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.