The Prison-Building Spree Mambo

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PUBLIC BE DAMNED: Democratic State Assemblyman Jose Solorio and then-Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger shake hands after the latter signed AB 900, legislation which authorized the state to completely bypass the electorate and issue $7.7 billion in lease-revenue bonds to fund the addition of 53,000 new prison and jail beds to California’s overbloated prison-industrial complex.


Any political scientist worth a hill of beans will tell you that what rests at the foundation of a capitalist democracy like the United States is an elaborate series of narratives-–most of them myths and outright lies, incidentally–-that are frequently invoked for the purposes of legitimizing the way wealth and power are distributed to members of society.

Promoting belief in these narratives is crucial in helping preserve the status quo because they bamboozle people into thinking they live in a democracy, when in reality, all the important decisions affecting their lives are made behind closed doors by a tiny handful of multi-millionaires and billionaires and their well-paid lackeys in business and government.

In addition to this, they serve the purpose of sowing confusion amongst the “rabble,” making them believe, for example, the Democratic party is a friend of the poor and downtrodden, despite overwhelming historical evidence that politicians linked to this body have traditionally been the lapdogs of Wall Street bankers, not Main Street barbers.

As a case in point, during his first six months as Governor, Jerry Brown, a so-called “liberal Democrat,” has been far more successful at dismantling California’s meager social welfare state than every Republican party politician who has occupied that seat since a mediocre B-grade movie actor by the name of Ronald Wilson Reagan was elected in 1966.

And unlike his noisy and boisterous Republican counterparts, Brown has coyly defended the interests of the rich simply by quietly ignoring repeated calls upon him to raise taxes on “high-wage earners” to help close the state’s budget gap, a stance that has won him praise from Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce.

Another narrative-–one repeatedly drilled into the heads of schoolchildren everywhere–-is the comical myth that politicians are humble servants who get elected to public office to serve the “will of the people” whose needs, as the story goes, are supposedly paramount to everybody else, including the “special interests” who bankroll their campaigns.

Last week, The Los Angeles Times, mouthpiece of Southern California’s biggest real estate developers and corporate capitalists, reported that a joint poll they conducted with the elite USC Dornsife College discovered a supermajority of voters oppose paying higher taxes to feed the ongoing expansion of California’s overbloated prison-industrial complex.

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found “California voters oppose increasing taxes to pay for new prison construction …. About 73 percent of voters oppose increasing taxes to build new prisons or relocate prisoners–including a majority of self-identified Democratic, Independent and Republican voters–compared to 23 percent of voters in favor.”

The poll also hinted voters “favored reducing life sentences for third-strike offenders convicted of property crimes, such as burglary, auto theft or shoplifting” to minimize prison overcrowding. “Sixty-two percent favor reducing life sentences for property crime offenders convicted under California’s ‘three strikes’ law, and 31 percent favor it ‘strongly.'”

According to Linda DiVall, president of American Viewpoint, a Republican-linked firm that participated in the polling:

In these tough economic times, voters expect their politicians to make spending priorities just like their families do, and right now, spending more money on prisons is not a high priority for Californians. When it comes to prisons, voters are looking for solutions that don’t raise taxes or take money from other priorities like education.

But what The Times neglects to mention, however, is the electorate not only has been sour on the state’s 20-year prison-building spree for quite some time now, but they’ve already been hoodwinked by former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his allies in the Democratic-controlled state legislature, both of whom approved of AB 900 in 2007.

AB 900, authored by Jose Solorio, a Democratic State Assemblyman from Santa Ana with a lengthy legislative track record of being a waterboy for cop unions, was a measure which authorized the state to issue $7.7 billion in lease-revenue bonds to fund the addition of 53,000 new prison and jail beds to California’s vast archipelago of incarceration.

What’s important about AB 900, which critics have labeled “the largest single prison building project in the history of the world,” was it was written purposefully to circumvent the “will of the people” who previously defeated two propositions placed on the ballot by the state legislature to use money from general obligation bonds to pay for more prisons.

When voters began rejecting general obligation bonds for prison construction,” writes Alex Anderson on, “state treasurers, along with law firms and investment bankers, worked a way around the constitutional and statutory restrictions on such debt. They began using lease revenue bonds to construct correctional facilities.”

In 2009, the Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a policy brief estimating when AB 900 is fully implemented it “could increase General Fund costs by $1.3 billion annually,” pushing the annual budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to levels that greatly exceed what the state spends on universities and community colleges.

It is, of course, doubtful the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll will have much of an impact upon Governor Brown or the Democratic-controlled state legislature as there are many vested interests–like construction companies–who have a stake in ensuring California continues to pour neverending amounts of funds down the prison-industrial complex rat hole.

Given that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the powerful 30,000-member prison guards union, spent approximately $1.8 million to help Browna strong opponent of dismantling the state’s draconian “three strikes” law–get elected as Governor in November 2010, it is highly improbable he’ll undertake any initiatives that will “rock the boat.”

If anything, Brown will leave public office with a legacy of being known as the “Great Incarcerator,” because notwithstanding the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering the release release of 33,000 inmates, numerous projects are currently underway across California to increase the number of prison and jail beds, all thanks to AB 900.

Regrettably, this prison-building spree mambo will most likely continue into the indefinite future until people begin to wake up and realize marking an “X” next to a candidate with a “D” or “R” as their party affiliation at the ballot box not only serves to perpetuate this insanity, but legitimizes a bankrupt system rigged to ensure the few can continue robbing the many.

About Duane Roberts