Excerpt from “Ecology of Fear – Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster”
Vintage Books, 1998
By Mike Davis
From Chapter 7, “Beyond Blade Runner,” Part 9, “The Gulag Rim,” (pp.411-414)
The road from Mecca follows the Southern Pacific tracks past Bombay Beach to Niland, then turns due south through a green maze of marshes and irrigated fields. The bad future of Southern California rises, with little melodrama, in the middle distance between the skeleton of last year’s cotton crop and the aerial bombing range in the Chocolate Mountains. From a mile away, the slate-gray structures resemble warehouses or perhaps a factory. An unassuming road sign announces “Calipatria State Prison.” This is the outer rim of Los Angeles’s ecology of fear, and it has no equivalent on Burgess’s chart.
Calipatria, which opened in 1993, is a “level 4,” maximum security prison that currently houses 10 percent of California’s convicted murderers, 1,200 men. Yet the guard boothat the m ain gate is unmanned, as are 10 of its 12 perimeter gun towers. If the startling absence of traditional surveillance looks negligent, it is deliberate policy. As Daniel Paramo, the prison’s energetic public relations officer, explains, “The warden doesn’t trust the human-error factor in the gun towers; he puts his faith, instead in Southern California Edison.
Paramo is standing in front of an ominous 13-foot electric fence, sandwiched between two ordinary chain link fences. Each of the 15 strands of wire bristles with 5,000 volts of Parker Dam power — about ten times the recognized lethal dosage. The electrical contractors guarantee instantaneous death. (An admiring guard in the background mutters: “Yeah, toast….”)
The originial bill authorizing the high-voltage “escape-proof” fence sailed through the legislature with barely a murmur. Cost-conscious politicians had few xcruples about an electric bill that saved $2 million in labor costs each year. And when the warden quietly threw the main switch in November 1993, there was general satisfaction that the corrections system was moving ahead, with little controversy, toward its high-tech future. “But,” Paramo adds ruefully, “we had neglected to factor the animals-rights people into the equation.”
The prison is just east of the Salton Sea — a major wintering habitat for waterfowl — and the gently purring high-voltage fence immediately became an erotic beacon to passing birds. Local bird-watchers soon found out about the body count (“a gull, two owls, a finch and a scissor-tailed flycatcher”) and alerted the Audobon Society. By January, Calipatria’s “death fence” was aninternational environmental scandal. When a CNN crew pulled into the prison parking lot, the Department of Corrections threw in the towel and hired an ornithologist to help them redesign the fence.
The result was the world’s only birdproof, ecologically responsible death fence. Paramo has some difficulty maintaining a straight face as he points out $150, 000 in innovations: “a warning wire for curious rodents, anti-perching deflectors for wildfowl, and tiney passageways for burrowinig owls.” Calipatria has also built an attractive pond for visiting geese and ducks.
Although the prison system is now at peace with the bird lovers, the imbroglio roused the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) to question management’s right to “automate” the jobs of the 30 sharpshooters (three shifts per tower) replaced by the fence. To proceed with his plan to lethally electrify all the state’s medium and maximum security prisons (23 of 29 facilities) in the coming years, Director of Corrections Joe Gomez may have to negotiate a compromise with the CCPOA that preserves more of the “featherbed” gun tower jobs.
Calipatria’s four thousand inmates, most of them from the tough ghettos and barrios of Los Angeles County, shed few tears for either the ducks or the guards. Their lives are entirely absorbed in the daily struggle to survive soul-destroying clautrophobia and ever threateneing racial violence. Like the rest of the system, Calipatria operates at almost double its desing capacity. In the state’s medium security facilities, squalid tiers of bunk beds have been crowded into converted auditoriums and day rooms much as in overflwoing county jails. In “upscale” level-4 institutions like Calipatria, on the other hand, a second inmate has simply been shoehorned into each of the tiny, six-by-ten-foot one-man cells.
When “double celling” was first introduced into the system a decade ago, it helped fuel a wave of inmate violence and suicide. Civil liberties advocates denounced the practice as “cruel and unusual punishment,” but a federal judge upheld its constitutionality. Now inmates can routiniely expect to spend decades or even lifetimes (40 percent of Calipatria’s population are lifers) locked in unnatural, and often unbearable, intimacy with another person. The psychological stress is amplified by a shortage of prison jobs that condemns nearly half the inmate population to serve their sentences idly in their cells watching infinities of television. As behavioral psychologists have testified in court, rats confined in such circumstances invariably go berserk and eat each other.
The abolition of privacy, together with the suppression of inmate counterculture, are explicit objectives of “new generation” prisons like Calipatria. Each of its 20 housing units is designed like a two-story horseshoe with a guard station opposite. [See the series on this blog, "Jurassic Park Pseudo-events, and Prisons, for an explanation of the "panopticon," which is a prefiguration of what Davis describes here. -SG] Yet another variation on Jeremy Bentham’s celebrated eighteenth century panopticon prison. thei “270 plan” (referring to the guards’ field of vision) is intended to ensure continuous surveillance of all inmate behavior.