ABOUT 200 inmates were in the A yard at New Folsom when I visited not long ago. They were playing soft-ball and handball, sitting on rocks, standing in small groups, smoking, laughing, jogging around the perimeter. Three unarmed correctional officers casually kept an eye on things, like elementary school teachers during recess. The yard was about 300 feet long and 250 feet wide, with more dirt than grass, and it was hot, baking hot. The heat of the sun bounced off the gray concrete walls enclosing the yard. "These are the sensitive guys," a correctional officer told me, describing the men in Facility A. Most of them had killed, raped, committed armed robberies, or misbehaved at other prisons, but now they were trying to stay out of trouble. Some were former gang members; some were lifers because of a third strike; some were getting too old for prison violence; some were in protective custody because of their celebrity, their snitching, or their previous occupation. A few of the inmates on the yard were former police officers. As word spread that I was a journalist, groups of inmates followed me and politely approached, eager to talk. Lieutenant Billy Mayfield, New Folsom's press officer, graciously kept his distance, allowing the prisoners to speak freely.
"I shouldn't be here" was a phrase I heard often, followed by an impassioned story about the unfairness of the system. I asked each inmate how many of the other men in the yard deserved to be locked up in this prison, and the usual response was "These guys? Man, you wouldn't believe some of these guys; at least two thirds of them should be here." Behind the need to blame others for their predicament and the refusal to accept responsibility, behind all the denial, lay an enormous anger, one that seemed far more intense than the typical inmate complaints about the food or the behavior of certain officers. Shirtless, sweating, unshaven, covered in tattoos, one inmate after another described the rage that was growing inside New Folsom. The weights had been taken away; no more conjugal visits for inmates who lacked a parole date; not enough help for the inmates who were crazy, really crazy; not enough drug treatment, when the place was full of junkies; not enough to do -- a list of grievances magnified by the overcrowding into something that felt volatile, ready to go off with the slightest spark. As I stood in the yard hearing the anger of the sensitive guys, the inmates in Facility C were locked in their cells, because of a gang-related stabbing the previous week, and the inmates in Facility B were being shot with pepper spray to break up a fight.
The acting warden at New Folsom when I visited, a woman named Suzan Hubbard, began her career as a correctional officer at San Quentin nineteen years ago. Although she has a degree in social work from the University of California at Berkeley, Hubbard says that her real education took place at the "college of San Quentin." She spent a decade at the prison during one of its most violent and turbulent periods. In her years on the job two fellow staff members were murdered. Hubbard learned how to develop a firm but fair relationship with inmates, some of whom were on death row. She found that contrary to some expectations, women were well suited for work in a maximum-security prison. Communication skills were extremely important in such a charged environment; inmates often felt less threatened by women, less likely to engage in a clash of egos. Hubbard was the deputy warden at New Folsom on September 27, 1996, when fights broke out in the B yard. At nine o'clock in the morning she was standing beside her car in the prison parking lot, and she heard three shots being fired somewhere inside New Folsom. Everyone in the parking lot froze, waiting for the sound of more gunfire. After more shots were fired, Hubbard hurried into the prison, made her way to the B yard, and found it in chaos.
A group of Latino gang members had launched an attack on a group of African-American gang members, catching them by surprise and stabbing them with homemade weapons. The fighting soon spread to the other inmates in the exercise yard, who divided along racial lines. As many as 200 inmates were involved in the riot. Correctional officers instructed everyone in the yard to get down; they fired warning shots, rubber bullets, and then live rounds. When Hubbard arrived at the yard, about a hundred inmates had dropped to the ground and another hundred were still fighting. The captain in charge of the unit stood among a group of inmates, telling them, "Sit down, get down, we'll take care of this." Hubbard and the other officers circulated in the yard, calling prisoners by name, telling them to get down. It took thirty minutes to quell the riot. Twelve correctional officers were injured while trying to separate combatants. Six inmates were stabbed, and five were shot. Victor Hugo Flores, an inmate serving an eighteen-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder, was killed by gunfire.
Hubbard finds working in the California penal system to be stressful but highly rewarding. She tries to defuse tensions by talking and listening to the inmates on the yards. She and her officers routinely place themselves at great risk. Last year 2,583 staff members were assaulted by inmates in California. Thousands of the inmates are HIV-positive; thousands more carry hepatitis C. Officers have lately become the target of a new form of assault by inmates, known as gassing. Being "gassed" means being struck by a cup or bag containing feces and urine. The California prison system, especially its Level 4 facilities, is full of warring gangs -- members of the Crips, the Bloods, the Fresno Bulldogs, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi Lowriders, the Mexican Mafia, and the Black Guerrilla Family, to name a few. In addition to the organized violence, there are random acts of violence. On June 15 of last year a correctional officer was attacked by an inmate in the infirmary at New Folsom. The officer, Linda Lowery, was savagely beaten and kicked, receiving severe head wounds. Her attacker was serving a four-year sentence for assaulting an officer.
California's correctional officers are not always the victims when violence occurs behind bars; in recent months they have been linked to several widely publicized acts of brutality. At Pelican Bay State Prison at least one officer conspired with inmates to arrange assaults on convicted child molesters. At Corcoran State Prison officers allegedly staged "gladiator days," in which rival gang members were encouraged to fight, staff members placed bets on the outcome, and matches often ended with inmates being shot. As the FBI investigates alleged abuses at Corcoran and allegations of an official cover-up, correctional officers are feeling misrepresented and unfairly maligned by the media -- only adding to the tension in California's prisons.
The level of violence in the California penal system is actually lower today than it was a decade ago. But the rate of assaults among inmates has gradually climbed since its low point, in 1991. Studies have linked double-bunking and prison overcrowding with higher rates of stress-induced mental disorders, higher rates of aggression, and higher rates of violence. In the state's Level 4 prisons almost every cell is now double-bunked. The fact that more bloodshed has not occurred is a testament to the high-tech design of the new prisons and the skills of their officers. Nevertheless, Cal Terhune, the director of the California Department of Corrections, worries about how much more stress the system can bear, and about how long it can go without another riot. "We're sitting on a very volatile situation," Terhune says. "Every time the phone rings here, I wonder ..."
HIRTY years ago California was renowned for the liberalism of its criminal-justice system. In 1968 an inmate bill of rights was signed into law by Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California. More than any other state, California was dedicated to the rehabilitative ideal, to the belief that a prison could take a criminal and "cure" him, set him on the right path. California's prisons were notable for their many educational and vocational programs and their group-therapy sessions. In those days every state in the country had a system of indeterminate prison sentences. The legislature set the maximum sentence for a crime, and judges and parole boards tried to make the punishment fit the individual. California's system was the most indeterminate: the sentence for a given offense might be anything from probation to life. The broad range of potential sentences gave enormous power to the parole board, known as the Adult Authority; a prisoner's release depended on its evaluation of how well his "treatment" was proceeding. One person might serve ten months and another person ten years for the same crime.
Although indeterminate sentencing had many flaws, one of its virtues was that it gave the state a means of controlling the size of the prison population. If prisons grew too full, the parole board could release inmates who no longer seemed to pose a threat to public safety. Governor Reagan used the Adult Authority to reduce the size of California's inmate population, giving thousands of prisoners an early release and closing one of the state's prisons. By the mid-1970s, however, the Adult Authority had come under attack from an unusual coalition of liberals, prisoners, and conservative advocates of law and order. Liberals thought that the Adult Authority discriminated against minorities, making them serve longer sentences. Prisoners thought that it was unfair; after all, they were still in prison. Conservatives thought that it was too soft, allowing too many criminals back on the street too soon. And no one put much faith in the rehabilitative effects of prison. In 1971 seventeen inmates and seven staff members were killed in California prisons. The following year thirty-five inmates and one staff member were killed.
California was one of the first states in the nation to get rid of indeterminate sentencing. The state's new law required inmates to serve the sentence handed down by the judge, with an allowance for "good time," which might reduce a prison term by half. The law also amended the section of the state's penal code that declared the ultimate goals of imprisonment: the word "rehabilitation" was replaced by the word "punishment." In 1976 the bill was endorsed and signed into law by a liberal Democrat, Governor Jerry Brown.
As liberalism gave way to demands for law and order, California judges began to send a larger proportion of convicted felons to prison and to give longer sentences. The inmate population started to grow. Sentencing decisions made at the county level, by local prosecutors and judges, soon had a major impact on the state budget, which covered the costs of incarceration. Tax cuts mandated by Proposition 13 meant that county governments were strapped for funds and could not maintain local jails properly or pay for community-based programs that administered alternative sentences. Offenders who might once have been sent to a local jail or a halfway house were now sent to a state prison. California's criminal-justice system slowly but surely spun out of control. The state legislature passed hundreds of bills that required tough new sentences, but did not adequately provide for their funding. Judges sent people to prison without giving any thought to where the state would house them. And the Department of Corrections was left to handle the flood of new inmates, unable to choose how many it would accept or how many it would let go.
In 1977 the inmate population of California was 19,600. Today it is 159,000. After spending $5.2 billion on prison construction over the past fifteen years, California now has not only the largest but also the most overcrowded prison system in the United States. The state Department of Corrections estimates that it will need to spend an additional $6.1 billion on prisons over the next decade just to maintain the current level of overcrowding. And the state's jails are even more overcrowded than its prisons. In 1996 more than 325,000 inmates were released early from California jails in order to make room for offenders arrested for more-serious crimes. According to a report this year by the state's Little Hoover Commission, in many counties offenders who are convicted of a crime and given sentences of less than ninety days will not even be sent to jail. The state's backlog of arrest warrants now stands at about 2.6 million -- the number of arrests that have not been made, the report says, largely because there's no room in the jails. According to one official estimate, counties will need to spend $2.4 billion over the next ten years to build more jails -- again, simply to maintain the current level of overcrowding.
The extraordinary demand for new prison and jail cells in California has diverted funds from other segments of the criminal-justice system, creating a vicious circle. The failure to spend enough on relatively inexpensive sanctions, such as drug treatment and probation, has forced the state to increase spending on prisons. Only a fifth of the felony convictions in California now lead to a prison sentence. The remaining four fifths are usually punished with a jail sentence, a term of probation, or both. But the jails have no room, and the huge caseloads maintained by most probation officers often render probation meaningless. An ideal caseload is about twenty-five to fifty offenders; some probation officers in California today have a caseload of 3,000 offenders. More than half the state's offenders on probation will most likely serve their entire term without ever meeting or even speaking with a probation officer. Indeed, the only obligation many offenders on probation must now fulfill is mailing a postcard that gives their home address.
California parole officers, too, are overwhelmed by their caseloads. The state's inmate population is not only enormous but constantly changing. Last year California sent about 140,000 people to prison -- and released about 132,000. On average, inmates spend two and a half years behind bars, and then serve a term of one to three years on parole. During the 1970s each parole agent handled about forty-five parolees; today each agent handles about twice that number. The money that the state has saved by not hiring enough new parole agents is insignificant compared with the expense of sending parole violators back to prison.
About half the California prisoners released on parole are illiterate. About 85 percent are substance abusers. Under the terms of their parole, they are subjected to periodic drug tests. But they are rarely offered any opportunity to get drug treatment. Of the approximately 130,000 substance abusers in California's prisons, only 3,000 are receiving treatment behind bars. Only 8,000 are enrolled in any kind of pre-release program to help them cope with life on the outside. Violent offenders, who need such programs most of all, are usually ineligible for them. Roughly 124,000 inmates are simply released from prison each year in California, given nothing more than $200 and a bus ticket back to the county where they were convicted. At least 1,200 inmates every year go from a secure housing unit at a Level 4 prison -- an isolation unit, designed to hold the most violent and dangerous inmates in the system -- right onto the street. One day these predatory inmates are locked in their cells for twenty-three hours at a time and fed all their meals through a slot in the door, and the next day they're out of prison, riding a bus home.
Almost two thirds of the people sent to prison in California last year were parole violators. Of the roughly 80,000 parole violators returned to prison, about 60,000 had committed a technical violation, such as failing a drug test; about 15,000 had committed a property or a drug crime; and about 3,000 had committed a violent crime, frequently a robbery to buy drugs. The gigantic prison system that California has built at such great expense has essentially become a revolving door for poor, highly dysfunctional, and often illiterate drug abusers. They go in, they get out, they get sent back, and every year there are more. The typical offender being sent to prison in California today has five prior felony convictions.
HE California legislature has not authorized a new bond issue for prison construction since 1992, deadlocked over the cost. Meanwhile, the state's "Three Strikes, You're Out" law has been steadily filling prison cells with long-term inmates. Don Novey, the head of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), helped to gain passage of the law. He now worries that if California's prison system becomes much more overcrowded, a federal judge may order a large-scale release of inmates. Novey has proposed keeping some nonviolent offenders out of prison, allowing judges to give them suspended sentences and a term of probation instead. He has also advocated a way to save money while expanding the penal system:build "mega-prisons." California already builds and operates the biggest prisons in the United States. A number of California prisons now hold more than 6,000 inmates -- about sixtimes the nationwide average. The mega-prisons proposed by the CCPOA would house up to 20,000 inmates. A few new mega-prisons, Novey says, could satisfy California's demand for new cells into the next century.
Correctional officials see prison overcrowding as grounds for worry about potential riots, bloodshed, and court orders; others see opportunity. "It has become clear over the past several months," Doctor R. Crants said earlier this year, "that California is one of the most promising markets CCA has, with a burgeoning need for secure, cost-effective prison beds at all levels of government." In order to get a foothold in that market, CCA announced it would build three prisons in California entirely on spec -- that is, without any contract to fill them. "If you build it in the right place," a CCA executive told The Wall Street Journal, "the prisoners will come." Crants boasted to the Tennessean that California's private-prison industry will be dominated by "CCA alone." Executives at Wackenhut Corrections think otherwise. Wackenhut already houses almost 2,000 of California's minimum-security inmates at facilities in the state. The legislature has recently adopted plans to house an additional 2,000 minimum-security inmates in private prisons. Wackenhut and CCA have opened offices in Sacramento and hired expensive lobbyists. The CCPOA vows to fight hard against the private-prison companies and their anti-union tactics. "They can build whatever prisons they want," Don Novey says. "But the hell if they're going to run them." One of the new CCA prisons is rising in the Mojave Desert outside California City, at a cost of about $100 million. The company is gambling that cheap, empty prison beds will prove irresistible to California lawmakers. The new CCA facility promises to be a boon to California City once the inmates start arriving. The town has been hit hard by layoffs at Edwards Air Force Base, which is nearby. Mayor Larry Adams, asked why he wanted a prison, said, "We're a desperate city."
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