California Prison Overcrowding Vexes Politicians

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has called the California legislature back into special session to deal with the state's chronically overcrowded and poorly managed prison system. Schwarzenegger came into office promising prison reform, a promise that remains largely unfulfilled. Judy Campbell of member station KQED reports.

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There are more people behind bars, here in California, than in any other state. And to deal with an every-growing inmate population, the state may build more prisons. Part of the problem, is that so many California parolees end up back in prison.

Judy Campbell of member station KQED reports.

JUDY CAMPBELL reporting:

California's prisons are bursting at the bars. On average, state prisons are running at almost double capacity. That means inmates sleep in bunks stacked three high, in prison hallways and gyms. Some have even slept outside. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says if things don't change, a federal court could order the early release of tens of thousands of inmates.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): We have a crisis in our hands. We cannot continue looking the other way.

CAMPBELL: California wasn't supposed to be looking the other way. The Governor promised sweeping prison reform when he came into office, both through his own initiatives, and in response to court orders. Schwarzenegger pledged to offer counseling, education, and job training, to cut recidivism. California's is the highest in the country. He also promised parole reforms, so petty violators don't clog prisons.

But reforms have mostly stalled. And last week, the governor offered another way to combat overcrowding; build two new large-scale prisons and several smaller urban lockups. State Senate majority leader Gloria Romero calls it, an about face.

State Senator GLORIA ROMERO (Democrat, California): He promised rehabilitation. He asserted he would do prison reform. This year, a few months before his re-election, he's suddenly is becoming the Terminator. He's standing up, thumping his chest, and saying we got to build more prisons. And you have to almost think, well, where did that come from?

CAMPBELL: The Governor says reforms will still happen. He says new small prisons will be designed to help inmates reintegrate into their communities, and will house women, closer to their families. And he says, reforms cannot take place in the packed prisons.

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: The classrooms where we're supposed to teach, the workshops where we're we supposed to teach them professions, so when they get out they can get jobs, and so on, and connect with the outside - all of these things we are taking away, because we're filling them up with double and triple bunking inmates.

CAMPBELL: But critics say it will take years to build new prisons. Steve Fama is an attorney with the Prison Law Office, which has frequently sued the state over prison conditions.

Mr. STEVE FAMA (Staff Attorney, Prison Law Office, California): What the governor has done, sort of, as if you had a morbidly obese patient, and decided that the long term solution was simply to buy the patient a bigger pair of pants. It's really, unfortunately, a shallow approach to a complex problem.

CAMPBELL: So, what happened to the governor's promise to overhaul one of the nation's most poorly run prison systems? The man who used to head California prisons, Roderick Hickman, says part of the problem was too much expectation and too little support.

Mr. RODERICK Q. HICKMAN (Former Secretary, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): We got to remember that California hasn't gone down the path of providing rehabilitation services for almost 20-plus years. And, you know, part of my frustration with the whole process, is that people thought that from July until January, there were going to be massive changes in things, when just two or three fiscal years before that they had taken budget cuts in those areas, that were same areas we were trying to ramp back up.

CAMPBELL: And, Hickman says, there are other overwhelming forces. As Secretary, he went head to head with the state's powerful prison guard union. In February he resigned, saying the union had too much power in the governor's office, and were calling too many shots - making his job impossible. And last month, the court report said, growing union power signaled the governor's retreat from prison reform, after a strong start.

Easy to blame us, says Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the prison guards union. He blames poor management and a lack of political will.

Mr. LANCE CORCORAN (Spokesman, California Correctional Peace Officers Association): And the reality is this. If we were running the department, wouldn't you think we wouldn't be complaining about it all the time?

CAMPBELL: Reformers say the best chance for real change may be after the elections. Perhaps then, someone can take up the biggest taboo in prison overcrowding. That is, whether some of the mandatory long sentences for criminals, are just too long.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell in San Francisco.

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