Dealing With California's Overcrowded Prisons
NEAL CONAN, host:
Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court concluded that overcrowding in California prisons constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the state to transfer or release more than 30,000 inmates over the next two years.
Prison reform advocates welcomed the 5 to 4 decision. Critics cited Justice Antonin Scalia's description of the order as the most radical ever issued by the court.
California Governor Jerry Brown has a plan to move tens of thousands of low-level offenders from state prisons to local county jails. It's not yet clear the legislature will go along with that.
Californians, how should the state reduce its prison population? We'd especially like to hear from those of you who spent time there on either side of the bars. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Michael Montgomery joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. He's a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch.
Nice to have you with us.
Mr. MICHAEL MONTGOMERY (Reporter, California Watch, Center for Investigative Reporting): Hi Neal.
CONAN: Right now, it's important to say I don't think the state has plans to immediately release 30,000 inmates.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: No, that's right. In fact, they bristle whenever they hear this word release because they say they have a plan. In fact, there's a couple of different plans that have been floating around.
Essentially, the basic element is to transfer state inmates to other facilities. They've already done that with - by sending some inmates out of state to private prisons out of state. And the other idea is to move thousands of inmates to county jails, and they say they would only move low-level offenders.
And then lastly, what they're hoping to do is sort of try to close or slow down the revolving door by limiting the number of parolees who return to prison for technical violations.
So the state, they're not crazy about the decision, the ruling, but they say they have a plan; it will not mean a mass release of inmates. But they need money and they need support from the legislature.
CONAN: Money and support from the legislature, both of which can be hard to come by.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, we have a huge ongoing budget battle. Governor Brown is trying to get a special vote to extend certain tax increases that are set to expire. If he can get that through, then some of these reforms will move forward. If he can't, then we're in another situation which we've seen before with a budget crisis without a clear - a crisis without ending, and we don't know how that will affect the situation with the prison population reduction.
CONAN: There are very big Democratic majorities in both the - both houses of the California Legislature. How come the governor can't get his proposal through?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, it's part of the way in which the voting is done and the number of votes that are needed for the budget, but it's a complicated - the budget is infinitely complicated.
And on the issue of prison reform, Democrats are with the governor for this plan, but in other areas in the past, they haven't been fully support him, for example, sentencing reform. So he does have the Democrats. Now, he can say that, you know, they can't - that they dont have another court to appeal to, so in some ways, the Supreme Court ruling might help strengthen his hand and actually get a deal in Sacramento.
CONAN: So they know that they might do this plan. They might do another plan, but they have to do something.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: They do, and they need to bring the population down by, as you said, by about 30,000 inmates. The current population is at about 143,000. That doesn't include inmates who are serving out of state, and they need to bring it down to about 109,000. That is still over the designed capacity of the prison system, but a lower court is determined that that would bring the numbers so the system could provide adequate mental health and medical care to inmates.
CONAN: And you've been inside some of these prisons. Can you describe some of the conditions for us?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, there's two elements here. The medical care is - was the core of this lawsuit, and over the years, there have been horror stories of -at one point, estimates that one inmate was dying every week due to inadequate medical care.
I've talked to doctors who worked in the prison system who felt they were almost in a combat zone because of their lack of resources and equipment and what have you, and the numbers of inmates they were having to serve. Now, there have been improvements in medical care. There's been a federal receiver who's been overseeing that since - for six years now. So these kinds of extreme cases you're not hearing quite as much.
The other issue is simple, overcrowding. I mean we have gymnasiums. We have day rooms that are filled with bunk beds and inmates literally don't have anywhere to go. So that obviously impact rehabilitation programs. It impacts the ability of inmates just to get out their cells. And it is certainly a factor in increased violence. So you walk into this - one of these places and you'll see, really, just prisoners living cheek to jowl.
CONAN: And the court case before the Supreme Court, the decision was based on the argument that there are people who are dying in these prisons unnecessarily because of lack of care and because of the mental conditions.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: That's right. I mean these were, you know, lives were at stake. Now, the Department of Corrections here is quick to point out that there have been improvements. They have increased the staffing the levels for prison physicians and medical staff. However, they still are trying to build out facilities because the problem is, when you have so many inmates, you literally don't have enough clinic space to get inmates in for treatment or for checkups or what have you. So they still have to continue to build out this infrastructure to be able to provide adequate care.
CONAN: The first of the lawsuits that was finally decided by the court yesterday was filed, I think, in 1990. It's been some times since California has been aware that there's a looming problem. They thought they might win the case eventually - of course they lost it. But nevertheless, why has this overcrowding been allowed to get so far out of hand?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, that's an interesting question. As we all know, Californians, in part because of the rising crime rates, decided to impose much tougher sentencing laws that sent more people to prison. What Californians weren't willing to do is build more prisons, and that's the fundamental problem, if you will, a lack of space. If they want to send more people to prison, the argument is, they should create adequate space for that. So now the population is declining slightly, crime is going down, but we still have this overcrowding situation.
And just to point out, the lawsuit you mentioned, it goes back to 1990, regarding - or 1991, regarding abusive prison guards. But it does show that these lawsuits tend to take a long time to get sorted out. This lawsuit was filed in 2006, I believe.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to hear from people in California about how the prison population might be reduced. We'd especially like to hear from those of you who worked in those prisons or spent time in them.
And we'll start with Debbie(ph) and Debbie is with us from Lodi in California.
DEBBIE (Pharmacist): Hello. I'm Debbie Nordstrom(ph), a pharmacist. And I have an insider perspective on this. I did a contract - did several gigs through the California correctional system. In fact, I was a director for a short time of the Soledad facility outside of Salinas, California. That was the originator of this medical claim that went to the Supreme Court.
And it was clear to me from the onset that there were root causes to this situation and it had to do with a no man's land for pharmacy law, pharmacy regulations of the medicines. And the infrastructure was lacking, based on a lack of interest of, I guess, the Californian legislature to deal with it as it would with the civilian population. So there is a lack of laws and regulations for the health care profession (unintelligible) in particular from my perspective, that really handcuffed my ability to service this population as a director of (unintelligible)...
CONAN: And did that put lives at stake?
DEBBIE: Yes, it did. The infrastructure wasn't there for appropriate clinical oversight by the clinical pharmacy staff to ensure that the patients were being treated appropriately with the right diagnosis and the right treatment at the right time, which is in our scope of practice. (Unintelligible) I had written a letter to the attorney(ph) group for the lawsuit saying that - what the problems were, and I couldn't do my job as a clinician at the California correctional system because the state board of pharmacy did not have any regulation specific to this unique practice (unintelligible) and that was the caveat, that was a root cause.
CONAN: All right, Debbie...
DEBBIE: The other is that simply, that the citizens must recognize that these are human beings and insist that the legislature(ph) develop laws and the state boards that the health care profession has developed (unintelligible) no man's land at this time, that is equivalent to the civilians in the outside world and that - because at this time it does not exist.
CONAN: All right, Debbie. Thanks very much...
DEBBIE: Lastly, if I...
CONAN: Very quickly if you could. Want to give some other people a chance.
DEBBIE: The information systems with the computers and the medical charts are severely lacking there. There's so much that needs to be done in that area to capture and manage the information about patients and that would be a big solution here.
CONAN: All right, Debbie. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
DEBBIE: You're very welcome.
CONAN: And she describes some of the problems that she saw there at Soledad some years ago. But I mentioned, Michael Montgomery, since this decision came out, there's been a lot of - well, who's to blame? I'm sure it's been a vigorous conversation there in Sacramento.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Oh, it's always a conversation in Sacramento. I mean, as I said earlier, there has been a federal official, a receiver overseeing medical care in the prison system for some years now. And so while there are problems that continue, for example, inmates - doctors being required to perform treatment on inmates without their medical records. I mean, some of those things are still missing. But the horror stories, I think, that were in the lawsuit, I think some of those are no longer the case. And there's lots of dedicated staff who want to do a better job or want to fix the system. But there are structural complaints - mainly you have a prison system built for 80,000 people that's had as many as 160,000 inmates inside.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Montgomery at KQED, our member station in San Francisco, a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go next to - this is John(ph), John with us from Santa Rosa.
JOHN (Caller): Hello. Can you hear me?
CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead.
JOHN: Hi, yeah. I think you - you had another caller that mentioned something about the three strikes you're out law and how that's affected the overcrowding in prisons.
JOHN: I think it also goes back to things like - and you don't hear this right now in the - in all the news reports that are going on about this problem. But it really comes back to giving up on rehabilitation and putting more people in and giving up on rehabilitating them. It's really, I think the prison guard unions have had a huge impact on those problems, in creating those problems.
CONAN: Well, he's raised a couple of issues there, Michael Montgomery. There's no question the prison guards union has been an important political factor there in the state of California.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, interestingly, the union - the correctional officers union has actually supported the plaintiffs in this case. They don't like overcrowded prisons. They don't like, you know, inmates in gymnasiums where you have two or three guards in the room, having to deal with that situation.
On rehabilitation, the problem here is these problems keep feeding on themselves. If you have gymnasiums and day rooms where you would normally run some of these programs where inmates are being housed, you can't run the programs. If you don't run the programs, inmates aren't getting potentially the tools they need to make it on the outside. So they're failing on the outside. They're coming back into the prison system. That's why we have recidivism -what's one reason we have recidivism rates as high as 70 percent. So it all feeds on itself, this overcrowding. And it creates just a wide assortment of problems for the system.
CONAN: John, thanks.
JOHN: It's also after they get out of prison, because the parole agents - when I was a child, my father was a parole agent, and he would go out into the field to see the parolees in their homes, in their life. Now that there are so many parolees that the parolees go to the office to see the parole agent. The parole agent, they don't really see what's going on in their lives.
CONAN: Well, they...
JOHN: (Unintelligible) question.
CONAN: Yeah. And you cite the case - their caseload is just so huge, they don't have the opportunity to go do those kinds of things that your dad did. So, John, thanks very much.
Let's see if we go next to - this is Rod, and Rod is with us from Sonora, California.
ROD (Caller): Hello, can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes, you're on the air.
ROD: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I worked in the system for a while. I was actually an instructor in the system. And of the things that occurred in California is that we did away with a number of industrial arts programs. We've cut back on our education programs. The other major point I'd like to make out is California puts more people in jail per capita than any other state in the nation. And just by - I did some quick figures the other day.
And just by this number being released, it's going to save the state of California about a billion 400 million dollars in costs. The people they're letting out are people who, you know, have a dirty urine test or are not -totally nonviolent, you know, who have used heroin twice and got caught twice and now they're doing six years at 50, 45, 50 thousand dollars a year to keep them incarcerated. It's a ridiculous system, and this should have happened a long time ago.
CONAN: Well, Rod, thanks very much for that. There are - again, we're not talking about release, but at this point, at least, Michael Montgomery, transfer to local country jails. Of course, the sheriffs say we're happy to do that if the state can provide us the money we need to pay for that.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Right. And there is a capacity question. I mean, there is, I think, 12,000 spare beds right now in county jails. That's not enough to accommodate the kind of transfers they're talking about. So they would have to build new facilities, more money again.
The other thing is they are trying to overhaul parole. They're trying to -they've created this idea of non-revocable parole or unsupervised parole, so that people, certain people considered low-risk won't be sent back to prison for technical violations. I think the big concern here is whether by - just by simply transferring people to county facilities, if they're just kicking the can down the road, or whether there can be fundamental structural changes in the way people are sentenced so that it, again, kind of slows or stops the revolving door. That's still very much a big question right now.
CONAN: Is there a sense, though, that the Supreme Court decision has broken a logjam and that now something will be done?
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Well, there's a hope. And I think that you talk to some people in the governor's office and they are delighted with this ruling because it really does strengthen his hand. But again, you know, the politics of Sacramento are sometimes hard to predict and it seems like there could be a consensus on this. There's - they can't appeal this ruling. But stranger things have happened, and this is, unfortunately, tied up with the larger question of the budget, which is still very much unresolved.
CONAN: Michael Montgomery, thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. MONTGOMERY: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Michael Montgomery, a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch. He joined us from our member station in San Francisco, KQED.
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