Here’s a bit of trivia: what do an 800-pound gorilla and a sinking ship have in common? They have both been recently invoked to describe California’s overcrowded prison system.
“The California prison crisis is like a ship slowly taking on water,” California State Senator Jackie Speir (D) said in an October 27 statement. Alexander Busansky, director of a prison improvement institute, agreed. “When it comes to prison systems, California is the 800-pound gorilla,” Busansky told the Washington Post.
These dire descriptions after an emergency summer legislative session come after Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger declared a prison emergency on October 4. In November, the Governor’s administration began the process of shipping almost 2,300 inmates to private, out-of-state correctional facilities.
The latest development in the prison crisis is two November 13 federal lawsuits, each alleging that inmates are suffering inadequate health care and poor conditions as a result of overcrowding. The claims in the Plata v. Schwartzenegger and Coleman v. Schwartzenegger rest on the fact that 17,000 California prison inmates are being housed in alternate shelters, such as gyms.
“I’ve got over 17,000 inmates, who are housed in unsafe environments,” Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation James Tilton testified before a prison commission on September 25. “They’re in gymnasiums. They’re in day rooms, extreme situations where we have to reduce that overcrowding.”
The basic problem is overpopulation. According to data from the CDCR, the prison population at the beginning of 2006 was 168,035 inmates, while bed capacity was 87,250. The total prison population exceeded the carrying capacity by 186.3 percent.
Now, the population in California’s 33 prisons and other correctional facilities stands at approximately 173,000 inmates, according to a press release from the Office of the Governor. By contrast, a state prison committee appointed by Governor Schwartzenegger and headed by former Governor George Deukmejan reported in 2004 that the prison system’s designed capacity is roughly 78,000 prisoners.
“California prisons are presently filled to the breaking point, with populations exceeding both design capacity and ‘safe and reasonable capacity,’ and far exceeding operable capacity,” the Corrections Independent Review Panel concluded.
Nor do correctional officials foresee any stall in incoming felons. The CDCR estimates that by spring 2012, the prison population will jump to almost 190,000 inmates. This exceeds the system’s design capacity by nearly 200 percent. Worse, corrections officials predict that in June 2007, prison wardens will have to refuse incoming prisoners from county jails.
The reasons for California’s prison debacle are numerous. The first is an extremely high recidivism rate. Offenders frequently return to California prisons after being re-arrested or violating parole.
According to research by UC Irvine criminology professor Joan Petersilia, California has the highest prison return rate in the nation. While most of these are parole violations, Petersilia has found that 80 percent of parolees returning to prison return for new crimes.
“Most prisoners spend their lives cycling in and out, ‘doing life on the installment plan,'” Petersilia wrote in a study for the Center of Evidence-Based Corrections. State data shows that 66 percent of inmates return to prison within three years of release.
Sentencing has also increased California prison population size. Some prisoners are sentenced under laws that increase the penalties for repeat felons.
For example, studies from the Public Policy Institute of California show that 26 percent of prisoners are incarcerated under either the Three Strikes law or You’re Out law. Twenty-one percent of California inmates have two strikes, and five percent are serving 25-to-life sentences for their third strikes. Overall, twelve percent of California prisoners are imprisoned for life.
Experts such as Amanda Bailey and Joseph Hayes from the Public Policy Institute of California believe that tough sentencing laws have helped inflate the prison population. “The three strikes law and truth in sentencing laws have produced longer sentences and increased time served, respectively,” they wrote.
In the meantime, 8.2 percent of the California state budget is devoted to corrections, $7.2 billion in 2005-06, according the California Department of Finance. The CPPI estimates that the California corrections system costs $194 each year per capita.
“California recycles rather than rehabilitates men and women who break the law,” Speir said.
According to Petersilia, the CDRC needs to use parole technicalities to arrest more severe offenders, while prosecuting parolees on new crimes instead of using the parole violation to incarcerate them. Further, she concluded that California does not do as well as other states to ensure job-training programs and substance abuse educations are a top priority.
“Recidivism is tightly linked to the failure to address the high-need inmates in California,” Petersilia wrote. “Weakness in rehabilitation programming ultimately amounts to weakness in protecting the public from repeat offenders.”