There is no greater criminal label in American society than to be marked a felon. Felons are stigmatized, profiled and discriminated against.
In many states felons cannot vote, are forbidden from certain licensed careers, prohibited from public housing or other assistance and are generally feared. Feared because when many people think of felons the most heinous of criminal acts come to mind: murder, rape and child molestation. However, many people fail to realize, as with California’s Three Strikes law, that a felon can merely be a repeat petty thief, an unrehabilitated drug addict or a man who simply got into a fist fight as a youth. In California there is no statue of limitation for prior convictions, and it is common practice for the state to retract decades old misdemeanors and re-characterize them as felonies.
As such, it is no wonder millions of immigrants, human rights advocates and other humanitarians across the country have mobilized an impressive opposition to a bill that would make felons of undocumented immigrants and anyone caught assisting them.
The bill, H.R. 4437, introduced by Congressman James Sensenbrennerr (R, Wisconsin), would make undocumented immigrants vulnerable to felony sentencing from 1 to 20 years. It would also make those who employ immigrant baby sitters, painters and farm workers, along with good Samaritans who help them, criminals.
Apparently not much forethought went into how such an influx of incarceration would affect the prison population. There are currently some 2.1 million prisoners confined in U.S. prisons. The incarceration rate exceeds every modern nation, and has well surpassed any previous domestic prison population.
If just one-third, or 3 million of the twelve million undocumented immigrants, employers and good Samaritans were to suddenly find themselves behind bars, the current overcrowded prison population would more than double in a blink.
As it stands, the jails and prisons are overflowing. A series of recent brawls in the Los Angeles County jail system, where one prisoner died and several others-including Sheriff’s deputies-were injured, is indicative of the consequences of reckless and dangerous overcrowding.
Scarce and inadequate resources lead to malicious melees over any and everything: from very limited library seats, to rationed food, to strong-armed struggles for decent cells and bedding.
Despite a 1957 United Nation’s prohibition against double bunking, the U.S. has continued to circumvent Resolution 633 for nearly 30 years; claiming “emergency overcrowding”, the loophole permitted as a “temporary” measure for such conditions.
A caldron of chaos has subsequently been created by consistently broadening the scope of felonies from offenses once considered misdemeanors.
In California, the overcrowding has led to a crisis in prison medical care so horrific that an average of one inmate was dying per week. In early April, U.S. Judge Thelton Henderson intervened by appointing a federal monitor to oversee the prison system’s grossly negligent medical department.
California knows first hand the ills of prison overcrowding. Since the enactment of the Three Strikes law — deemed the most repressive in the nation — the overburdened prison system has added 43,000 primarily non-violent prisoners to its vast domain in just under 12 years. To adjust to the influx, Governor Arnold Schwarzeneger proposed constructing two more multi-million dollar prison sites during his State of the State address in January. The two proposed penal institutions would add to the 33 prisons the state currently oversees. Schwarzenegger’s proposal comes in prefect timing for the announcement of H.R.4437.
California’s prison system, the largest in the nation, supervises 173,000 adult and juvenile inmates and wards, and is responsible for another 115,000 parolees at large.
Around the nation, the fast-paced prison expansion has been a windfall for the business community. By 1999 at least 17 states were in contracts with 20 for-profit private prison companies that collected more than a quarter of a billion dollar in revenues from taxpayer dollars. The proliferation, like ante-bellum slavery, is all about the body count. The more bodies, the more profit. Profits are indeed high and very few of the facilities offer work training and education programs that have been shown to reduce recidivism.
Meanwhile, California taxpayers have seen the annual budget for its prisons increase to $8.6 billion, from an already obscene $6 billion the previous years. With close to 300,000 prisoners, the state’s prison budget dwarfs the annual budgets of many small countries, including some of our neighboring island nations in the Caribbean. For instance: Antigua and Barbuda have a population of 66,464 and an annual budget of $141.2 million. The annual budget for Belize is $142 million, for a population of 249,982 and the annual budget for the Bahamas is $845 million for a population that exceeds California’s prison population at 294,982.
A more striking comparison is that of Bahrain, a small state in the Persian Gulf that has more than double the population of California’s prison population with 634,137 people, yet manages to maintain an annual budget of $1.9 billion — just a fraction of what it costs to run California’s wide web of prisons.
Critics attribute the high cost to inflated prison guard salaries, brought about by one of the most rewarding contracts in their history, while their rate of overtime often leads to repeated overruns.
There are many reasons for the enormous cost of prisons, in California and the nation as a whole. The price is already too high to afford H.R. 4437 to label innocent people felons, increase the prisons profit and commit a great moral and humanitarian betrayal by incarcerating millions of people who crossed an imaginary line. People whose presence has been encouraged and incorporated into the economy now face being maliciously turned against and locked up.
The further demonizing of “illegal” immigrants as felons is deplorable and will only succeed in strengthening the prison system.
Write the author: Dortell Williams #H-45771 / A2-103, PO Box 4430, Lancaster, CA 93539.