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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand in California, where many prisons have been on lockdown this week after a riot by inmates at one facility. More than 175 people were injured. It could not have come at a worse time for California's troubled and overcrowded prisons. The state is spending more than it can afford on prisons, and it has the highest recidivism rate in the country.

BLOCK: It wasn't always this way. NPR's Laura Sullivan spent a couple of days at California's historic Folsom Prison. She reports on how a state that was once the national model in corrections became the model every state is trying to avoid.

(Soundbite of song, �Folsom Prison Blues�)

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Singer, Songwriter): Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of applause)

LAURA SULLIVAN: It was January, 1968. Johnny Cash set up his band on a makeshift stage in the cafeteria here at Folsom Prison.

(Soundbite of song, �Folsom Prison Blues�)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) I hear the train a comin'. It's rolling �round the bend.

SULLIVAN: Half the prison's inmates watch him play, thumping their fists and cheering from the same steel benches now bolted to the floor.

(Soundbite of song, �Folsom Prison Blues�)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) I'm stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps dragging on.

SULLIVAN: This morning that Cash played may have been the high watermark for the prison and for the California Department of Corrections. These men lived alone in their own prison cells. Almost every one of them was in school, or learning a professional trade. The cost of housing them barely registered on the state budget. And when these men walked out of Folsom free, the majority of them never returned. It was a record no other state could match. Things have changed.

Lieutenant ANTHONY GENTILE (Corrections, Folsom Prison): Drug activity, gang activity. It's kind of like a pressure cooker.

SULLIVAN: Lieutenant Anthony Gentile is standing in Folsom's cafeteria just before lunch, beneath chipping paint, rusting pipes and razor wire. Where a photographer stood 40 years ago and captured Cash's famous concert, an officer now stands in a metal cage.

Lt. GENTILE: He's armed with a Mini-14, which is the primary weapon, our last use-of-force option for lethal force. He has a 40-millimeter Exact Impact Round, and then he has a 38-caliber revolver as his personal defense.

SULLIVAN: There are now 15-20 assaults a week here at Folsom. And where all inmates used to mix, Folsom today is entirely segregated - in the cafeteria, on the yard and in the cell block - by race.

Lt. GENTILE: The problems tend to simmer and stay there. It creates somewhat of a mob mentality.

SULLIVAN: Folsom was built to hold 1,800 inmates. It now houses 4,427 men. It's once-vaunted education and work programs have been cut to just a few classes, with waiting lists more than a thousand inmates long. Officers are on furlough. Its medical facility is under federal receivership. And like every other prison in this state, 75 percent of inmates who are released from Folsom today will be back behind bars within three years.

To figure out how California could have gotten to such a place, you first have to start in Sacramento.

Ms. JEAN WOODFORD (Former Secretary, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): Honestly, I - you know, I was very hopeful when I went up there.

SULLIVAN: Jean Woodford was one of four secretaries the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has had in the past five years. Woodford spent 30 years in the department. As secretary, she lasted two months.

Ms. WOODFORD: I thought it was all about the right policies and the right principle. It's really about the money.

SULLIVAN: California can't afford its prisons. Taxpayers are already spending as much money locking people up as they are in the state's entire education system. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The state spends as much money on corrections as on its higher education system.]

Experts agree the problem started when Californians voted for series of get-tough-on-crime laws in the 1980s. The population exploded immediately, from 20,000 inmates throughout the �70s and �80s, to 170,000 inmates. Jean Woodford was warden of San Quentin at the time.

Ms. WOODFORD: The violence just went out of control. And then the programs started going away. And then - I was there during an 18-month lockdown. It was just unbelievably horrific.

SULLIVAN: California wasn't the only state to toughen laws in the throes of the 1980s crack wars, but Californians took it to a new level: increased parole sanctions, prison time for non-violent drug offenders. Voters eliminated indeterminate sentencing, removing any leeway to let inmates out early for good behavior. Then came 1994's Three Strikes, You're Out. Even offenders who had committed a minor third felony, like shoplifting, got life sentences. Voters were inundated with television ads, pamphlets and press conferences from their governor, Pete Wilson.

Mr. PETE WILSON (Former Governor, California): Three Strikes is the most important victory yet in the fight to take back our streets.

SULLIVAN: Behind the efforts to get voters to approve these laws was one major player: the correctional officers union. In three decades, it has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. It has contributed millions of dollars to support Three Strikes and other laws that lengthen sentences. It donated a million dollars alone to Governor Wilson after he backed Three Strikes. And the result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped from 15,000 in 1980 to today, where one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.

Mr. LANCE CORCORAN (Spokesman, California Correctional Peace Officers Association): We have advocated successfully for our members.

SULLIVAN: Lance Corcoran is spokesman for the union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Mr. CORCORAN: The notion that we are some prison industrial complex, or that we're recruiting felons or trying to change laws is a misnomer.

SULLIVAN: Campaign records, however, show much of the funding to promote and push for the passage of the laws came from a political action committee the union created. It's run out of a group called Crime Victims United of California. Its director, Harriet Salarno, says they are independent from the union. But a review of the PAC's financial records show the PAC has not received a donation from another group besides the union since 2004. The union's Lance Corcoran.

Mr. CORCORAN: We continue to support a number of victims' rights groups.

SULLIVAN: Why is the correctional officers union involved in victims' rights at all?

Mr. CORCORAN: There are people that think that there's some sort of ulterior motive. But the reality is is we simply want to make sure that their voices are heard. And so we support them with everything that we can.

SULLIVAN: But Corcoran acknowledges the union has benefited from the increase in the prison population after these laws passed.

Mr. CORCORAN: We've had the opportunity to grow, and that has brought with it both success and criticism.

Ms. WOODFORD: The union is incredibly powerful.

SULLIVAN: Jean Woodford said she stepped down as secretary of the Corrections Department when she found out the union had been going behind her back to negotiate directly with the governor's office. Secretary Roderick Hickman resigned for the same reason in February 2006.

Mr. RODERICK HICKMAN (Former Secretary, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): The biggest problem was the relationship that I had with CCPOA, the union.

SULLIVAN: Hickman says the union was able to undermine efforts to divert offenders from prison and reduce the prison population.

Mr. HICKMAN: Maybe I was just impatient it wasn't going to go fast enough. But I think that they're still in the same place I left it. We were in a $8 billion budget, and now it's over $10 billion.

SULLIVAN: Today, 70 percent of that budget goes to pay salaries and benefits to the union and staff. Just 5 percent of the budget goes to education and vocational programs - the kind study after study in the past 10 years has found will lower the prison population.

(Soundbite of circular saw)

SULLIVAN: The metal and cabinetry workshop at Folsom feels different from the rest of the prison when you walk through the metal doors. Here in the shop on this day, a group a of black, white and Latino inmates are bent over a table, talking to each other, discussion measurements for a conference table. Inmate Derrick Poole is working on the legs.

Mr. DERRICK POOLE: When we're down here, we can get out of that prison politic thing, where we don't get along, we don't socialize outside the race. We can - we socialize with any race here.

SULLIVAN: Poole's spending nine years at Folsom for drug possession. In his life, he's been released from prison at least six times that he can remember. It hasn't worked out well.

Mr. POOLE: When I got out - you kind of lose your social skills, like, dealing with people. You already - it wasn't learned on the street. And then you come in here, and you're not learning. So now your mind is even more hollow, more empty.

SULLIVAN: Poole get very lucky this time, beating out hundreds of others to land a spot among just 27 inmates. When he's done, he'll be an accredited woodworker with his GED.

Most of the men in Folsom won't be so fortunate. Just across from the cabinetry shop, program administrator Jean Bracy sits in her makeshift office next to the welding class. She knows the statistics by heart.

Ms. JEAN BRACY (School Principal and Administrator, Folsom Prison): I have 1,797 inmates that read below the 9th grade level. Three hundred and ninety four of those read below the 4th grade level. When we put them back out on the streets, they're not employable.

SULLIVAN: And back on the streets is where 85 percent of all of California's inmates are going one day when their sentences run out. Bracy's only got a handful of vocational programs left, enough to reach less than 10 percent of Folsom's inmates. And the state plans to cut even that in half in the next few weeks.

Ms. BRACY: I think this is the worst I've ever seen it.

SULLIVAN: It only costs her about $100,000 to run these programs - not even a blip in a $10 billion-a-year prison budget.

Ms. BRACY: It's just not cost effective to throw men and women in prison and then do nothing with them. And shame on us for even thinking that that's safety. It's not public safety. You lock somebody up and you do nothing with them, they go out not even equal to what they came in, but worse.

SULLIVAN: The numbers bear that out, with 90,000 inmates returning to California's prisons every year. Compare that to the Braille program here at Folsom just above the administration building, where inmates learn to translate books for the blind.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SULLIVAN: In 20 years, not a single inmate who has been part of the program has ever returned to prison. This year, the program's been cut back to 19 inmates. Out on the prison yard, one of the oldtimers, an inmate named Ed Steward, or Lefty, sits in old chair in the only bit of shade on the dusty dirt field. He watches the inmates stand in groups by their race.

Mr. ED STEWARD: Nowadays, you know, the kids, they're just coming through like it's a little merry-go-round, like there's nothing to it.

SULLIVAN: Most of the inmates here on this yard aren't here for serious or violent crimes. The number of inmates in California's prison for murder, assault or rape has been relatively unchanged in two decades. The difference is this yard is now packed with drug dealers and drug users, shoplifters who stole something worth more than $500, car thieves.

All across this prison are signs of what this place once was, when administrators came from New York and Texas to find out how Folsom kept its violence so low and its inmates from coming back. There's the deserted shop where inmates used to train to be butchers. Its thriving medical facility shuttered. And hovering above the prison, China Hill: a now-barren field where inmates once trained to become landscapers. The prison can't afford to pay the teacher. Warden Michael Evans can see it just outside his office. Its meaning is not lost on him.

Mr. MICHAEL EVANS (Warden, Folsom Prison): If I have a dog and I put him in a cage and I beat them regularly, ultimately, they will bite me when I open that door.

SULLIVAN: Evans says after three decades working in corrections, he's come to one conclusion.

Mr. EVANS: I think that prisons should be a place where an individual has the opportunity to change if they choose to, and we move forward from there.

SULLIVAN: For now, California is at a standstill, unable to find the money to move forward with a different strategy, unable to move backward to a time when it didn't need one.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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