By Tom Gomez
When I first saw the old man with the long white beard on the yard talking loudly to people who were not there my first thought was that he didn’t belong here at prison. It was obvious the old man had major psychiatric issues, and had such issues for a long time before he was imprisoned. If you have ever met ‘really’ crazy people who hear voices and see things that aren’t there you know it’s not all that easy to fake major mental illness. Its sufferers include large numbers of homeless people in almost every major city, and most look crazy. Back in the 80s a decision by the US Supreme Court on the deinstitutionalizing of the mentally ill in a case called Olmstead provided the legal basis for dumping large numbers of men and women who lack the capacity to care for themselves into the streets. At the same time municipalities were getting rid of low cost SRO (Single Resident Occupancy) housing and the federal government was making it harder for people with psychiatric disabilities to get social security benefits, including Medicare. The result of all these policies became clear when a gunman opened fire at Deer Creek Middle School last month. His father, Qar Eagle Eastwood, told the Denver Post he was unable to afford psychiatric care for his son.
By Tom Gomez
At only 23 Gilbert ‘Cash’ Gonzales has already spent more than ten years of his life in the juvenile and adult prison system. Now Gonzales is facing new charges for escape in Adams County. Those charges, stemming from Gonzales’ decision to walk away from a halfway house, may result in his being sentenced to serve as much as eight additional years should Adams County prosecute him as a habitual offender. Despite the fact that Gilbert was gone only 15 hours, Colorado law allows him to be charged with felony escape after as little as two hours, and gives the DA up to three years to bring the charge. Gilbert learned about Adams County’s decision to prosecute him ten days before his scheduled release from prison, and won’t know if the DA will press a habitual criminal charge against him until he is arraigned and has a chance to meet with his public defender.
Sadly Gilbert’s situation is not unique. According to figures supplied to the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition by DOC itself in its monthly population and capacity report, 285 of the 2,030 prisoners housed in Colorado’s community correctional facilities were returned to custody as of January 31, 2010. Many, like Gonzales, will face new felony charges for little more than essentially technical violations of their placement conditions. By contrast of 779 prisoners on I.S.P. (Intensive Supervised Parole) only six were returned to custody during the same period. Meanwhile the decade Gonzales has already spent in custody has now cost the state over $300,000 and there is no end in sight. If Gilbert were to spend the next eight years behind the walls of Colorado’s State prisons, plus and additional three years of mandatory parole, the cost of his incarceration will have run to over $500,000. By then he will be 35 years old and his chances of being able live outside the walls of a prison may be slim to none.
By Tom Gomez
Until 2004, Colorado State prisoners were paid $2 a day for our labor, roughly $40 a month. Since that time the Colorado State Legislature, in an attempt to reduce the cost of incarceration while it enacted more laws to lock up more people, for more time, reduced the amount paid to prisoners to $0.62 a day, roughly $13 a month. While the change has made prison conditions harsher, it has done nothing to reduce the spiraling cost of incarceration in Colorado. Despite the change the Department of Corrections budget has grown every year since. Colorado now spends more on prisons than it does on higher education, and there is no end in sight. Last year the DOC population grew by another 2% despite a falling crime rate. At a cost of $30,000 a year for each prisoner it houses DOC is not likely to be able to significantly reduce, or even offset, the high cost of incarceration by such methods as raising the cost of phone time or cutting back on food. Instead state university students and their parents will pay the bill, by absorbing another 9% increase in tuition next year. It will be paid by cuts in services to seniors, by public education, and by the improvised children of the men and women doing time here.
State legislatures across the country have built prisons while cutting funding for education and public health for 30 years now. In the name of cutting the cost of ‘big government’ and getting ‘tough on crime’ they have made prisons harsher, more crowded and dangerous, but not cheaper. Led by ‘tough prosecutors’ who view not only crime, but poverty itself as a moral failing they have given us a nation of tent cities that stretch from sea to shining sea bursting with the nation’s three-million homeless people, and interstates from coast to coast dotted with razor ribbon and guard towers. In many American cities more than half of all public school students will not graduate high school.