California Too Broke to Treat Prisoners Humanely, Not Too Broke for Boondoggles

For years now, a class action suit has been trudging through the court system filed on behalf of prisoners of the State of California asking for relief from conditions of imprisonment that fall below Constitutional standards.

They have good evidence for this, and so the highest court to yet hear their case agreed with them — saying, for instance, that California provides such an inadequate level of health care for those it imprisons that this is killing a prisoner every month and causing others to suffer needlessly from preventable and curable diseases.

The court ordered California to fix things, California agreed, but then dragged its heels instead. So four years (and you do the math on how many preventable deaths) later, over California’s strenuous objections, the court appointed a receiver with substantial power to oversee the prison health system and enforce the court’s orders. The receiver quickly reported that things were even worse than the court knew — “Almost every necessary element of a working medical care system either does not exist or functions in a state of abject disrepair” — and that it would take years to make things right.

California continued to drag its heels, and so finally the court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 55,000 people within three years in order to reduce prison overcrowding to the extent that prisoner health issues might in theory be managable by the existing infrastructure. California continued to delay, appealing this ruling multiple times in multiple ways to the same court, losing each time, and finally vowing to ask the Supreme Court to rule that the Federal Court of Appeals doesn’t have the power to micromanage how a state corrects a constitutional violation (which might be more credible if the state were taking any independent steps on its own).

Why is the state so reluctant? Two reasons: 1) no politician wants to run against Willie Horton ads in the next election, and 2) the California prison guards union is very, very politically powerful, and has an interest in shaping state policy so as to increase the number of prisoners, thus the number of prisons and prison guards, thus the power of the union.

As you may be aware, the state of California is in dire financial straits, for a number of reasons. The court pointed out, hopefully, that reducing the prison population as demanded in the court order might also trim nearly a billion dollars from the state’s prison budget. But the state had a better idea: the latest California state budget cuts $811 million — 40% — from the prison health care system!

But I told you that story so I could tell you this one:

Cocktails are mixed with great sincerity at Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco. Take the Clermont Affair, a marriage of pear-infused Old Overholt whiskey, a liqueur called Amaro Nonino, barrel-aged bitters and a house-made tincture of cloves.

But for state liquor license regulators, the concoction itself is flawed. On a recent Friday night, they entered the speakeasy-themed Tenderloin tavern and warned bartenders they were breaking California law by altering alcohol — infusing it with the flavors of fruits, vegetables and spices.

Mixing elaborate drinks — say, muddling mint leaves in mojitos — and serving them immediately is OK. But, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents said, Bourbon and Branch was changing the character of the booze by allowing it to mature on the shelf — “rectification” that is illegal without a special license.

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