When I came to prison in 1980, it was at the beginning of the mass lock-up of Californians that only crested when the economy crested and broke on bad loans and deflated bubbles. The coming decade must surely overturn the terrible decisions made in the previous three.
At the start of my term, prisons were apolitical backwaters. This was well before the creation of the hard conservative movement that swept the country backward to punishment for the sake of inflicting pain.
I was at old Folsom Prison just outside of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. California had been governed by a series of administrations that left the management of the prison system up to professionals. What went on in these places never mattered much unless there was an uprising that left too many convicts dead to ignore.
Social changes that had upended the old order, spearheaded by federal court interventions, were still being adjusted to when I arrived. The older cons told me about the way it was back in the '50s and '60s.
Back then, the guards could exact brutal punishments without fear of penalty. Books were mostly barred, as were visits and televisions; even radios were forbidden. Prisoners lived lives of isolated desperation, part of a hidden society of outcasts.
Of course, very few people went to prison, which was a penalty saved for the most violent and recalcitrant of criminals. By the time you reached old Folsom your prospects were essentially dead anyhow.
Then came the 1970s, the magic years of prison reform. The civil rights struggles of the '60s took a decade to scale the walls into these places. But before it was over, before the forces of repression regained control of the agenda, we had college courses, televisions, virtually unlimited access to books and newspapers, and greatly expanded visiting opportunities, even conjugal visiting for some married prisoners.
This was the state of prison when I arrived at the start of the 1980s.
That decade saw the rise of revanchist conservatism and the election of George Deukmejian, the law-and-order state attorney general, as governor. It was also the time of two nascent movements that ultimately joined forces to destroy the gains made in the '70s: the first, the organization of prison guards into a potent union and the second, the organization of crime victims into very effective pressure groups.
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