California’s 35 state prisons currently house more than 93,000 incarcerated people. In 2006, the state’s prison population peaked at 173,000 people, and although this number has since dropped, California still incarcerates thousands over the prison’s housing capacity. In the summer of 2020, for the first time since 1990, California’s incarcerated population dropped below 100,000. Although this decrease indicates progress, it took a global pandemic ravaging California prisons and killing more than 200 inmates for it to happen.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), in April of 2020, there were 112,573 people incarcerated in the state. By September, after the rapid spread of COVID-19 in prisons, the population dropped to 94,628, closer to where it is now. Even as the prison population drops and Gavin Newsom plans to close two prisons by June of 2022, the CDCR projects the prison population will rise past 100,000 again in the next two years.
Currently, there are more than 100 bills related to prison reform and mass incarceration active in the California legislature, and because of this past summer’s deadly COVID-19 spread in prisons, public attention on the issue has never been higher. Urban’s Voices of Incarceration teacher Courtney Rein has witnessed this change firsthand. “[Since COVID,] more people who maybe were on the edge, or didn’t know much about the issue of mass incarceration, had the time, they had the interest and they had the access,” said Rein. She has also seen the growing attention that politicians are paying to these bills. “I watched several California politicians…be horrified when the [CDCR] didn’t know the answers to their questions [about how their facilities were being run],” she said of a legislative hearing with CDCR higher-ups.
The active bills have to be voted on and approved by fiscal and safety committees, and many are too progressive to pass the legislator, but public and political awareness around mass incarceration is growing. In the last five years, new bills have begun incorporating the voices of incarcerated people so that laws passed are in tune with their real needs.
More community-based organizations in the Bay Area have also begun to incorporate the voices of system-impacted people into their work, but changes can be made on even smaller levels. “There are always ways you can help individual people, whether it’s putting money on somebody’s commissary, sending them a book, sending them a package, signing a petition [or] writing a letter,” said Rein.
Please take the time to visit here to read these four bills in their entirety and a collection of first-hand accounts from women incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility. Please also see the toolkits provided to take action in whatever way you choose.
The VISION Act
The VISION Act was introduced with the support of Ice Out of California and more than 40 other California nonprofits and advocacy groups. If passed, it would ensure more protections and opportunities for incarcerated immigrants deemed eligible for release. The bill would prevent prisons from transferring incarcerated people to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) where they would face additional punishment and trauma.
“This bill would prohibit any state or local agency from arresting or assisting with the arrest… of an individual for an immigration enforcement purpose, as specified. The bill would additionally prohibit state or local agencies or courts from using immigration status as a factor to deny or to recommend denial of probation or participation in any diversion, rehabilitation, mental health program, or placement in a credit-earning program or class…” – AB 937
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act
This bill would seek to provide more protections for incarcerated women, especially pregnant women. It would expand “trauma-informed” care and create more opportunities for new mothers to be in the presence of their children.
“[It] would prohibit an incarcerated woman from being placed in solitary confinement for purposes of medical observation… [and] require… access to domestic violence counseling and parenting and lifestyle classes… The bill would require an incarcerated woman who delivers a child to be provided an 18-month bonding period with the child, during which time the newborn child is required to reside at the same facility as the incarcerated woman… ” – AB 1225
Incarceration Identification Card
This bill would require that all individuals are released from prison with a valid California identification card. Upon a person’s release from prison, they only possess a Prison ID card. A government-issued ID (distinct from a Prison ID) is crucial because it is required to apply for a job or unemployment, rent or buy a house or car, apply for Medicaid or social security, apply for food stamps, or just to open a bank account.
“The bill would require… that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation obtain Department of Motor Vehicles-approved cameras, determine the documentation inmates require for California identification cards and driver’s licenses and provide inmates with the opportunity and means to obtain those documents…” – AB 717
Policing in America is often violent and ineffective, and this bill would be a first step in turning away from such heavy reliance on the police for safety, and looking instead to community organizations. Oakland has already begun these practices with MACRO, a program that sends medically licensed civilians to respond to non-violent emergencies as opposed to police officers.
“The bill would require [the Office of Emergency Services within the office of the Governor] to establish rules and regulations for the [the 3-year C.R.I.S.E.S. Grant Pilot Program] with the goal of making grants to community organizations [to expand] the participation of community organizations in emergency response for specified vulnerable populations.” – AB 118