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Pen Pals

Just Close Down California's Prisons Already

California has to reduce its prison population by 8,000 because some judges said so, but apparently it's really hard to let people out of overcrowded cages.
Κείμενο Bert Burykill

A window in Alcatraz prison, San Francisco. Photo via Flickr user Derek Key

I point out as often as possible that I think my incarcerated experience differed greatly from the average locked-up cracker. First and foremost, New York State, where I was behind bars, has one of the more efficient and regulated prison systems around—you never see its prisons on any of those trashy Shit Is So Crazy in Jail reality TV shows that are everywhere these days. And while most states are dealing with overcrowding in their prisons, New York is closing facilities, which is probably why I’ve been at a lot of sports where most of the guys were in a single bunk. I’ve seen these poor bastards on TV who are TRIPLE BUNKING about ten inches away from the next triplet of stinky anuses, and the cubicles are in a medium-sized room stuffed with 300 dudes, some of whom are bound to be real undesirables. A big dorm in New York prisons only had around 60 guys and that was like hell on earth to me, so relatively speaking I was lucky.


Meanwhile, in California they’ve been desperately trying to figure out what to do with their fucked-up, overfull prisons—they’re even letting some old guys out early, I heard. FYI, this is what inmates fantasize about… I’ve had many dreams where I’m chillin’ with no pants on and bags of shit weaved into my hair so I don’t lose them and then the CO yells, “BURYKILL! ON THE RELEASE! YOU GOIN HOME, CRACKA!”

What happens to the men and women who get released when the system spits 'em out? I bet the grant writers are getting fuckin’ busy trying to get the government to shell out ducats for halfway houses and rehabs, and maybe they’ll start putting some of the zanier heads in hospitals for the mentally handicapped, where they shoulda been in the first place.

Whenever I’ve been locked up there’s always been certifiably insane dudes living among us. There are the borderline cases too, the dudes who can get diagnosed as depressed, bipolar, or suffering from ADHD but are still able to function—but like 10 percent of inmates are batshit bizzanas from the streets. As in, their best friend is a physical piece of shit living in a jar that gets carried around the dorm with them.

Not too long ago I was locked up with a mentally challenged 28-year-old guy who talked to God or Jesus or someone all day every day. He bunked next to me and was annoying as shit, ‘cause I never knew who he was talking to and I didn’t have any headphones to drown out the noise. The loony toon was inside because he was in a car with an old family friend he didn’t know too well and, long story short, they got pulled over and the cop found a loaded slug chucker and charged both of them. This poor kid who talked to ghosts sat in the county jail for almost six months even though EVERYONE knew it wasn’t his gun. His co-defendant had immediately tried to exonerate him with a written statement without completely incriminating himself at the same time, which was a delicate dance that didn’t work out. Anyway, the nut had to follow the proper channels and wait for the case to reach county court before he could finally be released, only to have his court date get postponed another six weeks.


The judges and lawyers didn’t bat an eye or pay any mind, but this innocent kid just got slapped with ANOTHER six weeks for basically no reason. His co-defendant was stalling and filing motions to beat the charge while this guy is talkin’ to Jesus all day, tied up by the sadistic strings of the justice system to his co-d. The guilty party obviously felt bad for delaying his innocent friend’s release, but he had to look out for himself.

The six months that paranoid schizophrenic spent suffering in jail talking to his Lord and Savior will never be recorded or represented in any statistics you ever read. You always hear about how there’s 2.5 million people in prison, but that story about the mentally ill kid gets me more pissed off than any number, and since he never got convicted he doesn’t even officially count as someone who was “in prison”… Christ.

Anyway, in California, the numbers are real important. Their state prisons are so congested that they have people serving out their state sentences in the county jails, which is a real sign of desperation. Federal judges are ordering California prisons to reduce over-crowding by releasing 8,000 inmates or finding additional housing for them, which the state obviously doesn’t have money for. That mess plus the recent hunger strike means that there’s a lot of attention on the state’s extremely poorly run prison operation. Governor Jerry Brown is trying to deal with this by asking the judges to give the state a little more time to reduce the population—in exchange, he’s ready to spend $400 million on rehabilitation programs, including some stuff that would supposedly help the mentally ill.

That’d be nice. The “rehabilitation” hustle can be deceptive and difficult to differentiate from prison in some ways, but putting people in hospitals and rehab is definitely better than throwing ‘em in a box. The best way to stop prison overcrowding and stop spending so much taxpayer money on these things is to just not send that many dudes to jail in the first place. Shouldn’t be that hard…

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.

Previously: Starve Yourself Free