California's Crisis In Prison Systems A Threat to Public

Guard towers line the perimeter of Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, Calif., part of the nation's second-largest prison system.
Guard towers line the perimeter of Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, Calif., part of the nation's second-largest prison system. (By Eric Paul Zamora -- Associated Press)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

NORCO, Calif. -- This is what conditions are like at one of California's best prisons, the California Rehabilitation Center: Built to hold 1,800 inmates, it now bulges with more than 4,700 and is under nearly constant lockdown to prevent fights. Portions of the buildings, which date to the 1920s, are so antiquated that the electricity is shut off during rainstorms so the prisoners aren't electrocuted. The facility's once-vaunted drug rehab program has a three-month-long waiting list, and the prison is short 75 guards.

It is even worse throughout the rest of California's 32 other prisons, which make up the second-largest system in the nation after the federal Bureau of Prisons. Despite a vow from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to cut the prison population, it has surged in recent months to more than 173,000, the worst overcrowding in the country, costing taxpayers more than $8 billion a year. More of those inmates return to prison because the state has the nation's highest recidivism rate.

A senior prison official warned not long ago of "an imminent and substantial threat to the public" and fears of riots have only increased, prison officials and correctional officers said. The situation has left Schwarzenegger, who faces reelection this year, with one of his biggest political problems.

It was not always so. Once, California had the nation's premier system, studied by other states and nations. It had an admired research staff and worked to educate and rehabilitate its inmates.

But like much of the rest of the nation over the past three decades, it enacted get-tough laws with long sentencing provisions that put people behind bars for longer periods of time. Unlike many other states, however, which in recent years have looked for ways to ease prison population and lower recidivism, California has achieved little reform.

"When it comes to prison systems, California is the 800-pound gorilla," said Alexander Busansky, a former prosecutor who is executive director of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse, a think tank that works to improve prison conditions. "The problem in California is that hope is lost."

Critics of the system say it is merely reflective of the deterioration of a variety of government services, including the Golden State's educational system and its highways, that were once the envy of the nation. But what has been at work in California's prisons also reflects the effect of the nation's experimentation with tough sentencing, combined with the internal machinations of state politics.

In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, California embraced a philosophy that the state could successfully treat individual offenders through education and psychotherapy. Wardens wrote books, including the groundbreaking 1952 study "Prisoners are People," and held advanced degrees in social work. The department's research wing had 80 experts on staff.

"California was leading the rest of the nation," said John Irwin, a professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University who is a living example of the rehabilitative philosophy. Before he got his degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in the late 1950s, he spent five years in Soledad Prison for armed robbery.

The hallmark of that philosophy was what was known as "indeterminate sentencing." Judges would give defendants sentence ranges -- a few years to life -- and parole boards would determine whether the offender had reformed and could be released.

In 1977, then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D), responding to a worries about rising crime, did away with indeterminate sentencing. Three years later, state lawmakers enacted legislation that said the purpose of incarceration was punishment alone, formally writing rehabilitation and treatment out of the penal code. (Brown is today running for state attorney general on a platform that calls for sentencing procedures that would lower prison population.)

Over the next decade, California's legislature, dominated by Democrats, passed more than 1,000 laws increasing mandatory prison sentences. The climax came in 1994 with the enactment of the "three strikes" law mandating 25-years-to-life sentences for most offenders with two previous serious convictions. "People have this image of California beach politics and the left coast," said state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat from Los Angeles. "The truth is California is a law-and-order state."

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