The Magazine

California Behind Bars

Overcrowding, unionization and other prison problems.

Apr 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 29 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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Lancaster, Calif.

Surrounded by subdivisions with names like Almond Valley and Sierra Vista, the California State Prison in Lancaster looks more like an industrial park than a maximum-security facility. But the lethal throb of high voltage electricity coursing through its double-perimeter fence leaves no doubt that this is a place one enters with trepidation.

"This prison opened in 1993 with a capacity of 2,200, but today we have 4,300 prisoners, 468 of which are in temporary beds," says warden William Sullivan as we stroll across a common monitored by marksmen in looming guard towers. "I get 200 new inmates a week and 8,000 more are waiting in L.A. County jails for room to move in here."

The extent of the crowding becomes apparent when we enter a gymnasium filled with rows of bunks stacked three high. More than 120 prisoners wander through the maze of beds waiting assignment to other prisons. That they live in relative peace is due to the small platoon of grim-faced guards arrayed about the room like Stations of the Cross.

"Right now everybody's getting along, but things could turn in a minute," confides Royce Gresham, a 26-year-old car thief who had the misfortune to be randomly stopped at a sobriety checkpoint while on parole. "It's scary," he whispers. "People with light sentences are mixed with lifers coming through here with nothing to lose."

A short walk away in a nearby block, 200 men, many of them covered with pornographic tattoos and screaming profanities, are kept locked in their cells because the day room where they ordinarily congregate is filled with dozens of bunk beds. "California built double bed cells with the understanding that inmates could leave them for classes and other programs during the day," James Tilton, the newly appointed secretary of California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), yells over the din. "But how can we have programs when inmates are stacked to the rafters?"

Of the many unpleasant tasks with which state governors must deal, prisons probably rank at the top of the list. Unlike education, infrastructure, and the environment, prisons have no natural constituency. Most states have a prison policy that can be summed up in one sentence: Get the bastards off the streets.

Over the past quarter century, California has done exactly that. The main tool prosecutors use is a "Three Strikes" law that mandates lifetime incarceration for people convicted of three felonies. It's a great law. Since its adoption in 1994, thousands of the state's most violent offenders have been locked away for good. Unfortunately, these sociopaths all too often are joined behind bars by nonviolent drug offenders, technical parole violators, and people who are more mentally ill than criminal.

Tough-on-crime sentencing enhancements, less discretion for trial judges, and the switch from indeterminate to fixed sentencing have resulted in a 600 percent increase in California's prison population between 1980 and 2006. Designed to hold 81,000 inmates, California's 33 prisons now house close to 174,000 men. Crowding is so intense that 16,000 convicts sleep in hallways, classrooms, and other areas not intended for habitation. Projections indicate that 23,000 additional inmates will be added within five years, which could prompt a corresponding jump in a suicide rate that already is twice the national average for prisoners.

Declaring the prison system a "powder keg," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this year announced a $10.9 billion prison expansion program. But with the state already $5.5 billion in debt, there is little enthusiasm for building more prisons when bridges, schools, and freeways also need improvement. Indeed, a recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that more than half of the state's voters oppose using new state revenues for prisons.

Schwarzenegger has little room to maneuver. One year ago a federal court-appointed receiver took command of inmate medical care. The courts also oversee juvenile programs, parole issues, and mental health and dental care.

Judicial oversight does not come cheap. Empowered with other people's money, federal courts have ordered the CDCR's Division of Juvenile Justice to spend approximately $120,000 on each of the state's 2,700 juvenile wards. Increased funding for medical programs has driven up the cost of maintaining an adult inmate to $43,287 a year--a sum that would more than cover the housing and feeding of low-risk convicts in Best Western motels.

Three federal courts propose to cap California's inmate population, the ultimate Procrustean solution to prison overcrowding. Meanwhile, the state's most liberal U.S. district judge, Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, is prepared to go even further. He is threatening to release prisoners early if the state does not reduce the crowding problem by June.

In reality, felons already are being released back into the community. Twenty California counties have court-ordered population caps on their jails. An additional 12 counties have imposed population caps on themselves to avoid costly litigation. These population caps mean that someone must be released when a new inmate is admitted to a full jail. As a consequence, 233,388 individuals avoided incarceration in 2005, or were released early from county jail sentences, because of a lack of space.

Schwarzenegger inherited most of the present prison problem from his predecessor Gray Davis who, in return for massive political contributions from the California Correctional Police Officers Association (CCPOA), closed four nonunion prisons and then gave the state's 32,000 prison guards a 30 percent raise. Today the average salary of a prison guard, $70,000, can easily climb above $100,000 with overtime.

The CCPOA may be the state's most powerful employee union. Certainly it is the most adept at gaming the initiative process. In 2004, it defeated a proposition that would have limited the Three Strikes law to violent felonies. That same year it also thwarted Schwarzenegger's effort to create alternatives to prison for low-level parole violators. In 2006, CCPOA money was decisive in passing a California version of Jessica's Law and preventing a special legislative session from making progress on the overcrowding issue. (Politicians did agree, however, to curtail the practice of shackling pregnant offenders during childbirth.)

The union's most recent victory occurred in February when it went to court to block the governor's attempt to reduce overcrowding by transferring prisoners to private facilities in Arizona and Tennessee. "We believe corrections is inherently a governmental function, and the court agreed," says CCPOA spokesman Lance Corcoran. "The badge should represent the People, not Acme Corrections."

Thirty years ago, California prisons stressed rehabilitation. Inmates received indeterminate sentences that could be whittled down with good behavior, academic study, and work in a prison industry. In 1976, after courts throughout the United States mandated more specificity in sentencing, California abolished indeterminate sentencing and discretionary parole release. Henceforth, the severity of the offense, not the character of the offender, would determine the length of a sentence. Determinate sentences that allowed a prisoner to know exactly how much time he had to serve were seen as a victory for inmates. They weren't. Prevented from getting out early, inmates had no incentives for good behavior. Neither did prison officials see the need to rehabilitate convicts who would be staying for longer periods of time.

California's failure to rehabilitate its prisoners fuels the cycle of violence. Of the approximately 120,000 inmates released annually, about 70 percent return to prison within 24 months.

The philosophical shift from rehabilitation to punishment has made prisons unbearable. Just ask Pat Nolan, the former Republican leader of the California Assembly who in 1994 was caught in an FBI sting, charged with racketeering, and spent 29 months in a federal penitentiary.

"People don't get a second chance inside a California prison," says Nolan, now a vice president with the Prison Fellowship ministry. "It's like Dante's Inferno--'abandon hope all ye who enter here.'"

Denied the ability even to study for the GED, equivalent to a high school diploma, much less to envision a better life, many inmates lose themselves in drugs or seek protection from gangs. "The main problem with some California prisons is living day after day with the idea that something might go wrong at any time," says Saint James Harris Wood, 51, a Lancaster inmate serving 23 years for second-degree robbery. "Before arriving here, I could be on the yard playing cards, bearing no grudges against anyone, and if the white 'shot callers' decide to start a riot I have to jump and easily could be killed over an issue unknown to me."

For Harris Wood, life in prison changed dramatically two years ago when he arrived at the Lancaster State Prison and discovered the Honor Program. Organized by inmates and open to prisoners without discipline problems, the program allows prisoners who promise not to fight or use drugs and agree to disavow racism to live together away from the gangs.

The program has produced an 85 percent decline in violence and 88 percent reduction in weapons-related incidents, according to state senator Gloria Romero, who chairs the California Assembly's Senate Public Safety Committee. There have been cost savings of $200,000 from the reduction of staff time needed to document violent incidents.

Yet despite the program's success, both the department of corrections and the union have doubts about its worth. "I suspect that many of those in top administrative positions simply cannot grasp the concept of rehabilitation," said convicted murderer Ken Hartman in a letter to this reporter smuggled out of the prison. "They fear this program will topple their empire of concrete and razor wire."

Says one civilian employee of the Lancaster prison who requests anonymity for fear of retaliation, "These men [in the Honor Program] don't want to fight, but the guards call them names trying to provoke a response. Their idea of rehabilitation is to keep people in a cage and poke them with a stick."

Faced with the specter of prisoners being released, California's legislature finally seems ready to reform parole, establish rational sentencing guidelines, and move low-risk offenders to community detention facilities instead of massive state prisons.

"What has been lacking is the political will to solve the problem," the state's Little Hoover Commission noted in a recent report. "Lawmakers afraid of being labeled 'soft on crime' have allowed the correctional system to decay and as a result of their negligence, California spends more on corrections than most countries in the world, and reaps fewer public safety benefits."

"We can start by finding a more appropriate way to deal with those prisoners who are serving 25-year mandatory minimum sentences for nonserious, nonviolent third strikes," says Sharon Dolovich, a Cambridge Ph.D. who teaches prison law and legal ethics at the UCLA Law School. For Gov. Schwarzenegger, who's been calling for action since taking office four years ago, the time seems right.

David DeVoss, editor of East-West News Service, is based in Los Angeles.

Muffled Voices from the Hole

Until they relented to political pressure last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the prison guards' union, where real power is vested, wanted to discontinue the Honor Program at the California State Prison in Los Angeles County despite its measurable success. The reversal allows the program's 1,000 prisoners to remain segregated, but does nothing to correct the flaws endemic to the entire system.

Locked down for months at a time, the program's creator, Ken Hartman, was placed in solitary confinement in The Hole after he started a website arguing for the Honor Yard's right to exist. The three prisoners quoted here were unable to call out of the prison but responded to questions about the program and the guards who wanted to kill it with written responses smuggled out of the prison.

The stabbing ratio per inmate in the Honor Yard is the lowest in the state [prison system] and actually better than some small towns with a similar population. In return for this safest of yards I had to sign a document swearing that I wouldn't attack anyone and that I would submit to random drug tests. That's a fair trade.

Saint James Harris Wood, 51, serving 23 years for second-degree robbery

Inmates in some of the more violent prisons see Honor Program supporters as "working for the other team." According to hardcore prison protocols, inmates are not permitted to relate to the staff or administration in a mature manner.


Cole Bienek, 38, serving 16 years to life for second-degree murder

Being placed in the hole is a traumatic experience. You are separated from your property, your regular program, the telephone, all of the little accoutrements of a prisoner's life that make this experience tolerable. It starts by being strip-searched and placed in a separate building by yourself. It is no coincidence that suicide rates in the hole are vastly higher than in the [general prison] population.


Ken Hartman, 46, life sentence for murder

Lancaster has had four wardens over the past five years and three of them won't support the program because of the guards' union. I can't help but compare the guards who are against us to the unreasonable convicts among us who believe that brute force is the answer to everything.


Saint James Harris Wood

The CCPOA [guards' union] doesn't care whether or not there is an Honor Program. They see prisoners as animals, vicious predators who will descend into violence at the drop of a hat.


Cole Bienek

With a minimal amount of effort, and a truly revolutionary change in the mindset of the prison system, most yards could function as well as this one. If this happened, and we have proved it can, the mentality of combat and violence that defines the current approach would have to be abandoned.

Ken Hartman