Down Prison Road

Down Prison Road
Teachers, students, home care workers and community activists start a 260-mile, 48-day march up the San Joaquin Valley from Bakersfield to Sacramento, to protest cuts to education and social services. The march was initiated by the California Federation of Teachers. Photo by David Bacon

High in the mountains overlooking Bakersfield and the south end of the San Joaquin Valley is a piece of California’s past, the California Correctional Institution, or as inmates know it, Tehachapi.

It was one of the state’s first big prisons, built at the height of the Great Depression in 1933 to contain the unraveling social fabric of Hoovervilles, high unemployment, a vast influx of Dust Bowl refugees and left-wing political movements spreading like wildfire.

The penitentiary spreads across 1,650 acres of a remote desert valley. Designed for 2,785 inmates, it now holds 5,806-200% of an already inhumane standard. And while it was built as the original California Institute for Women, today its only inhabitants are men.

Jazzman Art Pepper, son of a Los Angeles longshoreworker, lived in its cells for four and a half years in the 1950s. Like Pepper, today’s prison inmates are mostly there because of drugs. Pepper would have recognized them for another reason. Tehachapi’s inmates are almost all Black and Latino, like the rest of California’s prisoners, and have been since the prison system began. And also poor.

Although Tehachapi was mentioned in The Maltese Falcon, people like Dashiell Hammett’s middle-class grifters don’t normally wind up there. Having no money is practically a requirement for residence.

The march was held to transform a crumbling California to the prospering state it once was by investing in public services vital to maintaining our quality of life: our schools, parks, libraries, safety net services, infrastructure and more.

When teachers and home-care workers rallied down below in Bakersfield on March 5, and kicked off the March for California’s Future, few had more than a vague idea of the kind of presence Tehachapi and its fellow institutions would cast over them as they walked up the San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento. They spent 48 days in a traveling protest over the extreme budget cuts that have cost the jobs of thousands of California teachers and threaten those of thousands of other public workers.

But while its participants may not have intended it, the March for California’s Future became a march through California’s prison towns. The explosive growth of communities based on incarceration also offers a vision of what California could become. It’s not the vision of the marchers, clearly, who want social change that makes prisons a lower priority than schools. But it is surely a vision of what life will become without that change-California’s prison future.

In their first week on the road, the hardy group, drawn mostly from the state’s schools, walked by Kern Valley State Prison and North Kern State Prison in Delano, the first holding 5,013 inmates and the second 5,390.

Delano was the birthplace of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1965. Marchers celebrated the strike, started by Filipinos that September and joined by the Mexicans led by Cesar Chavez two weeks later. A year afterward, in 1966, the first great farm workers’ march left Delano for Sacramento, writing the grape strike into the nation’s history books, and pulling together a union that eventually overcame the state’s corporate growers in the seat of their power.

The symbolism of those past events, and the profound effect they had on California’s future, wasn’t lost on today’s marchers. “I think about what those marches did for the farm workers, in terms of insisting on basic human dignity,” recalls marcher Jim Miller, a San Diego community college teacher. “So I think in that sense, we’ve chosen the perfect place to do this. Access to affordable education is a civil right. The purpose of this march is to make that more evident to the public.”

The broad coalition, which includes the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and other unions, leaders in labor, faith, education and business, said we cannot afford to balance the budget by shortchanging our future and allowing tax cuts for large corporations and millionaires. We deserve a fair tax system that allows us to invest in California’s vital resources.

For years, the UFW had its headquarters at the Forty Acres outside of town, before it moved its offices into the mountains above Bakersfield, just a few miles from Tehachapi prison. The union still keeps its original hall on Garces Highway, but just a couple of miles away are the two new prisons, built in the 1990s.

Every day in Delano, 3,176 people go to work in the prisons. Almost as many of the town’s families now depend on prison jobs as are supported by year-round field labor. Thousands of former farmworkers now guard other Latinos and Blacks-inmates just as poor, but mostly from the urban centers of Los Angeles or San Jose rather than the rural communities of the Central Valley.

Delano’s population is 49,359. The two prisons hold more than 10,000 people. A third, smaller prison run by the city, the Delano Community Correctional Facility, contracts with the state to house an additional 600 inmates. Almost none can vote, so they’re no threat to the political establishment that profits from their presence. But they do count when it is time to calculate Delano’s population and therefore its share of state revenue. At the same time, although hundreds of prisoners may come from Compton, for instance, one of California’s poorest cities in heavily Black and Latino south central Los Angeles, Compton can’t claim them as residents in calculating its piece of the state pie.

Prison-building places poor communities in competition with each other, and Delano gains an advantage from housing Compton’s lost souls. But it is competition over a pie that is shrinking quickly.

The Kern Valley State Prison and North Kern State Prison have a combined annual budget of $294 million. By comparison, the town’s 2010 General Fund was a tenth of that, and the budget of its public schools a twentieth. Delano’s median family income is just above $29,000, with almost 30% of its residents living below the poverty line.

Wasco State Prison is just up the highway, incarcerating 5,989 people, and employing 1,688, at an annual cost of $201 million. Wasco’s population is 25,665. Across the wide valley to the west are two more prisons. Avenal State Prison holds 6,577 people, with a staff of 1,517 and an annual budget of $144 million. To the north, Pleasant Valley State Prison houses 5,188 inmates and 1,388 guards, spending $195 million every year. These are even smaller towns. In the 2000 Census, Avenal boasted a population of 15,689, but had counted the 7,062 inmates at that time as residents. The Census count in Coalinga, home of the Pleasant Valley prison, was 11,668.

The individuals and groups on the march for California’s future are fighting to restore democracy in Sacramento and overturn the two-thirds supermajority required to pass a budget, under which a small minority of legislators controls the state budget process, ensuring the continued decline of funding for public education and other vital social services.

In nearby McFarland, marcher Jenn Laskin, a continuation schoolteacher from Watsonville, talked to a fellow teacher about to lose her job. “She worked three jobs to put herself through school,” Laskin reported. “She’s in her second year, which means that on the first day of next year she’d have had tenure and couldn’t have been laid off. So she’s being laid off this year instead. Her family’s lived in McFarland for five generations-her father’s been a custodian for the district there for 23 years. Without a job, there won’t be anything to keep her in the community where she grew up. The closest place to look for work is Bakersfield, where they just issued 200 pink slips, and many highly qualified teachers are fighting for the same job.”

That McFarland teacher is the victim of cuts in the state’s education budget. Another $18 billion will be sliced from it this year. California is one of only three states with a requirement that two-thirds of the legislature approve any budget. Even more
important, any tax increase takes a two-thirds vote as well. So even though urban Democrats have had a majority for years in both chambers of the legislature, a solid Republican bloc can keep the state in a continual economic crisis until Democrats agree to slash spending. With huge deficits from declining tax revenues and a recession boosting state unemployment above 12.5%, a budgetary crisis is not difficult to create.

Nowhere is unemployment higher than in California’s rural counties, often twice as high as on the coast. Small agricultural towns like Delano and McFarland are filled with workers who can’t find jobs, while at the same time budget cuts reduce the social services for unemployed families and shower teachers in the local schools with pink slips.

When marchers talk about the state’s future, some of them remember a time when, at least for some residents, the system had a more functional social contract. “I view myself as a legacy of the California system when it worked,” remembers marcher Gavin Riley, a retired teacher from a district on the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties. “I went to school in the 1950s when our school system was ranked as one of the best in the nation. When it was my time to go to college, the state university was free.

“The theory back then was that if we had an educated electorate, they’d be more productive, more supportive of the state. People wouldn’t get in trouble. I think that worked, at least for me. They gave me a free education, and I came back and worked my entire life teaching in our schools. I think I’ve more than returned the investment. But we’ve kind of lost track of that. At one time, we were a selfless society in California. We seem to have become more selfish. That’s unfortunate, because we’re losing track of the dream.”

For Maria S., the dream is harder to attain than ever. She came from Mexico to Bakersfield as a teenager and, after a terrible accident, has lived in a wheelchair ever since. Nevertheless, she got her GED at adult school while working and then an AA degree at Bakersfield College. But when it came time to move on to California State University in Bakersfield, the free education given to Riley wasn’t even a memory. Instead, she found that budget cuts had produced a tuition fee of $1,700 for each quarter. “With a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, I’ll be the first in my family to achieve a higher education,” she says. “But I still haven’t been able to raise the funds, so I’m not going to school this winter. Tuition has become so high I can’t afford it. As an immigrant, I have to pay more, and I get no financial aid.”

Immigration reform would certainly help solve some of her problems, but as a federal issue it is not really in the direct purview of the marchers, even though they’re sympathetic. But the money question is. The state’s universities won’t get more funding and tuition won’t move back toward where it was in the 1950s without political change in Sacramento.

Of course, even those good memories of the 1950s are only shared by some of the state’s residents. That was also the period of cold war loyalty oaths, when many teachers refused to denounce their coworkers for left-wing ideas, and were fired. Jazz musicians like Art Pepper went to jail, in part because they took drugs, but also because most were Black artists in a Black community patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department like an occupying army. And before the Delano grape strike, growers brought in contract Bracero workers from Mexico every year, sending them back across the border once the work was done.

The San Joaquin Valley has its bitter racial memories. Just north of Delano and McFarland, marchers came upon Allensworth, a town founded in 1908 by African Americans, in the period before World War I when lynchings were common and the Ku Klux Klan rode high in the South. Colonel Allen Allensworth founded a utopian community in response, in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, taking to heart Booker T. Washington’s advice to meet racism by building independence and self-sufficiency. Its streets were named for Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

You can find out more about the March for California’s Future by going to All photos by David Bacon

The colony failed, and for years the tiny settlement it left behind lay stranded next to Highway 99. Reacting to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ed Pope, a surveyor for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, began a campaign that led in 1976 to a state park re-creating the African-American utopia.

Last year, the park was closed because of budget cuts. More African Americans now live in just one of the prisons near Allensworth than ever lived in the town itself. Meanwhile, most of the 120 families residing next to the state park are Mexican immigrants, sleeping in trailers. They have no sure source of water (which helped doom the utopia long ago), and no store or gas station.

As marchers headed up the road, they passed the prison that became a national symbol for abuse of inmates-California State Prison in Corcoran (5,544 inmates, 2,322 staff, $270 million budget). A 1996 Los Angeles Times article by Mark Arax stated that guards there had shot and killed more inmates than in any other prison nationwide. In addition, they’d staged fights between
inmates, called “gladiator days.” “60 Minutes” even showed a video of an inmate killed by guards in 1994. Finally, eight guards and supervisors were indicted, but were acquitted in 2000.

Corcoran has a second prison as well, the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (7,628 inmates, 1,786 staff, $230 million budget). Despite the jobs in the two facilities, however, Corcoran, like most Valley towns, has much higher unemployment than the state’s average-19%. The general fund budget for the Corcoran schools last year was $29 million-like Delano, a twentieth of the budgets of its two prisons. The penitentiaries are giant behemoths in towns like Corcoran, with spending that dwarfs schools or city services. Yet for all the promise of jobs, they don’t make much of a dent in the joblessness endemic to rural California.

Going by prison after prison was especially heart-wrenching for Irene Gonzalez, who joined the march not as a teacher but as a worker in the criminal justice system. She looks at the institutions and knows not just who they house but the people who work there. She doesn’t see them as enemies or people sucking up budget dollars that should really go elsewhere.

“In the probation department in Los Angeles, where I work, we service the community in rehabilitating minors and adults, and a lot of our services are being cut, too,” she explains. “We used to give referrals and could provide help in getting jobs or developing reading skills. But with the cuts we can’t do that any longer.”

She predicts a social explosion if the state’s priorities aren’t changed. “It should not cost us an arm and a leg to send our kids through college, or to go there ourselves. What they’re going to have is more people living on the streets,” she says. “These legislators say they’re against crime, but then they take away people’s jobs and homes. What do they expect?” She’s the angriest of the marchers. “It’s time for us to start standing up and fighting back,” she vows. “We’re going to make sure you hear us, and hear us loud.”

Chowchilla, which marchers passed a few days later, is also the site of two prisons, Valley State Prison for Women (3,810 inmates, 1,058 staff, $125 million budget) and the Central California Women’s Facility (3,918 inmates, 1,208 staff, $153 million budget). It is one of the main towns in the district of Assemblyman Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto). Tom and his brother Bill (R-Ceres) represent adjacent districts in the California Assembly.

Tom, a fourth-generation farmer, lives in Modesto, home of the Gallo wine empire. Not surprisingly, he’s a law-and-order advocate, campaigning for the rights of crime victims and for speedier application of the death penalty. Last year, the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force named him “Legislator of the Year.”

His brother Bill, from Stockton and Ceres to the north, sits on the board of the Allied Grape Growers. Both inherited their membership in the political class here from their father, legendary Republican legislator Clare Berryhill. For the Berryhills, prison construction is an economic development strategy, and they point to its role in creating local jobs.

Bill Berryhill bemoans that Stockton’s schools have just sent out 192 layoff notices. But turning reality on its head, the budget cuts demanded by the Berryhills and their colleagues are not responsible, they say. The culprits are taxes and regulations on business. “While the state flirts with tax increases, our agricultural, trucking and educational sectors continue to decline,” he fumes.

One of their allies is State Senator Jeff Denham (R-Merced), whose district not only includes a large chunk of the San Joaquin Valley but also stretches across the mountains to the neighboring Salinas Valley, fondly referred to by agribusiness as “the nation’s salad bowl.” The valley is also home to one of the state’s most famous prisons, Soledad, where George Jackson wrote Soledad Brother in 1970. It is actually two prisons, the Salinas Valley State Prison and the Correctional Training Facility. Together, they house 11,552 people, employ 3,195 guards and other personnel, and spend a combined budget of $327 million.

Denham gets an A+ rating from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, architects of the tax-cutting policy that is driving the state into astronomical debt, and a 100% perfect score from the California Taxpayers Association. Neither association is worried about the tax burden of prisons, however.

Behind these legislators is the most extreme element of the state’s Republican Party, the California Republican Assembly. They only gave the Berryhills 67% ratings. Current Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, a Republican who voted to break the Republican-engineered budget deadlock last session, got 22%, lower than some Democrats. The Stanislaus County GOP, an active participant in the Assembly and part of the Berryhills’ base, lists its principles as “smaller government, lower taxes, individual freedom, strong national security, respect for the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, the importance of family and the exceptionalism of America.” It doesn’t specifically mention prisons. It doesn’t have to-support for them is just assumed.

The San Joaquin Valley finally ends in the great delta, drained and turned into farmland by Chinese contract laborers 150 years ago. At the confluence of the rivers flowing out of the San Joaquin Valley to the south and the Sacramento Valley to the north is Sacramento, the state capital. This was the marchers’ goal. The California Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the march’s main organizers, brought out more than 7,000 union members and community activists who marched down the Mall to confront the legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a huge rally on April 21.

Before marchers got there, though, they passed two juvenile prisons in Stockton (815 inmates, 960 staff, $132 million budget). Just east of the Capitol is the prison made famous by Johnny Cash-Folsom State Prison. This also is a double institution, with a total of 7,676 inmates, 2,716 staff and a combined budget of $310 million. Deuel Vocational Institute to the west in Tracy rounds out the total San Joaquin Valley prison count. It has 3,748 inmates, 1,393 staff and spends $189 million every year.

There are other prisons to the east and north, on the coast and in rural areas throughout the state. But the total count for the San Joaquin Valley alone gives a prison population of 67,059 human beings incarcerated in 13 institutions, guarded by another 21,215 human beings, at a cost of $2.4 billion.

No wonder there is no free education anymore at state universities for Maria S. or anyone else.

The problem with California’s future isn’t just a bad voting system in Sacramento. That could be fixed by an initiative that the marchers, along with teachers unions, students, other labor organizations and community groups are putting on the ballot next November. If they win, budgets and tax increases will be adopted by simple majority vote, rather than two-thirds. It will be easier to pass AB 560, a proposal by state Assemblyman Alberto Torrico (D-Fremont) to charge oil companies a royalty for the petroleum they pull from under California’s soil. California is the only oil-producing state that doesn’t charge the oil giants for what they take.

But giving more power to Democrats, and a better system for arriving at a budget deal, still won’t reverse the state’s priorities. California spends enormous sums jailing people, while finding few alternatives to incarceration and slashing money for the education that might open other doors to the state’s youth, especially its poorest. Democrats vote for prisons too.

“We’ve seen boarded-up homes everywhere,” says Gavin Riley, describing the marchers’ journey up the valley’s prison road. “Coming into Fresno, we walked through a Skid Row area where people were living in cardboard and wood shacks underneath a freeway, sleeping on the sidewalks. We’ve seen farms where the land is fallow and the trees have been allowed to die. About the only thing we’ve seen great growth in is prisons. We’ve walked by beautiful, wonderful prisons. I look at that and say, what a waste, not only of land but of people. I can’t help but think that California, a state that’s now down near the bottom in what it spends on education, is far and away the biggest spender on prisons. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to connect the dots.”


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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