United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect
Nearly three decades after California cracked down on rising crime rates with tougher sentencing laws, the bill is coming due for what experts say has been one of the most ill-planned and flawed prison expansions in the country.
At the heart of the problem is a simple but overpowering mismatch -- lawmakers and prosecutors sent far more criminals to prison than Californians, ultimately, were willing to pay for. The result has been such acute overcrowding that critical prison programs and services are breaking down and require enormously expensive fixes.
On Thursday, a federal judge expressed shock at what he called the neglect and "depravity" in parts of the prison health care system, and ordered that a receiver take control. Court-ordered improvements could send costs soaring in a program that already spends $1.1 billion a year.
Just weeks before, the Corrections Department opened Kern Valley State Prison, built at a cost of $716 million and hailed as the last of 22 new prisons in a $4.5 billion construction program. But days later, the head of the agency, Roderick Q. Hickman, told The Chronicle that Kern Valley could not possibly be the last prison, because the system holds twice the number of inmates it was designed for and is still adding more.
Hickman said taxpayers will also have to pay many millions of dollars to upgrade older prisons and to comply with court orders demanding the correction of conditions so abysmal that they violate inmates' constitutional rights. With some of the highest costs per inmate, the most violence, the highest rate of parolees going back to prison and the worst crowding, California's corrections system is unlike any other system in the United States.
"There's California and then there's the rest of the country," said Michael Jacobson, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York and the former head of New York City's jail system. The costs of the failures are now becoming clear:
-- A major cause of overcrowding is a parole system that sends far more released inmates back to prison than other states. Decisions by corrections officials and politicians to de-emphasize rehabilitation programs, lengthen parole periods and send violators back to prison instead of giving them treatment have produced a return rate of about 60 percent, the nation's highest.
-- The health care system is so neglected that up to 30 percent of its physician jobs are vacant and some examination rooms don't even have sinks. Once the federal court appoints a receiver, taxpayers will have to pay the bill for hiring new staff and renovating facilities. Meanwhile, longer sentences are producing an aging inmate population with much more expensive medical needs.
-- In a system that moves people in and out of prisons hundreds of thousands of times a year, management is hobbled by an obsolete information technology system. Officials say a modern computer network that would cut costs, reduce errors and streamline management is years away, and could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
California's problems are particularly striking because they run counter to a broad national trend that is saving other states millions of dollars while making citizens safer. If it could fix its dysfunctional programs, experts say, a department that is projected to spend $7.3 billion this fiscal year could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Even strict law-and-order states such as Mississippi and Louisiana have embraced new models that involve elements like shorter sentences, improved rehabilitation programs and more alternatives to prison. Texas, which has a higher crime rate than California and houses nearly as many inmates, puts only a fraction as many parole violators back in prison.
"California has used policies that show no evidence of effectiveness; all they show is high cost," said Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "The state is the poster child for corrections policies that have no benefit to public safety.''
Hickman, in an interview, said of the parole system: "California, quite frankly, is aberrant compared with anywhere else in the country."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Hickman on his first day in office to be secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, which operates the adult prisons and the much smaller juvenile system. Hickman leaped into motion, declaring that he was determined to overhaul the parole system because its problems were so central to prisons being overstuffed with some 164,000 inmates.
This Friday, 20 months later, he reached a landmark when his agency took the name Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as part of the reorganization.
But some critics express deep disappointment that so little has been accomplished. While they call for urgency, Hickman said that it could take an additional 18 to 24 months to institute major new policies in the areas suffering the gravest problems.
"My emphasis with adult corrections right now is evaluating the prisons, evaluating the safety of the prisons, and then reconfiguring the prisons within the mission we now have," he said.
The foundation of the current problems was laid in the late 1970s, when Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and Republican officials toughened the state's criminal-justice policy.
As rising crime rates fed a law-and-order mood, Brown signed legislation requiring judges to impose fixed sentences. Other laws provided longer sentences for drug crimes, sex crimes and for habitual offenders, reaching a peak with "three strikes'' in 1994, which mandated life sentences for some repeat offenders.
There were warnings that the state was unprepared. In 1979 the head of the Corrections Department, Jiro Enomoto, warned that the prison population could shoot out of control, to 27,000 by 1986 from about 20,000. By 1986 there were 54,000, and the state never caught up.
Today the prisons hold nearly twice the number of inmates they were designed for, many having converted gyms and other areas into large dormitories. The crowding has raised racial and other tensions, made prisons more difficult to control, and hindered the limited treatment and education programs that are provided.
"People are consistently coming out worse than they're going in,'' said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland. He served on a blue-ribbon commission 15 years ago that examined the prisons and recommended major reforms, most of which were ignored.
"It's getting worse," said Krisberg, "and it is harming public safety because these people are going back in their communities."
Overcrowding is at the root of many of the system's failures, and parole is at the root of the overcrowding. Experts blame the state's policy of keeping most released inmates on parole for far longer periods than other states and sending most of those who violate parole back to prison, even for relatively minor offenses such as missing meetings or failing drug tests.
So many parole violators are returned to prison that they make up more than one third of all inmates. The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state research body that provides policy recommendations, estimated 18 months ago that the prisons spend about $1.5 billion a year on parole violators and parolees who commit new crimes.
When inmates do make it back home, they are ill-prepared, either by their stay in prison or parole programs, to hold down jobs or stay out of trouble. The Little Hoover Commission found that 10 percent are homeless, half are illiterate, as many as 80 percent are unemployed. Eighty percent are drug users.
Experts say that spending money on treating or training parole violators is more effective than sending them back to prison for typical stays of 90 to 120 days.
Among parolees who met drug treatment goals at intensive residential centers, only 15.5 percent returned to prison within a year of being released, compared with more than 40 percent for all offenders, said Sheldon Zhang, a professor of sociology at Cal State San Marcos.
But the Schwarzenegger administration has cut funding for some programs and poorly planned others. One drug treatment program in a prison, for example, performed poorly because it did not isolate the inmates who were in treatment from the general prison population, where they had access to drugs.
Two years ago, the state said new parole programs emphasizing treatment and alternatives to prison for violators would cut the prison population by 15, 000 inmates. But they were poorly designed, in some cases sending drug violators to halfway houses with no drug programs, and never even implemented properly. In April the state stopped sending parole violators to these programs.
Parole violation cases have risen sharply this year, one of the reasons the Corrections Department had to ask for an additional $207 million for a larger inmate base.
California already spends $1.1 billion a year on health care for inmates -- a doubling in costs in just seven years -- but the level of care is so poor that U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson has said it violates inmates' constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. Henderson, based in San Francisco, ruled Thursday that a receiver would be appointed to order improvements.
No budget figures were discussed, but most expect costs to soar, perhaps for years, because of the system's desperate needs. In a separate area, mental health, a department consultant has estimated it could cost $1.4 billion to meet the needs of the growing number of mentally ill inmates.
Last year the department asked if the University of California, with its big, highly regarded medical system, could take over management of the prison health care programs. The university said no almost immediately.
"We just were not able to take on something of that scale," said Jeff Hall, director of policy for the university's Division of Health Affairs.
High vacancy rates for doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and pharmacists who must work under difficult conditions will require heavy spending for recruitment, as well as bonuses and other incentives to attract qualified people to some remote prison locations.
The department has also agreed to hire a new level of supervisors and regional managers to oversee care, putting even more pressure on the budget.
Many doctors are furious, saying they are being unfairly blamed for the problems when they have to work in deplorable conditions and are badly overworked.
"The prisons were designed to incarcerate inmates," said Dr. Charles Hooper, who works at the California State Prison, Sacramento. "They were not designed to be the Mayo Clinic. They are essentially dungeons."
Hooper said that as many as half the inmates he sees for treatment show up without charts. The frequent lockdowns at the prison, often a result of tensions due to crowding, also disrupt proper treatment.
"It can be a fiasco at times," he said.
Health costs could also soar because of the rapidly rising number of geriatric inmates. According to an internal Corrections Department report, the total cost of an elderly inmate is three times that of a younger one. New facilities for them could also require major renovations.
The number of inmates 60 and over, among the most expensive to care for, nearly doubled in only six years, to 3,358 in 2004 from 1,781 in 1998, according to the department.
Health costs are also affected by the high level of violence in the prisons. California's prisons have roughly twice the number of violent incidents reported in Texas prisons and almost three times the number in federal prisons, both of which have similar numbers of inmates, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Some people complain that the system seems immune to even the smallest changes.
David Warren, a volunteer chaplain and member of the Family Council, which works with prison officials on behalf of inmate families, tells of a prison dentist who was concerned that the toothbrushes he was supplied were so hard that they were actually causing dental problems. He sought to have the state order softer brushes. He succeeded -- after 18 months.
"There is a mind-set that you have to see to understand," Warren said.
On a much broader level, the department's technology experts say it will be years before the prisons have computer networks that will enable them to keep track of the movements and needs of the inmates and a staff of about 54, 000.
Only recently have prison officials been able to communicate through the same e-mail system. Jeff Baldo, the head of the department's information technology division, said state-of-the-art optic fibers were installed in some prisons a decade ago, then left unused.
He said the department has one information technology specialist for every 1,000 employees; typically, a state agency of its size would need one technology expert for every 6 to 10 employees.
"I've never been in a place where you see this," Baldo said.
As a result, transferring large volumes of data from one prison to another is nearly impossible, the department's experts said. Most medical records are on paper, and when inmates are moved, their records sometimes fail to catch up. Thus prison officials often have to make decisions without complete data on inmates' records, medical conditions and special needs.
The officials said that building an adequate computer system could cost well over $100 million and take at least five more years.
"It could be less, but it also could be triple that amount," said Robert
Horel, the corrections agency's chief of fiscal programs. "It doesn't take
a very long term for the problems to grow when you're in the dark as much
as we are."
E-mail the writers at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Packed prisons a real threat
At the beginning of 2004, California prison officials crowed about the arrival of a new era, a time when the prison population would fall and some lockups would be closed. What a difference 18 months make.
The state prison population now stands at just under 165,000, which not only is the most of any state, but also sets a record for California. Instead of paroling more inmates and being able to shut down a prison or two, the Department of Corrections is building a new prison and is dusting off the cobwebs on a private facility that was closed last year.
This is not exactly what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had in mind a year ago when he promised reform in the Department of Corrections, and to make California's disgraceful prison system a national model.
Instead, the system is overloaded, with inmates crammed into facilities designed for about half their number. A good example is Solano State Prison in Vacaville, where 6,000 men live in a patchwork of buildings originally built for 2,600.
Schwarzenegger has said he believes corrections should correct criminal behavior, and that it is the Department of Corrections' responsibility to do a better job of getting parolees prepared for a life outside. He made those comments last year, and this year California is tops in the nation when it comes to ex-convicts who falter once outside prison walls, and have to go back in.
The problems of overcrowding aren't all on the outside. Penal experts know the worse the overcrowding situation, the greater the potential for violence, the spread of infectious diseases, and that inmates may be trapped in a fire.
The governor's notions for reforming the rehabilitation and parole process have mostly been slowed by contracting disputes, labor negotiations and equipment shortages. The corrections hierarchy and political structure are getting in the way of realistic, badly-need reform.
Lawmakers find it all but impossible to effect true reform, when the guards' labor union and entrenched prison managers don't want that to happen. Those same managers didn't have the foresight to see problems for which they are at least partly to blame would force the prison population up instead of down.
Meanwhile, the state's prisons are in a near-crisis mode. There is no end in sight for the parade of new inmates, who will be vying for living space with many convicts who should be learning a trade, learning how to read and getting ready for life outside the gray walls.
Schwarzenegger, for all his reform rhetoric, is part of the problem, too. His proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes a $95-million cut in the types of rehabilitation programs he said are needed. The prison system is broken and it looks like no one is willing to fix it.
Crowding at Prisons Has State in a Jam
March 13, 2005
SACRAMENTO — Sixteen months ago, the chief of California's vast prison
system told his wardens to prepare for a new day: The inmate population,
he said, was poised to plummet; prisons would be closed.
Scrambling to cope, managers wedged inmates into gyms, TV lounges, hallways — even a chapel. Some convicts bedded down on mattresses tossed on the floor. Thousands more were stacked three high in narrow bunks.
The overcrowding has pushed tensions sky-high in an already perilous environment. It has punched a $207-million hole in the $6.25-billion corrections budget. And it is jeopardizing one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's most ambitious initiatives: to make California's disgraced and troubled penal system a national model once again.
Now, instead of shutting down prisons, the state is opening a new one — and reopening a privately managed facility — in the quest for enough beds.
Criminologists and correctional officers who walk the state's cellblocks warn that overcrowding is a recipe for unrest, as well as health and fire safety problems. Already, California prisons report nearly twice as many assaults behind bars as those in Texas, which has about the same inmate population.
"You keep putting rats in a box, and pretty soon those rats go off and kill each other," said Lt. Charles Hughes, chapter president of the guards union at the state prison in Lancaster.
Overcrowding, coming even as violent crime in California continues to drop, reflects the failure of corrections officials to accurately project and plan for the most critical factor in their operation: the number of inmates they must house.
It also highlights the Department of Corrections' halting implementation of a host of parole reforms, which were expected to dramatically cut the inmate population and permit the closure of as many as three prisons.
Instead, California's correctional system — the nation's largest — now imprisons enough felons to fill Dodger Stadium nearly three times over. As of Feb. 23, the most recent survey, the number of inmates had settled at 162,276.
At California State Prison, Solano, in Vacaville, the effects of overcrowding are easy to see. Behind electrified fences and razor wire, nearly 6,000 men are doing time in a warren of buildings designed for 2,600.
In a gymnasium now called "G Dorm," the basketball hoops are folded back to make room for row upon row of triple-deck bunk beds. The noise — from televisions, radios, yelling and laughter — is constant, and the smell is about what you'd expect from 225 men living cheek by jowl who must use overworked toilets and wait in line for the few showers.
The dorm — watched by several guards on an elevated platform — evokes images of a refugee camp, only more crowded and more permanent.
"If it wasn't so crowded, it would slow down the tension," said Bryan Combes, a 34-year-old Lancaster man serving a sentence for assault with a deadly weapon.
"It's like living in a phone booth," added one his neighbors.
Officers and inmates at more than a dozen prisons agreed that the crowding had made life riskier than ever.
In makeshift dorms now common around the state, the rows of bunks obstruct sight lines for guards and make inmates and staff more vulnerable to attack. The cramped spaces, plus toilets that frequently fail and long waits for visits, medical appointments, canteen purchases and meals, increase the likelihood of fights.
Officers said some inmates, desperate for privacy and fearful of assaults, violated rules in hopes that a disciplinary citation would get them moved from an open dorm into a cell. So it goes at Mule Creek State Prison, where inmate lounges once used for watching TV and playing board games now hold beds for 40 convicts. Throughout the system, about 10,000 prisoners are now in what officials call "ugly beds" — those jammed into recreation rooms, hallways and other places not designed as living quarters.
"It's more work and more tension," said Lt. George King at Mule Creek, in the Sierra foothill town of Ione about 45 miles southeast of Sacramento. Inmates feel fearful in the temporary dorms, he said, and routinely have their possessions stolen.
Increased idleness compounds the problem. Without gyms and day rooms for recreation, without enough jobs and educational and vocational classes, inmates have little to do. Under those conditions, convicts are more apt to brew the crude alcoholic concoction known as Pruno, typically made from leftover fruit juice and bread.
One prison sergeant, Bruce Carter, said there was "an extreme upswing in violence" because of alcohol consumption: "They are bored stiff," added Carter, the supervisors' union president at Wasco State Prison, near Bakersfield. "They have nothing to do but wait for Pruno to ferment, and drink."
At corrections headquarters in Sacramento, officials said they had seen no statistical correlation between crowding and violence. But in February, the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst's office reported that the rate of inmate "incidents," including assaults, had risen 18% from 1997 to 2003 — a period of significant population growth.
Officers who walk the beat note that other confrontations go unreported. And they say crowding may have at least indirectly contributed to the slaying in January of correctional officer Manuel Gonzalez. The father of six was stabbed to death by an inmate whose mental health troubles and violent background would normally have landed him in a high-security housing unit. Instead, officials said, he had remained in a reception center because his condition and long list of prison enemies made him difficult to place.
Corrections officials said overcrowding was not a factor in the slaying — the first of a guard in two decades. Still, experts note that when prisons are packed, their managers have limited options.
"The problem with overcrowding is that you lose flexibility in how you house inmates," said Steve Martin, former second in command of the Texas prison system and now a corrections consultant.
Fire poses another danger when prisons bulge well beyond their design capacity, as is the case with every penitentiary in California. Many inmates smoke, though it is a rules violation, or light wicks of toilet paper to conceal noxious smells in their cell toilets. And most pack their living space with reading material and possess their own televisions, fans or other appliances. The more prisoners, the more opportunities for fire. Although there are smoke alarms and sprinklers, everyone lives behind locked doors and bars that make evacuation more difficult.
At San Quentin along the San Francisco Bay shore, ground-floor corridors used as emergency exits are sometimes crammed with bunk beds, records at the state fire marshal's office show. The crowding became so severe in August that officials obtained permission to temporarily house 44 inmates in a visitor room, 30 in two classrooms and 10 in the prison chapel, records show. A staff member served as a "fire watch."
The fire marshal routinely approves such prison requests: "How are you going to tell them no?" asked Hugh Council of the state fire marshal's northern region. "They have to put them someplace."
In fall 2003, relief seemed to be in sight, as prison analysts predicted a major population decline right around the corner. Instead, it grew at a steady clip. Officials said the number of inmates sent to prison for new crimes increased 8.8% last year, to almost 43,000.
At the same time, the Schwarzenegger administration's new approach to handling parole violators — diverting those guilty of minor slip-ups into alternative programs, instead of returning them to prison — stalled. Nonviolent parolees were to be diverted to halfway houses, equipped with electronic ankle monitors or enrolled in drug treatment programs. But the reforms were set back by contracting squabbles, labor negotiations and delays in obtaining the electronic monitors.
As a result, far more violators wound up in cells than had been expected.
"The reality is, we were overly optimistic in our estimates," James L'Etoile, the corrections official in charge of parole, said recently at a state Senate hearing on the stumbling reform effort.
Other forces are driving overcrowding as well. Corrections officials said some counties were moving convicts into state custody more quickly than before, to ease population pressures on jails. During certain weeks last year, for example, Los Angeles County — supplier of more than one-third of the new prison inmates — sent 14 busloads of prisoners to state lockups, almost double the normal number.
Determined to reform the correctional system, Schwarzenegger has pledged to dramatically expand education, counseling and job-training programs inside prisons. The governor has said he believes "corrections should correct," arguing that society suffers when parolees leave state custody unprepared for life on the outside. California leads the nation — by far — in the proportion of ex-convicts who falter and land back behind bars.
But with the prisons so packed and the state's finances so grim, Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year actually includes a $95-million cut to the very sort of inmate programs he wants to expand.
"It's great to hear talk of rehabilitation making a comeback, but there's just no way it will come true when the numbers are so huge," said Barry Krisberg, president of the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "Our prison system has become this giant Frankenstein monster. It has to be brought under control for real change to occur."
George Deukmejian, the law-and-order Republican who authorized a vast expansion of the prison system as governor, voiced a similar view in a 2004 report. After leading an exhaustive investigation of California corrections at Schwarzenegger's behest, Deukmejian and his team concluded: "The key to reforming the system lies in reducing the numbers."
Despite those findings, California won't be closing prisons any time soon. Prisons director Jeanne Woodford, appointed by the governor last year, said she wanted to "take down those ugly beds" and free up day rooms, gyms and funds for inmate programs.
But the population numbers aren't cooperating. As a result, 215 beds became available in February under a contract renewed with a private prison that was closed at the end of 2003. And July 1, on a flat patch of brown earth in Kern County, the state will open a $380-million prison for 5,000 inmates known as Delano II, the 33rd prison in the system.
Some inmates are sounding the alarm about the jampacked conditions. At Solano, an active tuberculosis case last year — followed by tests showing that numerous other inmates were positive for the disease — prompted a protest by convicts who said overcrowding was increasing their exposure to communicable diseases.
More than 1,100 inmates signed petitions demanding a population cap, claiming that the crowded conditions were cruel and unusual punishment and thus unconstitutional.
Officials said they followed proper protocols in handling the TB outbreak and rejected the convicts' claims of a constitutional violation.
Prison law specialists were not surprised. Overcrowding may be uncomfortable, unfair and even dangerous, they said, but it is rarely illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that crowding is unconstitutional only if it inflicts wanton pain or if basic human needs are not being met.
"Prisoners in California are packed in like sardines in a can," said lawyer Steve Fama of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which has successfully sued the state to improve medical care and other inmate services.
"But the fact is that the courts, and our society, will tolerate a lot."
Begin Text of Infobox
The nation's largest state prison system by the numbers:
Annual budget (2004-05): $6.25 billion
Average yearly cost per inmate: $30,929
Number of employees: 49,073
Number of state prisons: 32
Number of camps where inmates are trained as wildland firefighters: 40
Number of community correctional facilities: 12
Inmate population, all institutions: 162,276
Average age of inmates: 36
Average sentence, in months: 53
Average time served, in months: 26
Commitment rate per 100,000 California population: 446
Notes: Latest figures available. Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.
Source: California Department of Corrections
Overcrowded prisons getting worse
About a recent letter on the overcrowded conditions in state prisons, Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga also is already overcrowded and short on resources.However, a recent memo was issued that will only exacerbate the problem to the extreme.
Bunks two and three beds high are being placed into the dayroom of buildings designed to hold a maximum of 200 men. These bunks will place an additional 60 men in the building as well as decrease the resources and space of that building.State prison officials will open two downstairs cells to utilize those two toilets for 60 men, a health violation if I've heard one.
The memo also instructs that a limited program will be implemented that will affect every building and every man on the yard. Dayroom and yard use will be run on a shortened and rotating basis. This, of course, decreases the availability of showers and phones, not to mention exercise and recreation.
Men will be able to call home only every three nights and they only have one shot to try to make that phone call. Similar measures have been instated at Lancaster and Mule Creek. This kind of overcrowding will only lead to heightened frustration and tension.But, of course, that may be just what the California Correctional Peace Officers Association wants to ensure job security.
After all, they will need more staff and more money to deal with those "violent" and "unruly" inmates. I honestly believe that the many recent restrictions, changes, and cuts to inmates is in part an effort on behalf of the CCPOA and the California Department of Corrections to show the public just how necessary their pay increases and need for additional staff really are.
They must stay tough on "the most dangerous beat in the state."It's
only tough because they've made it tough. Many other countries have dealt
with crime and punishment in very different ways much more successfully
than we are doing now. In fact, even other states within the United States
are much more successful than we are in California.
Sarah Chappell, Fresno
Monday, August 09, 2004
Beleaguered prison system must address population problem
It should come as a surprise to no one - not the correctional officers, not prison administration, and certainly not the inmates - that California Medical Facility and California State Prison at Solano County are appallingly overcrowded.That was the finding of the Solano County grand jury, revealed in a report released last week.
The grand jury is required by law to look into Solano County's prisons every year, and every year it's the same story: Facilities meant to house a lower number of inmates are filled to the brim. Gyms, day-use rooms and meeting spaces are all being used as cells. Triple bunking is prevalent.Initiatives intended to be emergency measures have come to be standard practice.Yes, there is some construction of new dormitories taking place. But those facilities will only keep up with demand that was projected several years ago.
The institutions are still trailing hopelessly behind the times. If a reduction in the number of inmates is on the way - as has been projected - it has yet to be seen at the local institutions. In addition, the grand jury censured CMF for a major nursing shortage. Given CMF's unique mission to provide psychological treatment and medical care for prisoners, such a shortage is devastating.
These problems must seem pale compared to the California Department of Correction's well-publicized shortcomings, ranging from fiscal mismanagement to corruption and ineptitude in the ranks. The department has two black eyes from a rash of Senate hearings and investigations that have revealed its seamy underbelly.
But overcrowding should not be dismissed as a peripheral issue. It is yet another piece in the terrible puzzle that makes up California's beleaguered prison system. Overcrowding when tolerated for too long becomes the norm and is bad for everyone - the inmates, the officers and the administration.The state must address this issue with the same sense of importance as it has tackled the fiscal and management issues.
Inmates Losing Space as Prisons Add Bunks
July 28, 2004
In a new sign of strain on California's overcrowded prison system, inmates at 14 lockups are being housed in some of the last spaces available to corrections officials — the "dayrooms," or communal spaces where prisoners watch TV, mingle and play cards.
The emergency move — outlined in a state Department of Corrections memo obtained this week by The Times — is being enacted as new inmates, primarily from Los Angeles County, continue to flood the prison system despite predictions from corrections officials that the convict population would decrease this summer.
For years, state prison officials have found creative ways to deal with chronic overcrowding, often by converting gymnasiums to dormitories. But moving bunk beds and prisoners into dayrooms has raised new safety concerns as convicted felons jostle for a shrinking slice of elbow room. And it has some insiders wondering how much worse the crowding can get.
"This is it — we're to the rim," said Lt. Charles Hughes of the state prison in Lancaster, where four dayrooms are now jammed with full-time inhabitants. "Let's hope people stop committing crime."
California's prison system — the nation's largest, with an inmate population of about 160,000 since the late 1990s — has operated at or near capacity for years, corrections officials say. No new prison has opened since 1997, and the only one under construction, called Delano II in Kern County, will not open until April.
The new crisis has emerged as good news collides with bad. In Los Angeles County, aggressive policing — spurred in part by Chief William J. Bratton's policies in the Los Angeles Police Department — has pushed total arrests up by more than 10%, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Chief Chuck Jackson, who oversees the booking and release of inmates at county jails.
"We're on track for booking 180,000 inmates into our system this year. That's [about] 25,000 more than last year," Jackson said.
But the deluge of new convicts has overwhelmed the beleaguered and cash-strapped state prisons.
By this spring, corrections officials had hoped that new alternatives to prison for parole violators — such as rehabilitation programs and house arrests — would lower the inmate population. Instead, the prisons have had to deal with 1,200 unexpected inmates, many from Los Angeles County jails.
In response, the Corrections Department began "triple-bunking" inmates in dormitories at three prisons where the norm had been two-bed bunks.
In mid-July, another unexpected wave of L.A. County inmates numbering nearly 1,800 began arriving.
The new plan calls for adding more than 2,600 beds this month and in August to accommodate the increase. Most of the beds are being set up in dayrooms and former vocational classrooms closed due to budget cuts.
Margo Bach, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, could not say whether the new arrangements were temporary. "One would hope," she said.
"We don't like putting them in dayrooms," she said. "But we have no choice in this matter when we're receiving the number of inmates that we are."
Bach also could not say whether the conversion of dayrooms to dorms was unprecedented. But a number of veteran officers said they could not remember such a drastic move.
In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department began housing its prisoners in dayrooms to relieve overcrowding at its downtown Men's Central Jail.
But in recent weeks, sheriff's officials removed the beds after two inmates were killed amid the dayrooms' clutter, Jackson said.
Corrections Lt. Hughes said the bunks block guards' sight lines, making it more difficult for them to respond to a riot or fight.
"There's blind spots now," said Hughes, who is also president of the local chapter of the guards union. "The line of sight if you had to shoot is totally blocked. [Inmates] could grab an officer and drag him behind the bunk and the officers can't shoot at him."
Today, some Lancaster inmates housed in cells are seeing their dayroom privileges cut back because there isn't enough space for everyone. When they do use a dayroom, they must share it with 40 inmates now living there full time.
Hughes worries that the cuts and overcrowding may increase tensions among prisoners, who count dayroom privileges among the few perks in an otherwise dreary reality.
Cayenne Bird, director of the prisoners' rights group UNION, said her son's dayroom in Lancaster was converted to a dorm. The move, she said, was inhumane. [emphasis added]
Bach acknowledged the conundrum for law enforcement and corrections officials.
"You're cleaning up the streets, and that's a good thing," she said. "Then you get people upset because we're overcrowding."
Conflict in Confinement
Severe overcrowding in state's prisons breeds all types of trouble.
By Donald E. Coleman
(Updated Sunday, February 8, 2004, 5:35 AM)
At Pleasant Valley State Prison, inmates are housed dormitory-style
on triple bunk beds in four gymnasiums because of a shortage of cells.
A recent riot at the Coalinga prison was blamed on overcrowding,
which exists at every prison in the state. Statistics show state prisons
average 194% occupancy of their capacity. Some, like Pleasant Valley, are
filled at more than double capacity.
COALINGA -- Don't be fooled by the name. Pleasant Valley State Prison is hell on earth for many of its inmates.
The reason: overcrowding. The facility, built some 10 years ago, was designed for 2,200 men; it houses almost 4,900, or 222% of its design capacity.
Nowhere is Pleasant Valley's overcrowding more apparent than in its four gymnasiums, home to about 480 prisoners. The buildings never have seen a basketball game.
The floors are covered with three-level bunk beds and wall lockers with photos taped to them. Men must turn sideways to pass each other among the rows of bunks. Inmates in wheelchairs often struggle amid the cramped paths to reach their destination.
Joe, serving two years on a drug charge, shares one of the gyms with more than 100 men on a fall day. He is from Stockton and gives only his first name.
"I'd rather be in a cell than live like this," he says. " ... This is a terrible place. How it got the name Pleasant Valley, I have no idea."
Pleasant Valley is the essence of a widespread overcrowding crisis plaguing the state's prison system. All of California's 33 men's or women's prisons are above design capacity; Pleasant Valley ranks No. 4.
Overcrowding itself is only a part of a wider crisis with the state's prisons. Critics allege the system is poorly managed and infested with corruption. Gov. Schwarzenegger last week said he will appoint a special commission to investigate the prisons and suggest ways to fix them.
It remains to be seen whether the commission will tackle the specific problem of overcrowding and its occasionally deadly consequences. The world outside Pleasant Valley's walls learned just how deadly on Oct. 12 when an inmate was shot and killed by a guard during a riot. Prison officials gave a one-word explanation for the riot's cause: overcrowding. What they didn't explain is the cause of the overcrowding -- at Pleasant Valley and systemwide.
Tougher sentencing laws, voter demands for law and order, politicians intent on pleasing voters and a cash-strapped state budget are all part of the answer.
Which means one thing: There is no painless solution.
The state's prison system, with a $5.3 billion annual budget, is reeling.
Angry state lawmakers in January claimed the Department of Corrections was morally adrift, a charge sparked in part by a recent federal report alleging perjury by prison guards in inmate abuse cases at Folsom State Prison.
Schwarzenegger and his top prison officials are promising reform.
Over the past two decades, California built 21 prisons and added thousands of cells to existing ones. But the inmate population rose fivefold. The overcrowding crisis only got worse.
At the end of 2003, California had 144,044 inmates in the state's 29 men's prisons -- nearly double their design capacity. The four women's prisons were only slightly less crowded: 9,659 inmates in facilities designed for 5,510 people.
"Overcrowding is a major issue which leads to deterioration of the facilities and violence," says Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator of the National Prison Project, a Washington-based program funded by the American Civil Liberties Union. "Overcrowding is one component that contributes to many different problems."
Put too many prisoners in a space too small and sanitation declines. Medical costs can soar because prisoners become unusually susceptible to disease.
Medical care can deteriorate, says the wife of a Pleasant Valley inmate. She says her husband contracted Valley fever while in prison.
"He originally asked for medical care and was pushed through like cattle and told he had a cold," says the woman, who didn't want to be identified.
"He went back again, and they said he had pneumonia. Then the blood work came back with Valley fever."
She said her husband had to "fight" to get proper medical care.
Valley fever, primarily a disease of the lungs, is caused by a fungus which grows in dry soils such as the San Joaquin Valley's. Infection occurs when the spores become airborne and are inhaled by people. The disease is not passed from person to person.
A Pleasant Valley spokesman denies there is an outbreak of Valley fever at the prison, saying there have been several cases of staph infections, which were traced to prisoners from Los Angeles County.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton says inmates receive the proper medical care. She says the annual cost of housing, food, medical care and other expenses is $28,439 per prisoner.
Prison experts say inmate aggravation goes hand in hand with overcrowding. Violence soon follows.
The experts say prison overcrowding also figures in the state's high recidivism rate as too many ex-convicts, often angry and untrained for a new start on the outside, soon revert to a life of crime.
Says Gotsch: "Prisons are very violent, unsafe and damaging places. A person goes in and is never the same."
As the prison population increased over the past two decades, the prisons began running out of cell space. The state says 8,285 inmates in 20 prisons were housed in gymnasiums as of December.
Authorities say they have little choice. Prisons, says Thornton, "are always going to be above design capacity."
She describes design capacity as one person per cell. So-called rated capacity is two people in a cell. Maximum capacity, she adds, is putting inmates "in gyms or wherever you can."
Maximum capacity is the state's current philosophy.
Prison officials place inmates in four categories.
Level 1 inmates are nonviolent offenders housed in open dormitories without a secure perimeter.
Level 2 prisoners live in dormitories, but the buildings have fenced perimeters and armed coverage.
Level 3 prisoners live in cells. Sentences are longer, and inmates have several prior prison terms or significant behavior problems.
Level 4 is maximum- security.
The prisoners in Pleasant Valley's gymnasiums are Level 3.
"It's scary when you put Level 3s in a gym," Thornton says.
Just how scary became clear last September when what Thornton calls "a huge riot" erupted late at night at Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy.
At least nine inmates were injured. Officials say the disturbance started in a huge gymnasium divided into two large dormitories that housed 420 inmates. Authorities blamed the riot on overcrowding.
The Pleasant Valley riot, involving about 300 inmates in a gymnasium, erupted the next month. A guard shot and killed Alejandro Enriquez, 28, of Whittier, who was serving 15 years to life for second-degree murder.
This violence reflects a trend that has been building for more than a decade. The number of inmate incidents in state prisons nearly doubled from 6,243 in 1993 to 11,610 in 2002.
Nearly 60% of last year's incidents involved assault and battery. Prison staff members as well as other inmates were among the victims.
The state's prison overcrowding problem wasn't always this serious. In 1982, the state had 32,152 men and women serving time in a prison system with a design capacity of 24,611 -- 131% of design capacity.
Over the next 20 years, the prison population steadily outstripped new prison construction.
Gotsch, with the National Prison Project, says the increase in prison population can be traced to the war on drugs, tougher sentencing laws and Three Strikes laws.
Nearly half of the state's prison inmates were convicted of crimes against other people. According to the state, 24% are in for drug offenses.
Longer sentences are another factor. As of Sept. 30, there were 42,445 inmates -- 27% of the total -- in state prisons for second and third strikes.
"People aren't getting released as quickly," says Brant Bramer, a Fresno County Superior Court judge who handles sentencings. "Three Strikes means they have to serve 80% of their time. In the past, if they had to do two or three years, they could be out in six months. Under Three Strikes, if they are sentenced to four years, they have to serve at least three."
Three Strikes, passed in 1994, defines certain violent or serious crimes as strikes. A felon with one strike who picks up a second strike must be sentenced to at least twice the usual term for the new crime. A person with two strikes who picks up a third strike must get 25 years to life.
The campaign to pass the Three Strikes law was launched by Fresno's Mike Reynolds after the 1992 slaying of his daughter, Kimber.
Former Fresno County District Attorney Ed Hunt says Three Strikes "was good when it passed, and it probably still is, but there are some injustices."
There could be some relief to the overcrowding problem on the horizon. Sentencing reform, improvements in the parole system and a new prison in Delano are among the proposed answers.
The state expects the average daily prison population to drop through parole by more than 5,000 by this summer and by nearly 15,000 at the end of the 2004-05 fiscal year.
Lower prisoner populations, the governor's budget summary says, will allow the Department of Corrections "to move inmates out of gyms and appropriately place inmates in suitable housing situations. ... "
The Department of Corrections' Thornton says the prisoner reductions will be achieved through reforms in the parole system. This system was called a "billion-dollar failure" by the state's watchdog agency, The Little Hoover Commission.
The commission's November 2003 report says two out of three parolees in the state return to prison as compared to one out of three nationally.
"Parolees are a challenge for all states," the report says. "But California's parole policies are simply out of sync with the rest of the nation. California puts a greater percentage of felons on parole. The state offers little assistance to parolees. And then it sends parolees back to prison for violations that in other states would land a parolee in drug treatment, work furlough or some other 'intermediate' sanction."
The commission report's bottom line is that the correctional system costs more than it should and "does not provide the public safety that it could."
Thornton says reforming the parole system means restructuring education and re-entry programs to better prepare parolees for life on the outside. If they can find jobs and fit into mainstream society, they are less likely to return to prison, thus alleviating the overcrowding, she says.
Gotsch has a warning for California as it tackles prison overcrowding: "You can't build yourself out of the problem."
One of her solutions is sentencing reform. She points to Proposition 36 as a prime example.
Passed in 2000, Proposition 36 requires all nonviolent drug offenders who do not have a non-drug-related charge to be sent to treatment instead of jail.
"We probably have 2,300 or 2,400 people under Prop. 36 who are not in prison," says Nancy Cisneros, a judge who supervises Fresno County's three drug courts.
Cisneros adds that "it's too early in the process to know if [Prop. 36] is working as far as abstinence from drugs goes."
Studies have shown that treatment is seven times more effective than incarceration in reducing drug use. A 2002 California study showed that drug courts, offering court-supervised treatment programs for nonviolent drug offenders, reduce arrests by 85% and convictions by 77% for graduates.
The recent prison construction boom is over, at least for a while. Only one new state prison is planned: a 5,100-bed, maximum-security facility scheduled to open in Delano in 2005.
Thornton says the Department of Corrections "is still projecting a shortage of 7,200 maximum-security beds for 2006-07."
These efforts to reduce overcrowding are offset to a degree by other state actions. Schwarzenegger, in his proposed 2004-05 budget, says a commission will be created to recommend the closing of some prisons.
The state, as part of a cost-saving effort initiated three years ago, also is closing state prisons operated under contract by private companies. For instance, Eagle Mountain Community Correctional Facility, about 55 miles east of Palm Springs, closed last month. In the fall, it was the site of a riot in which two inmates were stabbed and bludgeoned to death by other inmates.
While state officials struggle for solutions to overcrowding, the men at Pleasant Valley State Prison endure.
The prison sits on 640 acres in the valley near Coalinga that is the source of its name.
The landscaping, thanks to the prisoners' labor, is pristine. Says prison spokesman Lt. Paul Sanchez: "With 5,000 inmates, there is no reason why this place shouldn't look like Disneyland."
But this is no Pirates of the Caribbean or Splash Mountain. This is a place surrounded by 12-foot-tall fences that carry 5,100 volts of electricity. Armed guards try to scrutinize the prisoners' every movement.
Inmates say they live daily with the threat of rape and death.
Most of the inmates have been in prison before or have significant behavior problems. The prison is a step below the maximum-security prisons of Corcoran and Pelican Bay.
There are four Level 3 units at Pleasant Valley, lettered A, B, C and D. Each unit holds about 1,200 men and has its own cells, exercise yard, workshop, cafeteria and gymnasium.
Prison officials continue to call them gymnasiums, despite their current function.
"This is the first prison in the state built with the intent of housing inmates in a gym," says Sanchez. "We needed bed space more than a gym."
The gym floor is concrete. The backboards with rims, suspended from the rafters, are targets only for dust.
"No warning shots" has been painted on the wall next to one raised basket. In other words, during a serious disturbance, the guards' first shots will be aimed at the inmates.
The bunk beds, more than 100 of them, all have prison-issue blue blankets. Drying clothes are hung from clotheslines on the front of most bunks.
Not all photos taped to wall lockers are family members or girlfriends. Pinups and supermodels are popular subjects, too.
Prisoners segregate themselves for something as simple as watching a video: African-Americans gather in front of a small screen in one corner while whites and Hispanics congregate around another screen at the opposite end. The movie on this day is "The Hulk," about a man with green skin.
Twelve toilets and two shower poles serve the scores of inmates. There is no privacy. Bodily functions are performed in front of guards and inmates.
The odor of too many bodies in a confined space is matched by unrelenting tension -- tension that often gives way to rage.
"It's not uncommon to have two, three or four fights in a row," Sanchez says.
Prisoners and guards always seem to know when something is about to explode.
"You could have 1,200 guys on the yard, and if you can hear a pin drop, it's time to get out of the way," Sanchez says.
Rammal, 33, has two years remaining on a drug charge. He gives only his first name.
"This place is very overcrowded," Rammal says. " ... There is dust flying all over. There are two and three to a bunk. That's ridiculous."
Juan Macias, 40, on his second strike for domestic violence, says doing time at Pleasant Valley is "dehumanizing."
Domestic violence. Theft. Drugs. None of the inmates portray themselves as saints. But whatever their crimes, they add, they are human.
Overcrowded Pleasant Valley tests that fact every day.
Says Rammal of the gymnasium: "The place is not fit for inmates."
The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org