Schwarzenegger’s Trojan horse

January 27, 2010

ON JANUARY 6, in response to protests, walkouts, occupations and strikes by students, faculty, teachers and workers in California that have been going on since September, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed reducing the state's spending on prisons from nearly 11 percent of the state's budget to 7 percent or less, and increasing spending on higher education from 7.5 percent of the budget to 10 percent or more, reported the New York Times.

That this proposal is a reaction to the protests was acknowledged by Schwarzenegger's chief of staff. As the Times reported:

"Those protests on the U.C. campuses were the tipping point," the governor's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, said in an interview after the speech. "Our university system is going to get the support it deserves."

However, while this is good news for California's university systems, there's a hitch. Rather than cutting the prison budget by reducing the number of inmates, Schwarzenegger is planning on further privatizing California's prisons. According to the Times:

While the governor provided few details of his new plan, much of the prison cost savings he envisions would come though privatizing services or prisons themselves...The governor said no prisoners would be released early for his plan, shutting the door on changes to sentencing laws and the release of low-level offenders as other states have done.

Whether Schwarzenegger wants to release any prisoners or not, a court order forcing California to reduce its prison population by 25 percent, from 160,000 to 120,000, is on the verge of being enforced. California's prisons are among the most overcrowded in the nation, and numerous abuses have been recorded in them.

Schwarzenegger has one appeal left to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it could be up to a year before a decision is handed down. Although California seems likely to lose the appeal, with the current right-wing Supreme Court, that possibility can't be eliminated.

Furthermore, even with this reduction, Schwarzenegger is proposing cutting prison funding by 36 percent, significantly more than the prison population is being reduced by, while a greater portion of the prison budget will be siphoned off into corporate profits.

Schwarzenegger's cut will therefore undoubtedly result in worse prison conditions while allowing private corporations to profit at the public's expense. And if California isn't forced to reduce its prison population, Schwarzenegger's proposal would turn California's prisons into a human-rights disaster.

THE STUDENT movement and faculty, teachers and staff unions should welcome Schwarzenegger's proposal to increase higher education funding, but demand that he pay for it by reducing California's prison population, not by privatizing prisons and cutting inmate services even further. Making California's already awful prisons even worse is not the solution to the state's higher education problem. All Schwarzenegger is doing is shifting the cost of the recession from one section of the working class onto another.

Many inmates in California's prisons, like those across the country, are serving inflated sentences for minor offenses. All of them have been failed by the violent, poverty-stricken, profit-hungry society of America, which has the highest rates of poverty, homelessness, hunger, violent crime, incarceration and economic inequality in the developed world--as well as the worst health care system, the most expensive military, the lowest wages, the worst benefits and the weakest unions.

The high rate of incarceration is not the result of moral failings on inmates' part, but on the materially worse conditions experienced by the American working class and, in particular, by people of color.

This issue does not affect just California. Public higher education and the K-12 public school system are under attack across the country. While California students, teachers and workers are leading the fightback against these attacks, there are growing student movements in many other states as well. However, it's not yet clear what the character and demands of the emerging student movement will be.

If the student movement accepts Schwarzenegger's proposal without a fightback, it will be put itself on the road to becoming a narrow, self-serving interest group. If, on the other hand, the student movement chooses to stand up for the interests of all the oppressed and exploited by linking up with critics of the criminal justice system, it opens up the possibility of broadening the movement to include increasing layers of the working class, a development that would only strengthen the movement.

More generally, students, faculty, teachers and staff across the country should demand that the costs of the economic crisis be paid for by ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and by taxing those who created and profited from the dot-com and housing bubbles that caused the crisis in the first place: bankers, insurers, real estate speculators and the ruling class as a whole, who made off like bandits for 15 years thanks to the bubble economy, while median wages of ordinary workers stagnated.

The student movement's slogan needs to be "It's not our crisis, we won't pay!" Protesters in California should join with opponents of the prison and justice system to reject Schwarzenegger's proposal.

A good way to begin forging this alliance would be to invite opponents of the prison system to join the March 4 protests in California and elsewhere. The demand that higher education not be funded on the backs of prisoners or other sections of the working class should be part of the demands of March 4, and of the student movement as a whole.
Doug Singsen, New York City

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