California Gets Ultimatum On Prisons

California is under federal court order to reduce its large prison population by almost thirty percent within the next two years. The court found the overcrowded prisons inflict cruel and unusual punishment on inmates. Don Spector is director of the Prison Law Office, the advocacy group that argued the case against the state of California. He explains what prompted his group to file a lawsuit.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, from print to television to, yes, radio, media companies are struggling as the industry sheds jobs and scrambles to create a blueprint of its future. We explore how the tough media landscape is affecting journalists of color.

But first, to California, where we take a look at the state's troubled prisons. Today, the California Institution for Men in Chino remains on lockdown after a weekend riot reportedly injured 250 inmates. The riot is the latest blow to a system plagued by underfunding and overcrowding.

Last week, a federal court ordered the State of California to reduce the number of people in state prison by 27 percent over the next two years. The court ruled that prison overcrowding has led to such a dangerous situation for inmates that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The (unintelligible) on a 184-page decision said that this was a case in which, quote, "the rights of California's prisoners have been repeatedly ignored, where the political process has utterly failed to protect the constitutional rights of a minority, the courts can and must vindicate those rights."

Recently, I spoke with Attorney Don Spector. He is the director of the Prison Law Office. That's an advocacy group that argued the case against California. And he explained what prompted his group to file the lawsuit.

Mr. DON SPECTOR (Director, Prison Law Office): Well, this case began with complaints from prisoners who were not receiving anywhere near the level of care to which any human being should have. Their prisons were filled with prisoners needing medical and mental health care. And there weren't anywhere near the number of psychiatrists or medical doctors to take care of them.

MARTIN: Why are the prisons so overcrowded to begin with?

Mr. SPECTOR: They're overcrowded because the sentencing laws haven't changed in approximately 25 years. In fact, the sentencing laws have gotten harsher. So, there are just too many prisoners going into the prisons and the state can't afford to build its way out of that situation.

MARTIN: Could you just describe what the overcrowding looked like for the people who were experiencing it? Just give us a sense of the scope of it.

Mr. SPECTOR: The overcrowding in California's prisons is unprecedented. We had people from all over the country testify and none of these experienced correctional administrators have ever seen anything like it. They are all appalled. Overcrowding is approximately 200 percent of what the buildings were designed for. And some of the areas were 300 percent. There are people slammed into gymnasiums and hallways and dayrooms, where they were put in triple bunks so that the entire gymnasium was filled with prisoners, guarded only by one or two staff who couldn't possibly provide safety.

MARTIN: How would you even guard people in a situation like that?

Mr. SPECTOR: They can't really guard prisoners in gymnasiums. They have one officer at night sitting up on a platform who looks out over 200, 300 prisoners. And, for example, the former director of the California Prison System testified in court that a prisoner died in one of those gymnasiums and they didn't know about it for hours.

MARTIN: There are those who will say the comfort of these individuals is pretty low in my list of priorities. What would you say to that?

Mr. SPECTOR: What we're talking about here is not comfort but cruel and unusual punishment. Literally, the courts have found that the failure to provide the type of care that's necessary has led to scores of prisoners dying unnecessarily both from neglect to provide adequate medical care, from providing the wrong medical care, and for failing to intervene when prisoners are noticeably suicidal, or putting prisoners who are mentally ill in places where they're more likely to commit suicide. This is a terrible, unconscionable, appalling system.

MARTIN: How can California reduce the prison population so dramatically in two years?

Mr. SPECTOR: Many, many states have reduced their prison population because of budgetary and other concerns. And virtually every one of those cases, prison population has gone down but so has the crime rate. There are many ways that not only reduce the population and make conditions safer but actually improve public safety.

In our trial, many local officials from the communities where these prisoners are going testified that if they had the funds to provide the right kind of supervision and programs for people in the community, they could do a better job at rehabilitation than the prisons are doing now.

MARTIN: That was going to be my next question, which is, can the public be safe if you reduce the prison population this dramatically?

Mr. SPECTOR: There are a couple of answers to that. The first one is that data shows that parolees don't commit a great majority of the crimes. They get in the newspaper a lot but it's very, very low, in the single digits in terms of percentages. The second point, as the court held, that the overcrowding in California's prisons was actually making people more likely to commit crime. They called it being criminogenic.

MARTIN: And why would it…

Mr. SPECTOR: So…

MARTIN: …work that way? Why would that happen?

Mr. SPECTOR: Because what happens is, in this broken parole system that we have in California, people are violated for very technical reasons. For example, if they fail a drug test or they don't show up for their appointment, they are sent back to prison for three or four months where they sit on a bunk, they don't get any rehabilitative programs and they talk to other criminals. And social science research has shown that that disruption of their community life and their contact with criminals who have done things even worse than they have actually makes the low level criminals commit higher level crimes when they get out.

MARTIN: The state attorney general said that he plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court saying it's an expensive intrusion into state affairs. What would be your response to that?

Mr. SPECTOR: The first response is that the court held that taxpayers will save hundreds of millions of dollars if this number of prisoners are released. And this court took two years to adjudicate this case. And they virtually begged the state to solve this problem on its own. California state legislature considered the issue on multiple occasions and refused to do anything about it. They couldn't agree on a political fix.

MARTIN: It seems that we've been having this debate at least a decade now and the kind of the conventional wisdom has been, tougher penalties, longer sentences get tough. The argument that you are making, the commitment to incarceration is not working. Do you feel that you're making any headway in persuading people of your point of view?

Mr. SPECTOR: Well, actually, yes. The governor of the State of California, who is Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has himself recommended that 27,000 prisoners be released on this fiscal year as a response to the budget crisis in California, but also partially in response to the argument that we can punish people in a way that's less expensive and that's actually safer for the community. And we, as Californians, come this position late. This has been done in New York, Texas, Kansas, Illinois. Many other states have found that the pure tough on crime should be replaced by being smart on crime.

MARTIN: Don Spector is the director of the prison advocacy group, the Prison Law Office. He joined us from Berkeley, California. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SPECTOR: Pleasure to be here.

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