addicted men.4

Disease Reservoir

For all the years they spend “doing time” together, inmates and their kin are unlikely to be cognizant of the high concentrations of infectious disease among correctional populations relative to the general population. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s 2002 report, The Health Status of Soon-to-Be Released Inmates, estimates that 1.3 million of the nine million people released from prison and jail in 2002 were infected with hepatitis C; 137,000 with HIV; and 12,000 with tuberculosis. These figures represent 29%, 13-17%, and 35%, respectively, of the total number of Americans living with these illnesses. Lacking health care when not incarcerated, many prisoners are unaware that they carry an infectious disease.

And while inmates are the sole category of people constitutionally guaranteed access to medical treatment in the country, instances of inept or corrupt health care behind bars may compound their problems. One California laboratory was found to have faked test results for thousands of state prisoners for several years in the 1990s; three years after the San Francisco Chronicle revealed the affair the CDC had made no effort to contact or retest inmates who had received erroneous information about HIV or hepatitis C status, cervical cancer exams, and other potentially life-threatening conditions. In the meantime, however, the manager of the phony lab had obtained a state license to operate a new clinical testing outfit.

Secure Employment

In addition to the pervasive effects on the conversations you will have with your “budget-challenged” University of California colleagues, the omnipresent parolees and family members of prisoners you will pass in hallways, and the seriously ill ex-convicts you will see panhandling on the streets, California’s penal system will have one more impact on your stay: the people you will not encounter at the ASA meeting, either due to their confinement or to their employment within penitentiary walls. The surge in incarceration rates and prison construction has necessitated a massive increase in staff hiring, and thanks to one of the state’s most powerful unions, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, salaries for prison officers far exceed those of teachers, social workers, or other state employees and are the highest among correctional officers in the United States.

Juxtaposed against the rubble of the Dotcom collapse and the feeble California economy, the allure of a stable and lucrative job with generous benefits and excellent career prospects has won over thousands of people who previously planned to embark upon, or indeed were already several years into, other occupational trajectories—including, as one rookie correctional officer told me recently, teaching sociology!


1 For a history of high-profile San Quentin prisoners and the 1970s uprisings, see Eric Cummins (1994) The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement, Stanford: Stanford University Press. For a novelistic rendition of life behind the walls penned by a former inhabitant, read Edward Bunker (2000) Animal Factory, New York: St. Martin Press.
2 See Franklin E. Zimring, Gordon Hawkins, and Sam Kamin (2001) Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You’re Out in California, New York: Oxford University Press.
3 On parole in California and in the United States, respectively, see Jonathan Simon (1993) Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass, 1890-1990, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, and Joan Petersilia (2003) When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry, New York: Oxford University Press.
4 Megan L. Comfort (2002) “‘Papa’s House’: The prison as domestic and social satellite.” Ethnography 3(4):467-499.