Deadline Looms for California's Inmate-Reduction Plan

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tours a prison facility in Chino where inmates rioted last month. Schwarzenegger was accompanied by Aref Fakhoury, left, the acting warden of the prison.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tours a prison facility in Chino where inmates rioted last month. Schwarzenegger was accompanied by Aref Fakhoury, left, the acting warden of the prison. (By Bob Chamberlin -- Associated Press)
By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- California has until week's end to come up with a plan to reduce by nearly a quarter its population of 154,000 prison inmates.

A federal three-judge court mandated the plan last month after finding that California had not done enough to remedy severe overcrowding, resulting in continued constitutional violations and unnecessary deaths at a rate of one prisoner per week. State officials must submit a two-year plan by Sept. 18 that reduces the population by 40,000.

Legal experts say the order -- stemming from ongoing lawsuits filed years ago -- is unprecedented in the years since Congress passed legislation that made it tougher for federal courts to intervene in state prison matters.

"There's never been anything like it," said Sharon Dolovich, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center. "The overcrowded facility is California's entire prison system, which is enormous."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and some other state officials, particularly Republicans, have tried unsuccessfully to secure a delay while the state appeals the ruling. They contend that the order could force the state to dump tens of thousands of inmates onto the streets, jeopardizing public safety and further straining the already cash-strapped state.

"We must find a way to cut costs and relieve overcrowding, but without sacrificing public safety," Schwarzenegger said last month at a Chino prison, where 1,300 inmates had recently torched housing and injured hundreds in a riot.

Increasingly, states are looking to reduce their prison populations through streamlined probation, parole and alternative sentences. The shift comes as governors and legislatures look with alarm at prison costs that eat up large portions of their budgets.

California is no exception. The state is home to the country's worst fiscal crisis and the largest corrections system. When it comes to prisons, California outspends most countries. The state anticipates spending $9.5 billion on the system this fiscal year, said Seth Unger, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

But California's system is in crisis. For decades, it has been fed by tough-on-crime policies but starved for resources. In turn, its inmate population peaked within the last three years at more than 173,000. Facilities operate at nearly double their capacity, forcing prisoners into cramped gymnasiums and prison staff to oversee inmates outnumbering them by hundreds.

Overcrowding led Schwarzenegger in 2006 to declare a state of emergency in California's 33 prisons. Some of the facilities were so choked that more than 15,000 inmates were deemed at risk in matters involving health and safety. Legislation was passed a year later to build more beds, among other things, but the projects are still waiting for funding, Unger said.

Overcrowding also led to two class-action lawsuits contending that inmates were not receiving a constitutional standard of physical and mental health care -- care, that is, that prevents cruel and unnecessary pain or death. Finding constitutional violations, the U.S. District Court assigned a federal receiver and a special master to oversee health-care improvements. The cases then went before the federal three-judge panel as the inmate population ballooned and problems intensified.

On Aug. 4, the judges ruled that California had not done enough to fix the problem. In their 184-page opinion, they noted how suicidal inmates were placed in tiny, freestanding cages without a toilet; doctors did not have enough room to conduct proper medical exams; and inmates went untreated and were subsequently released with exacerbated mental health problems, only to return to prison. The judges also noted how overcrowding increased lockdowns and contributed to the spread of disease.

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