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Grand Jury Report on Jail Deaths Only a Snapshot of the Larger Picture

by Steve Pleich (spleich [at]
Mass Incarceration is Driven by the Prison/Industrial Complex and Fueled by institutionalized Racism
In a recent story about the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury report on jail medical care and conditions, one juror said that he was “shocked” at the lax oversight and poor communication between jail staff and medical personnel that led to 5 deaths in our jail during the past 11 months. While residents of our county whose tax dollars support the jail system may also be shocked by the conditions that contributed to these deaths, local anti-prison groups that have consistently spoken out and worked for systemic reform in, or abolition of, our jails and prisons are not.

Local jail deaths are extremely rare. In 2011, for example, the entire state saw just 92 according the Bureau of Justice Statistics. While the normal mortality rate is around 125 per 100,000 inmates, Santa Cruz County's rate was 10 times that number during that period. However, what is equally alarming is that these deaths came as the county outsourced jail medical treatment to private Monterey-based California Forensic Medical Group, a decision that has effectively placed medical care for inmates of our jail beyond local control or accountability. Dramatic and disconcerting as these figures surely are, they are but a very small snapshot of the larger, far uglier, picture.

In my view, these deaths are a tragic and unacceptable symptom of a disease. But the real disease is mass incarceration driven by the prison/industrial complex and fueled by institutional racism. Mainstream society seems comfortable with the policy of separating whole segments of our population from their liberty and in supporting a prison/industrial complex that is building new jail and prison cells at an unprecedented rate. So what questions do we need to ask to at least begin to understand and address the grave social issues that this current state of affairs represents? Consider these for a start:

Ask why our country imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world. Ask why Black Americans who comprise 12% of the population compose 40% of all prison populations. Ask why 65% of all those incarcerated are non-violent drug offenders. Ask why 80% of those incarcerated nationally have some alcohol or substance abuse problem. Consider asking our President why the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine are 18 times that of the punishment for powder. Ask why our county jail is operating at 120% capacity at a time when the State of California is under a federal consent decree to reduce the overall prison population by 30,000. Or ask why, in consideration of the fact that the consent decree is based on a finding by the court that the level of medical care provided to prison inmates violates their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, our county jail has decided to outsource its medical care and place it beyond local control. And, perhaps most immediately, ask why our Governor would designate millions in state funds for "brick and mortar" jail programs and not one cent for the rehabilitative and support services that might finally break the endless cycle of recidivism that is crippling our youngest generation.

It has been truly said that a community cannot arrest its way out of crime; and it most certainly cannot incarcerate its way out. It has also been said that the war on drugs and the unrestrained rush to build more jail and prison cells to warehouse offenders has created a new "Jim Crow" which has effectively bound and shackled an entirely new generation of young Black Americans. I say that the reach of this new Mr. Crow is broad enough and insidious enough to shackle us all. And that is why we must all start asking these questions today. If we ask just one of these questions, we move one step closer to a common understanding of this national disgrace. If we ask them all, we can take a giant leap toward an end to mass incarceration, institutionalized racism and the wasted lives that are product of this wholly broken system.
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Steve Pleich
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 1:21PM
No More Deaths
Thu, Jun 12, 2014 12:19AM
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