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posted: 7/18/2011 3:00 AM

First, take care of those outside prison

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When I first heard the news story about "Pelican Bay," all I could think of was the elegant new resort in Southern California, the Resort at Pelican Hill, where the views are (at least according to my friends) drop-dead gorgeous and the food is beyond compare. Similar name, very different accommodations. And food.

Pelican Bay is the name of a maximum-security prison in California, where prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) -- reserved for the worst of the worst, for prisoners who are members of prison gangs or have committed serious crimes in prison -- have gone on a hunger strike to seek better conditions, including better food.

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When I heard the news on the radio the other day, driving home from work, I had to struggle not to start laughing.

A hunger strike by prison gang members to get better conditions? Drinking only water until they get better food? Could I make this up?

I'm sorry, but does anyone care? These are people who have not only been convicted of crimes sufficiently awful to warrant confinement in maximum-security prisons, but once they were imprisoned, they went on to become members of violent prison gangs, or to commit serious crimes in prison, or often both.

And they think they're going to win our sympathy, much less better conditions, by not eating. Sorry.

Don't get me wrong. I like to think I'm as humane as the next person. I remember the day when, as a young lawyer, I helped out on lawsuits to bring toilets instead of buckets to county jails. But those held in county jails are not violent killers, not prison gang members, not men serving life terms and then killing fellow prisoners or guards once confined. There are limits to my sympathy.

The prison system desperately needs radical changes. Thanks to the powerful Prison Guards Union and the cowardice of politicians who knew better, California, like many states, went on a spree of overbroad three-strikes and two-strikes and one-strike laws, mandating longer sentences, taking discretion away from judges to decide who warrants long-term confinement and resulting -- even with the boom of prison construction -- in conditions unfit for anyone, including offenders. Indeed, these long sentences have turned some prisons into nursing homes, paid for by those of us who struggle to provide decent care for our own older relatives who saved all their lives to meet expenses no one on the outside can afford.

I'm old enough to remember the days when kids who obeyed the law would complain, in our determination to show that everyone could be saved, that the only available jobs in high-unemployment areas would be reserved for those coming out of prison. The joke was "commit a crime, get a job." The good kids got nothing.

Times have changed. Rehabilitation is passe. Mostly, sadly, there is good reason for that. When you look at the records of many of those in maximum security -- records that involve repeated killings and rapes and attacks on innocent people -- you have a hard time coming to any conclusion but that some people are just not fit to live with the rest of us. If you don't value human life, I don't want you in my community. Ever.

Society needs to decide who we really want to imprison and who can be punished in different ways. Stealing from the boardroom actually is different from stealing on the street corner -- different because street violence too often produces death, not deficits. If you want to use drugs and destroy your life, that's different from selling them to kids or killing people to get them. Any drug use feeds a dangerous market. I'm not condoning it, but I'm not sure I want to spend more than the cost of a college education to put someone in a prison and provide three squares and free health care to punish it.

Call me heartless, but I'd rather help all the kids and parents out there who, despite their hardships, are struggling to do the right thing by themselves and their families; struggling to find decent shelter and provide adequate food to their families; struggling to make something of themselves.

I have a friend who keeps telling me we have to visit Pelican-something. Hill, not Bay.

As for the prisoners in the SHU, none of them, based on my research, are claiming they don't deserve to be in prison, but only that they want it to be nicer. I'd rather take care of the people outside the prison walls first.

2011 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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