VACAVILLE, Calif. — Eighteen months ago, the gymnasium at the state prison here was not a gymnasium at all. It was a makeshift dormitory, housing 250 felons in triple bunk beds stretching from one end of the concrete floor to the other.
Correctional officers recall a tense, dangerous environment. Violent offenders, many of them sentenced to decades behind bars for assault, murder and other serious crimes, slept within inches of one another. Tempers rose often, especially during the sweltering summertime months. Fights were common.
Today, the gymnasium at the California State Prison at Solano houses no one. Triple bunking has ended. Instead, this medium-security prison is shedding inmates, with a decline of more than 1,000 offenders over the last year and a half.
The same phenomenon is happening at many of California's 33 state prisons. As the financially battered state enacts huge budget cuts, it has no choice but to downsize its sprawling correctional system, which now consumes 10 percent of the state budget and swallows more taxpayer dollars than higher education — a fact that, if public opinion surveys are accurate, Californians abhor . A single prison bed costs taxpayers $44,500 a year.
The federal courts have dialed up the pressure, putting state officials on notice that severe overcrowding — a fact of life in California prisons for years — is no longer acceptable. Two years ago, a panel of three federal judges found that overcrowding had created unconstitutionally inhumane conditions, ordering the state to reduce its inmate population by more than 40,000 — a staggering figure that eclipses the entire prisoner total of all but nine states .
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is about to weigh in on the overcrowding problem by deciding whether to uphold, strike down or modify that order. Oral arguments in the case, Schwarzenegger v. Plata , made clear that the court's decision could break along familiar ideological lines.
Liberal justices pressed California's lawyer about conditions so bad they once resulted in preventable deaths every week. Conservatives countered that while prison conditions might be deplorable, any order to reduce the population by thousands of inmates — on top of what has already been done — will endanger California residents.
"If this order goes into effect, we will see," Justice Samuel Alito said from the bench during the arguments, suggesting that the public would be safer with these inmates behind bars. "We will see, and the people of California will see."
Paths to reduce crowding
California's prison downsizing efforts began before the Supreme Court's involvement. In 2006, when the state's inmate population reached an all-time high of more than 172,000, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared an overcrowding emergency, warning that inmates and guards alike faced "extreme peril."
About 10,000 inmates were promptly shipped to private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. More recently, thousands of others had their release dates moved up as state lawmakers, usually known for enhancing criminal penalties, were forced to change course. Through an expansion of so-called "good-time credits," they authorized many inmates to leave prison ahead of schedule while reducing parole supervision for others, hoping to reduce the number sent back for relatively minor technical violations. Today, California's in-state inmate population is down to 152,000.
Governor Jerry Brown, who took office in January, hopes to keep going. Brown wants to shift tens of thousands of low-level state inmates to county jails, even though many of those jails themselves are at capacity. If enacted, Brown's plan could reduce the state prison population by another 38,000 within four years, according to a nonpartisan legislative estimate . It also may force counties to release thousands of offenders from their jails to make room for the state transfers.
In the yards and dormitories at state prisons like Solano, the word has gotten out.
Inmates know the state is under serious budget and court constraints, and many of them are counting on being freed ahead of schedule, says Randy Carter, 47, who has been incarcerated on a first-degree murder conviction in California since he was 19 years old. Carter himself is among those who could be freed. After five unsuccessful parole hearings, he was found "suitable for parole" on March 18 and is awaiting a final decision from the governor.
Al Roensch, a 37-year-old Solano inmate who has been imprisoned for 15 years on an attempted murder conviction, says rumors spread rapidly behind the walls and that inmates frequently repeat a common joke: "We're all going home!"
Limits of change
As the changes at Solano make clear, California prisons are undergoing a major facelift. Even so, critics point to the sheer magnitude of the problems that remain.
Solano, for example, continues to house about twice as many prisoners as it is designed for .While triple-bunking has ended, double-bunking has not, including in the prison's maximum-security wing, where two female prison guards monitored about 200 offenders on a recent morning.
Statewide, the story is similar. Despite recent downsizing, California prisons are at 175 percent of their design capacity. Health care behind bars remains far from adequate and even the state corrections director concedes that his counterparts in other states view his system as a model of what not to do. Prison guards complain of dangerously understaffed facilities. Meanwhile, a $7.7 billion prison construction plan signed by Schwarzenegger in 2007 has yet to result in a single new prison being built amid squabbles over land use and bond issuance.
In the notoriously divided Legislature, where budget negotiations between Brown and Republicans collapsed last week, it is difficult to find consensus on any policy, let alone one as emotionally and politically charged as prisons. Not a single Republican voted for Brown's plan to shift inmates to the counties. And with funding for the plan now uncertain, there is discussion of leaning more heavily on spending reductions to balance the budget — cuts that could speed prisoner releases and decimate what remains of inmate rehabilitation programs.
Meanwhile, fears about a spike in crime are common. Law enforcement officials warn that more releases — whether they are ordered by the Legislature or by the Supreme Court — will have predictable long-term consequences on crime, given that parolees in California are far more likely than in other states to run into trouble again.
"I'm not Nostradamus, but we have a 70 percent recidivism rate. That is a fact," says Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. "If you release 40,000 inmates, 28,000 of those will reoffend."
To study the California prison system is to wander through a maze of lawsuits, court rulings, voter initiatives, state statutes and powerful federal overseers with titles like "receiver," "special master" and "court representative." Often lost on casual observers is that vast swaths of the system are not under the state's control at all. So many players are involved in different aspects of the state's correctional policies that it is difficult — some say impossible — to keep the prison system moving in one coherent direction.
The federal courts already run health care behind the prison walls, a mammoth undertaking that has placed thousands of employees and hundreds of millions of state dollars at the discretion of one man, J. Clark Kelso, a longtime California state administrator who is now the federal receiver in charge of improving medical care. Dental and mental health care in the prisons are handled by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, with federal supervision ordered by the courts. Disability services also are under the watchful eye of a federal monitor.
Corrections policy, meanwhile, is made not only in courtrooms and in the halls of the state Legislature but also at the ballot box. Through ballot initiatives, California voters have ordered a range of criminal justice changes over the years, ranging from "three strikes" sentencing legislation to laws cracking down on sex offenders.
In the Legislature itself, partisan bickering isn't the only dynamic at work. The politically powerful prison guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, has tended to oppose policies that could result in any decline in the prisoner population, thus ensuring steady employment for its members.
Union leaders insist that is no longer the case. President Mike Jimenez and others speak of a "new CCPOA," one that has embraced inmate rehabilitation, such as job training and substance abuse treatment, as a way to close the revolving prison door. At the same time, however, the union underwrites crime victims' groups that regularly press for tougher sentences.
The union is not shy about the influence it wields. In a video it released shortly after last November's election, the union boasted that 104 of 107 candidates it had endorsed — including Jerry Brown — had won. "We had a lot of victories," Craig Brown, the union's chief lobbyist in Sacramento, says in the video. "We should get a much better reception in the governor's office going forward, and a much better reception in the Legislature."
Some lawmakers openly acknowledge the debt they owe the union. "Without CCPOA, I wouldn't even have been close," Juan Vargas, a newly elected Democratic state senator, says in the video. "CCPOA made the difference. They literally won this campaign for me, and I'm very, very grateful for that."
An uncertain future
Is lasting change possible in California's prisons?
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. For example, in 2004, Schwarzenegger renamed the state's prison agency the "Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation" in order to stress the importance of treatment programs in shrinking the inmate population. His administration later cut funding for prison rehabilitation programs by about 40 percent.
In some areas, there has been clear progress. Kelso, the federal health care receiver, has won many plaudits. His office has improved medical staffing at the prisons by hiring hundreds of doctors, nurses and other clinicians. The receiver claimed savings of more than $400 million last year by reducing unnecessary medical referrals for inmates and taking other steps. Preventable inmate deaths, while still occurring at a rate of several dozen a year, are down 30 percent.
Similarly, the state's transfer of about 10,000 inmates to out-of-state prisons has helped reduce crowding, even if it hasn't resulted in huge savings for taxpayers. Less crowded conditions at prisons like Solano have unquestionably made the environment safer for correctional officers and inmates alike. "I think we've improved in all areas," says Matthew Cate, the corrections secretary who was appointed by Schwarzenegger and kept on by Brown.
Despite the progress, any talk of righting the ship of California corrections appears premature. While many other states have taken bipartisan steps to address ballooning prison populations, Sacramento shows little sign of consensus on corrections. Republicans regularly accuse majority Democrats of being "soft on crime" and allowing violent offenders to walk free in the name of saving money. Democrats counter that Republicans have no positive ideas of their own and only want to enhance criminal penalties, keeping inmates in unsustainably expensive prison beds.
The chair of the state Senate's Public Safety Committee, Democrat Loni Hancock, puts it bluntly. Despite some improvements in recent years, Hancock says, the California prison system remains "an expensive failure."