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Well I never thought I’d see the day when I agreed with the “Right Said” opinion piece instead of the “Left Said,” but that day has finally come in the form of Measure S. When did supporting the Prison-Industrial Complex become “progressive” or a “civil rights issue”? I must have missed the memo…
I’ve been thinking long and hard about the implications of Measure S, the local ballot measure to raise the sales tax to build a jail in Santa Maria and create a county slush fund for police. I understand that we are all strapped for resources right now, including the police department. I understand why local “progressive” officials and politicians are supporting this measure; it takes them off the hook for shoddy budgeting and gets them more money to spend. I understand why the police support it; $5 million to their general fund with no strings attached.
What I don’t understand is why students support it.
Historically more money spent on prison equals less money spent on higher education. When one looks at how much money was spent this year per prisoner in CA ($52,363) versus the money spent per student ($7,440) it’s easy to see that what we have in this state isn’t a question of not having enough money. It’s a question of priorities.
One might say that if we have people locked up it’d be heartless to not spend money on them. But the reality is that in the 2008-09 year when $47,000 was spent per prisoner, only $1,612 went toward rehabilitation while $19,663 went toward “security,” i.e. prison guards’ salaries.
I’ve heard the argument put forth by Democrats and “progressive” politicians that jail overcrowding dehumanizes the inmates, so the only humane thing to do is to build a new jail to lock them up in. I’d like to dispel that rumor once and for all. There is dehumanization in jails, but as someone who was arrested for nonviolently protesting and spent the better part of 16 hours in the custody of Santa Barbara’s finest, I can say from experience that while overpopulation may play some small part, in the end it’s the police and the prison system that dehumanizes people.
Why keep backing a broken system? We cannot simply build more jails and prisons and pretend that the root social issues that cause crime will disappear. The U.S. Department of Justice states, “The typical offender is undereducated, unemployed and living in poverty before incarceration.” According to a 2003 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 75 percent of state prison inmates didn’t complete high school. The state and local money that would go to building this prison and creating a $5 million slush fund for the police could be better spent on improving education and battling poverty. Both steps would do much more to reduce inmate numbers than building a new jail.
David Uruza, the self-appointed spokesperson for the “left” says that “the building of a new jail would not increase the number of people that are arrested and kept behind bars.” Sorry buddy, but this is California, we don’t build jails or prisons we don’t intend to fill to the brim.
As Belen Robles, a local community activist, wrote, “Since 1980, California has built 23 prisons and one university. This construction has been matched by harsher sentences, increased policing and a shift in financial priorities from health and human services to policing and prisons. These changes have caused the prison population to go from 20,000 to 170,000, proving that the number of cages determines the number of people locked in them.” This measure is a step backward not a step forward.
The last problem I have with this measure is police fear mongering. The “Yes on S” signs promise a “safer Santa Barbara county” but is that a reality? Proponents play on the upper class fears of the Santa Barbara populous by creating this rhetoric about being forced to release violent criminals early because there’s no room to put them in the county jail. I’ve even talked to a Santa Maria businessman who told me how Mr. Bill Brown threatened an opponent by saying something to the extent of, “we’ll have to release dangerous criminals and if they hurt anyone it’s on your hands.” The truth is that the people prioritized for early release are nonviolent offenders: normally people caught sleeping in parks, drunk in public or in possession of controlled substances. A local politician who supports Measure S bluntly and truthfully told me those tactics are used simply because “that’s what gets voters outside of Isla Vista.”
So I urge you all, “left” or “right,” to vote no on Measure S. At the end of the day, it is simply a jail tax with some extra pork for police and firefighters along with a tokenizing bit of money for “rehabilitation.” As the old saying goes, you can dress up a pig with lipstick, but it’s still a pig.