Down Prison Road

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.


Jazzman Art Pepper, son of a Los Angeles longshore worker, 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 poor, Black, and Latino, like the rest of California's prisoners, and have been since the prison system began. Having no money is practically a requirement for residence.


Marching Through Prison Towns



Activists start the 260-mile, 48-day march from Bakersfield through the San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento to protest cuts in education and social services, March 6, 2010—photo by David Bacon

California prisons—from

The California Correctional Institution (CCI), west of Tehachapi—

Kern Valley State Prison outside Delano—photo from

North Kern State Prison—photo from

On March 5, 2010, when teachers and home-care workers rallied in Bakersfield, kicking 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 spent the next 48 days in a traveling protest over the extreme budget cuts that have cost the jobs of thousands of California teachers and still threaten thousands of other public workers.


While its participants may not have intended it, the March for California's Future became a march through California's prison towns. In their first week on the road, the protesters, drawn mostly from the state's schools, walked by Kern Valley State Prison and North Kern State Prison in Delano, the birthplace of the United Farm Workers 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 afterwards, 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.


The symbolism of those past events, and the effect they had on California's future, wasn't lost on marchers. "I think about what those marches did for the farm workers, in terms of insisting on basic human dignity," recalled marcher Jim Miller, a San Diego community college teacher. "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."


For years the UFW was headquartered at the Forty Acres outside of town, before it moved its offices into the mountains above Bakersfield, a few miles from Tehachapi prison. The union still keeps its original hall on Garces Highway, but 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 those supported by year-round field labor. Thousands of former farm workers 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, houses 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's 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.


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 10th of that and the budget of its public schools a 20th. Delano's median family income is just over $29,000, with almost 30 percent 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. 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.


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. 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 previous cuts in California's education budget. Another $18 billion is being sliced from it this year.




California has gone months without a budget. It is one of only three states with a requirement that two-thirds of the legislature approve each budget. Even more important, any tax increase takes a two-thirds vote as well. With huge deficits from declining tax revenues and a recession boosting state unemployment over 12.5 percent, 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 talked about the state's future, some of them remembered a time when, for some residents, the system had a more functional social contract. "I view myself as a legacy of the California system when it worked," remembered marcher Gavin Riley, a retired teacher from a district on the border of Los Angeles and Orange County. "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."


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. When it came time to attend California State University, 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 said. "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."


Memories of Allensworth


Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park—photo by Bobak Ha’Eri

Visitors inside the Allensworth Baptist Church in 2010—photo from’s flickr photostream


The San Joaquin Valley has its bitter racial memories. Just north of Delano and McFarland, marchers came to Allensworth, a town founded in 1908 by African Americans in the period before World War I, when lynchings were common and the Klan rode high in the South. Colonel Allen Allensworth founded a utopian community in response in 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.


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, access to the park was restricted due to 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 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." "Sixty Minutes" even showed a video of an inmate killed by guards in 1994. Eventually, 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, Corcoran, like most Valley towns, has much higher unemployment than the state's average, 19 percent. The general fund budget for the Corcoran schools last year was $29 million—like Delano, a 20th 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.


Rehabilitating Minors


Going by prison after prison was especially 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 only who they house, but also 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 explained. "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."


Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga

Laura Rico, vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, which initiated the march, speaks in Tulare—photo by David Bacon

Folsom State Prison, 20 miles from Sacramento—photo by Stephen Worrell

Marchers walk through Reedley during the third week—photo by David Bacon

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 said. "These legislators say they're against crime, but then they take away people's jobs and homes. What do they expect?…. It's time for us to start standing up and fighting back," she vowed.


Chowchilla, which marchers passed a few days later, is the site of both the Valley State Prison for Women (3,810 inmates, 1,058 staff, and $125 million budget) and the Central California Women's Facility (3,918 inmates, 1,208 staff, and $153 million budget). It's one of the main towns in the district of Assemblyperson Tom Berryhill. Tom and his brother Bill represent adjacent districts in the State Assembly. Not surprisingly, Tom is 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. 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 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, whose district not only includes a large chunk of the San Joaquin Valley, but 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 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 percent ratings. Abel Maldonado, a Republican who voted to break the Republican-engineered budget deadlock last session, got 22 percent, lower than some Democrats. The Stanislaus County GOP, an active participant in the Assembly, 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—support for them is just assumed.


Reaching the State Capital


The San Joaquin Valley 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, 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 over 7,000 union members and community activists who marched to confront the legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a huge rally April 21.


Before marchers got there, though, they passed two juvenile prisons in Stockton (815 inmates, 960 staff, and a budget of $132 million). East of the capital 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 is to the west with 3,748 inmates, 1,393 staff, and $189 million every year. There are other prisons to the east and north and in rural areas throughout the state, but the total count for the San Joaquin Valley gives a prison population of 67,059 incarcerated in 13 institutions, guarded by another 21,215, at a cost of $2.4 billion.


"We've seen boarded-up homes everywhere," said Gavin Riley, describing the 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…. I can't help but think that California, a state that's now down near the bottom in what it spends on education, is the biggest spender on prisons. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to connect the dots."


David Bacon is an activist and a freelance writer and photographer.