For most people, the chance to move from a decrepit and unsafe home to a spanking new, state-of-the-art home, would be a dream come true. But tell that to the inmates at San Quentin prison. For them it's a nightmare proposition.
In early May, Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, floated the idea of selling San Quentin to help raise money for a battered state budget. Currently 5,000 prisoners "enjoy" prime beachfront property worth an estimated $2 billion. But even with the current cramped conditions -- the prison is meant to hold just over 3,000 prisoners -- inmates don't want to go.
It isn't the contraband-friendly hiding places throughout the prison, such as I beams that run the length of the tiers, or the salt air that they'll miss; it's the extracurriculars. Some prisoners actually apply to get into San Quentin because of its many rehabilitation programs.
Thanks to its location in the culture-rich Bay area, the federal penitentiary has found a wealth of volunteers who teach theater, tennis, football and many other activities. Prison officials have even finalized a prison program that allows inmates to complete an associate's degree from behind bars, all at no additional cost to the state. Inmates fear that any transfer to a new prison will greatly diminish these rehabilitative activities.
Despite the ease with which one can think, "So what, they're in prison!", these programs serve a great benefit to society by providing constructive activities for the incarcerated. Similar inmate education programs at other institutions in California have been credited with reducing recidivism by 25% for those who completed a program.
With the average cost per prisoner in California running $49,000, a reduction in return customers by 25% could save the state's beleaguered budget for many years to come. Prison officials estimate that it would take a significant time to create a similar college program at any new facility and coordinating and vetting new volunteers for other opportunities will take time as well.
Though my knowledge of prisons is largely gleaned from watching episodes of MSNBC's Lockup, one thing is stressed in every prison the crews enter, including San Quentin; If inmates have nothing constructive to do, they have 24 hours to plot and scheme. Education, apprenticeship, recreational and religious programs in prisons provide a great deal of benefits to prisoners at no additional cost to taxpayers, and are often credited with increasing the odds that an inmate will be prepared to join society rather than return their old ways.
I'm not saying that selling San Quentin is the dumbest idea California has had to fix its budget issues, but you should ask yourself this: If the average reading proficiency of a California inmate is at the 7th grade level, isn't it better to release him back onto the streets with an associate's degree rather than additional criminal knowledge? At the very least it's a compelling case for using some proceeds from the sale to bankroll a new Prison University program at any new facilities being built.
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