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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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.