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Date: Sat, 8 May 2010 15:06:48
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Subject: Down Prison Road

Down Prison Road

By: David Bacon,
t r u t h o u t | Report
April 27, 2010

Chowchilla, California - High in the mountains
overlooking Bakersfield and the south end of the San
Joaquin Valley is a piece of California's past, the
California Correctional Institution, or as inmates know
it, Tehachapi.

It was one of the state's first big prisons, built at
the height of the Great Depression in 1933 to contain
the unraveling social fabric of Hoovervilles, high
unemployment, a vast influx of Dust Bowl refugees, and
left-wing political movements spreading like wildfire.

The penitentiary spreads across 1,650 acres of a remote
desert valley. Designed for 2,785 inmates, it now holds
5,806 - 200% of an already inhumane standard. And while
it was built as the original California Institute for
Women, today its only inhabitants are men.

Jazzman Art Pepper, son of a Los Angeles longshoreman,
lived in its cells for four and a half years in the
1950s. Like Pepper, today's prison inmates are mostly
there because of drugs. Pepper would have recognized
them for another reason. Tehachapi's inmates are almost
all Black and Latino, like the rest of California's
prisoners, and have been since the prison system began.
And poor.

While Tehachapi was mentioned in "The Maltese Falcon,"
people like Hammett's middle-class grifters don't
normally wind up there. Having no money is practically
a requirement for residence.

When teachers and home-care workers rallied down below
in Bakersfield on March 5, and kicked off the March for
California's Future, few had more than a vague idea of
the kind of presence Tehachapi and its fellow
institutions would cast over them as they walked up the
San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento. They then spent 48
days in a traveling protest over the extreme budget
cuts that have cost the jobs of thousands of California
teachers, and threaten those of thousands of other
public workers.

But while its participants may not have intended it,
the March for California's Future became a march
through California's prison towns. The explosive growth
of communities based on incarceration also offers a
vision of what California could become. It's not the
vision of the marchers, clearly, who want social change
that makes prisons a lower priority than schools. But
it is surely a vision of what life will become without
that change - California's prison future.

In their first week on the road, the hardy group, drawn
mostly from the state's schools, walked by Kern Valley
State Prison and North Kern State Prison in Delano, the
first holding 5,013 inmates, and the second 5,390.

Delano was the birthplace of the United Farm Workers in
1965. Marchers celebrated the strike, started by
Filipinos that September and joined by the Mexicans led
by Cesar Chavez two weeks later. A year afterwards, in
1966, the first great farm workers' march left Delano
for Sacramento, writing the grape strike into the
nation's history books, and pulling together a union
that eventually overcame the state's corporate growers
in the seat of their power.

The symbolism of those past events, and the profound
effect they had on California's future, wasn't lost on
today's marchers. "I think about what those marches did
for the farm workers, in terms of insisting on basic
human dignity," recalls marcher Jim Miller, a San Diego
community college teacher. "So I think in that sense,
we've chosen the perfect place to do this. Access to
affordable education is a civil right. The purpose of
this march is to make that more evident to the public."

For years the UFW was headquartered at the Forty Acres
outside of town, before it moved its offices into the
mountains above Bakersfield, just a few miles from
Tehachapi prison. The union still keeps its original
hall on Garces Highway, but just a couple of miles away
are the two new prisons, built in the 1990s.

Every day in Delano 3,176 people go to work in the
prisons. Almost as many of the town's families now
depend on prison jobs as those supported by year-round
field labor. Thousands of former farm workers now guard
other Latinos and blacks - inmates just as poor, but
mostly from the urban centers of Los Angeles or San
Jose rather than the rural communities of the Central

Delano's population is 49,359. The two prisons hold
more than 10,000 people. A third, smaller prison run by
the city, the Delano Community Correctional Facility,
contracts with the state to house an additional 600
inmates. Almost none can vote, so they're no threat to
the political establishment that profits from their
presence. But they do count when it's time to calculate
Delano's population, and therefore its share of state
revenue. At the same time, although hundreds of
prisoners may come from Compton, for instance, one of
California's poorest cities in heavily black and Latino
south central Los Angeles, Compton can't claim them as
residents in calculating its piece of the state pie.

Prison-building places poor communities in competition
with each other, and Delano gains an advantage from
housing Compton's lost souls. But it's competition over
a pie that's shrinking quickly.

The Kern Valley State Prison and North Kern State
Prison have a combined annual budget of $294 million.
By comparison, the town's 2010 General Fund was a tenth
of that, and the budget of its public schools a
twentieth. Delano's median family income is just over
$29,000, with almost 30% of its residents living below
the poverty line.

Wasco State Prison is just up the highway,
incarcerating 5,989 people, and employing 1,688, at an
annual cost of $201 million. Wasco's population is
25,665. Across the wide valley to the west are two more
prisons. Avenal State Prison holds 6,577 people, with a
staff of 1,517 and an annual budget of $144 million. To
the north, Pleasant Valley State Prison houses 5,188
inmates and 1,388 guards, spending $195 million every
year. These are even smaller towns. In the 2000 census
Avenal boasted a population of 15,689, but had counted
the 7,062 inmates at that time as residents. The census
count in Coalinga, home of the Pleasant Valley prison,
was 11,668.

In nearby McFarland, marcher Jenn Laskin, a
continuation schoolteacher from Watsonville, talked to
a fellow teacher about to lose her job. "She worked
three jobs to put herself through school," Laskin
reported. "She's in her second year, which means that
on the first day of next year she'd have had tenure and
couldn't have been laid off. So she's being laid off
this year instead. Her family's lived in McFarland for
five generations - her father's been a custodian for
the district there for 23 years. Without a job there
won't be anything to keep her in the community where
she grew up. The closest place to look for work is
Bakersfield, where they just issued 200 pink slips, and
many highly qualified teachers are fighting for the
same job."

That McFarland teacher is the victim of cuts in the
state's education budget. Another $18 billion will be
sliced from it this year. California is one of only
three states with a requirement that two-thirds of the
legislature approve any budget. Even more important,
any tax increase takes a two-thirds vote as well. So
even though urban Democrats have had a majority for
years in both chambers of the legislature, a solid
Republican bloc can keep the state in a continual
economic crisis until Democrats agree to slash
spending. With huge deficits from declining tax
revenues, and a recession boosting state unemployment
over 12.5%, a budgetary crisis is not difficult to

Nowhere is unemployment higher than in California's
rural counties, often twice as high as on the coast.
Small agricultural towns like Delano and McFarland are
filled with workers who can't find jobs, while at the
same time budget cuts reduce the social services for
unemployed families, and shower teachers in the local
schools with pink slips.

When marchers talk about the state's future, some of
them remember a time when, at least for some residents,
the system had a more functional social contract. "I
view myself as a legacy of the California system when
it worked," remembers marcher Gavin Riley, a retired
teacher from a district on the border of Los Angeles
and Orange County. "I went to school in the 1950s when
our school system was ranked as one of the best in the
nation. When it was my time to go to college, the state
university was free.

"The theory back then was that if we had an educated
electorate, they'd be more productive, more supportive
of the state. People wouldn't get in trouble. I think
that worked, at least for me. They gave me a free
education, and I came back and worked my entire life
teaching in our schools. I think I've more than
returned the investment. But we've kind of lost track
of that. At one time we were a selfless society in
California. We seem to have become more selfish. That's
unfortunate, because we're losing track of the dream."

For Maria S. the dream is harder to attain than ever.
She came from Mexico to Bakersfield as a teenager, and
after a terrible accident, has lived in a wheelchair
ever since. Nevertheless, she got her GED at adult
school while working, and then an AA degree at
Bakersfield College. But when it came time to move on
to California State University in Bakersfield, the free
education given to Riley wasn't even a memory. Instead,
she found that budget cuts had produced a tuition fee
of $1,700 for each quarter. "With a bachelor's degree
in mathematics, I'll be the first in my family to
achieve a higher education," she says. "But I still
haven't been able to raise the funds, so I'm not going
to school this winter. Tuition has become so high I
can't afford it. As an immigrant, I have to pay more,
and I get no financial aid."

Immigration reform would certainly help solve some of
her problems, but as a federal issue, it's not really
in the direct purview of the marchers, even though
they're sympathetic. But the money question is. The
state's universities won't get more funding and tuition
won't move back toward where it was in the '50s without
political change in Sacramento.

Of course, even those good memories of the 1950s are
only shared by some of the state's residents. That was
also the period of Cold War loyalty oaths, when many
teachers refused to denounce their coworkers for left-
wing ideas, and were fired. Jazz musicians like Art
Pepper went to jail, in part because they took drugs,
but also because most were black artists in a black
community patrolled by the Los Angeles Police
Department like an occupying army. And before the
Delano grape strike, growers brought in contract
bracero workers from Mexico every year, sending them
back across the border once the work was done.

The San Joaquin Valley has its bitter racial memories.
Just north of Delano and McFarland, marchers came upon
Allensworth, a town founded in 1908 by African-
Americans, in the period before World War I when
lynchings were common and the Klan rode high in the
South. Colonel Allen Allensworth founded a utopian
community in response, in the middle of the San Joaquin
Valley, taking to heart Booker T. Washington's advice
to meet racism by building independence and self-
sufficiency. Its streets were named for Sojourner
Truth, Frederick Douglass and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

The colony failed, and for years the tiny settlement it
left behind lay stranded next to Highway 99. Reacting
to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ed
Pope, a surveyor for the California Department of Parks
and Recreation, began a campaign that led in 1976 to a
state park re-creating the African-American utopia.

Last year the park was closed by budget cuts. More
African-Americans now live in just one of the prisons
near Allensworth than ever lived in the town itself.
Meanwhile, most of the 120 families residing next to
the state park are Mexican immigrants, sleeping in
trailers. They have no sure source of water (which
helped doom the utopia long ago), and no store or gas

As marchers headed up the road, they passed the prison
that became a national symbol for abuse of inmates -
California State Prison in Corcoran (5,544 inmates,
2,322 staff, $270 million budget). A 1996 "Los Angeles
Times" article by Mark Arax stated that guards there
had shot and killed more inmates than in any other
prison nationwide. In addition, they'd staged fights
between inmates, called "gladiator days." "60 Minutes"
even showed a video of an inmate killed by guards in
1994. Finally, eight guards and supervisors were
indicted, but were acquitted in 2000.

Corcoran has a second prison as well, the Substance
Abuse Treatment Facility (7,628 inmates, 1,786 staff,
$230 million budget.) Despite the jobs in the two
facilities, however, Corcoran, like most Valley towns,
has much higher unemployment than the state's average -
19%. The general fund budget for the Corcoran schools
last year was $29 million - like Delano, a twentieth of
the budgets of its two prisons. The penetentiaries are
giant behemoths in towns like Corcoran, with spending
that dwarfs schools or city services. Yet for all the
promise of jobs, they don't make much of a dent in the
joblessness endemic to rural California.

Going by prison after prison was especially heart
wrenching for Irene Gonzalez, who joined the march, not
as a teacher but as a worker in the criminal justice
system. She looks at the institutions, and knows not
just who they house but the people who work there. She
doesn't see them as enemies, or people sucking up
budget dollars that should really go elsewhere.

"In the probation department in Los Angeles, where I
work, we service the community in rehabilitating minors
and adults, and a lot of our services are being cut,
too," she explains. "We used to give referrals, and
could provide help in getting jobs or developing
reading skills. But with the cuts we can't do that any

She predicts a social explosion if the state's
priorities aren't changed. "It should not cost us an
arm and a leg to send our kids through college, or to
go there ourselves. What they're going to have is more
people living on the streets," she says. "These
legislators say they're against crime, but then they
take away people's jobs and homes. What do they
expect?" She's the angriest of the marchers. "It's time
for us to start standing up and fighting back," she
vows. "We're going to make sure you hear us, and hear
us loud."

Chowchilla, which marchers passed a few days later, is
also the site of two prisons, Valley State Prison for
Women (3,810 inmates, 1,058 staff and $125 million
budget) and the Central California Women's Facility
(3,918 inmates, 1,208 staff, and $153 million budget).
It's one of the main towns in the district of
Assemblyman Tom Berryhill. Tom and his brother Bill
represent adjacent districts in the State Assembly.

Tom, a fourth-generation farmer, lives in Modesto, home
of the Gallo wine empire. Not surprisingly, he's a law
and order advocate, campaigning for the rights of crime
victims and for speedier application of the death
penalty. Last year the California Rural Crime
Prevention Task Force named him "Legislator of the

His brother Bill, from Stockton and Ceres to the north,
sits on the board of the Allied Grape Growers. Both
inherited their membership in the political class here
from their father, legendary Republican legislator
Clare Berryhill. For the Berryhills, prison
construction is an economic development strategy, and
they point to its role in creating local jobs.

Bill Berryhill bemoans that Stockton's schools have
just sent out 192 layoff notices. But turning reality
on its head, the budget cuts demanded by the Berryhills
and their colleagues are not responsible, they say. The
culprits are taxes and regulations on business. "While
the state flirts with tax increases, our agricultural,
trucking and educational sectors continue to decline,"
he fumes.

One of their allies is state Senator Jeff Denham, whose
district not only includes a large chunk of the San
Joaquin Valley but stretches across the mountains to
the neighboring Salinas Valley, fondly referred to by
agribusiness as "the nation's salad bowl." The valley
is also home to one of the state's most famous prisons,
Soledad, where George Jackson wrote "Soledad Brother"
in 1970. It is actually two prisons, the Salinas Valley
State Prison and the Correctional Training Facility.
Together, they house 11,552 people, employ 3,195 guards
and other personnel, and spend a combined budget of
$327 million.

Denham gets an A+ rating from the Howard Jarvis
Taxpayer Association, architects of the tax-cutting
policy that is driving the state into astronomical
debt, and a 100% perfect score from the California
Taxpayers Association. Neither association is worried
about the tax burden of prisons, however.

Behind these legislators is the most extreme element of
the state's Republican Party, the California Republican
Assembly. They only gave the Berryhills 67 percent
ratings. Abel Maldonado, a Republican who voted to
break the Republican-engineered budget deadlock last
session, got 22 percent, lower than some Democrats. The
Stanislaus County GOP, an active participant in the
Assembly and part of the Berryhills' base, lists its
principles as "smaller government, lower taxes,
individual freedom, strong national security, respect
for the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, the
importance of family and the exceptionalism of
America." It doesn't specifically mention prisons. It
doesn't have to - support for them is just assumed.

The San Joaquin Valley finally ends in the great delta,
drained and turned into farmland by Chinese contract
laborers 150 years ago. At the confluence of the rivers
flowing out of the San Joaquin Valley to the south, and
the Sacramento Valley to the north, is Sacramento, the
state capital. This was the marchers' goal. The
California Federation of Teachers and the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees,
the march's main organizers, brought out over seven
thousand union members and community activists. who
marched down the Mall to confront the legislature and
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a huge rally April

Before marchers got there, though, they passed two
juvenile prisons in Stockton (estimated: 815 inmates,
960 staff and a budget of $132 million.) Just east of
the Capitol is the prison made famous by Johnny Cash -
Folsom State Prison. This also is a double institution,
with a total of 7,676 inmates, 2,716 staff and a
combined budget of $310 million. Deuel Vocational
Institute to the west in Tracy rounds out the total San
Joaquin Valley prison count. It has 3,748 inmates,
1,393 staff, and spends $189 million every year.

There are other prisons to the east and north, on the
coast, and in rural areas throughout the state. But the
total count for the San Joaquin Valley alone gives a
prison population of 67,059 human beings incarcerated
in 13 institutions, guarded by another 21,215 human
beings, at a cost of $2.4 billion.

No wonder there's no free education anymore at state
universities for Maria S. or anyone else.

The problem with California's future isn't just a bad
voting system in Sacramento. That could be fixed by an
initiative that the marchers, along with teachers
unions, students, other labor organizations and
community groups are putting on the ballot next
November. If they win, budgets and tax increases will
be adopted by simple majority vote, rather than two-
thirds. It will be easier to pass AB 560, a proposal by
state Assemblyman Alberto Torrico to charge oil
companies a royalty for the petroleum they pull from
under California's soil. California is the only oil-
producing state that doesn't charge the oil giants for
what they take.

But giving more power to Democrats, and a better system
for arriving at a budget deal, still won't reverse the
state's priorities. California spends enormous sums
jailing people, while finding few alternatives to
incarceration, and slashing money for the education
that might open other doors to the state's youth,
especially its poorest. Democrats vote for prisons too.

"We've seen boarded-up homes everywhere," says Gavin
Riley, describing the marchers' journey up the valley's
prison road. "Coming into Fresno we walked through a
Skid Row area where people were living in cardboard and
wood shacks underneath a freeway, sleeping on the
sidewalks. We've seen farms where the land is fallow
and the trees have been allowed to die. About the only
thing we've seen great growth in is prisons. We've
walked by beautiful, wonderful prisons. I look at that
and say, what a waste, not only of land but of people.
I can't help but think that California, a state that's
now down near the bottom in what it spends on
education, is far and away the biggest spender on
prisons. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to connect the
dots." For more articles and images, see

See also Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates
Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants  (Beacon Press,
2008) Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of

See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration
to the US Communities Without Borders (Cornell
University/ILR Press, 2006)

See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the
U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004)


David Bacon, Photographs and Stories


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