MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
California's prison system is in trouble. It's the largest in the nation and also one of the most overcrowded. Two federal judges charged with imposing some changes to the system say they are considering capping the total number of inmates allowed inside; that would of course force the release of thousands of inmates. We'll hear from a couple of ex-cons in a moment about their experiences in California prisons.
First though, Pat Nolan is one of the members of a so-called strike team appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger to overhaul the approach to imprisonment. He is a former Republican state legislature. He's also a former prisoner. He served some 26 months in federal prison on a corruption case. And Pat Nolan, welcome to the show.
Mr. PAT NOLAN (Former Inmate): Thank you.
BRAND: You are part of this 14-member Strike team. What are you charged with? What is your mandate?
Mr. NOLAN: Revising California's entire prison system to focus it on preparing inmates for a return to society. Right now, it's basically warehousing the inmates, doing nothing to get them ready to live healthy, productive lives. And this is to look at parole, to look at housing, to look at medical care, job preparation, all the facets of the prison system so that they're ready to return to the community and not come back to prison.
BRAND: So that is one of the problems with the overcrowding, is that it's just stuff fool of repeat offenders?
Mr. NOLAN: Seventy percent return to prison within three years of their release.
BRAND: You were in federal prison here in California?
Mr. NOLAN: Yes. I was.
BRAND: So it wasn't directly the California system, but was it similar in terms of overcrowding?
Mr. NOLAN: Yes. When I got there, they had inmates sleeping in the chapel and extra bunks in every room. And I don't think the public has a conception of what it's like to be piled in like sardines in a room. They'd also took up space so there was no room for other programs to go on. So it's a double whammy. Not only are you packed together with virtually no room for anybody to do anything, but you also don't have the room for productive activities.
BRAND: You used to be one of those lock-them-up-and-throw-away the key types before you were sentenced. I think a lot of people probably feel like, well, all of these people have committed crimes, and they don't deserve to have an easy time of it in prison.
Mr. NOLAN: The mistake I made as a legislator was I presumed once we locked somebody up, we didn't need to worry about them. But the reality is, we can't afford to keep everybody locked up forever that's done a crime. And when these people are released, we have to care about, you know, what happened to them inside because that'll affect what kind of neighbors they are when they get out. The people that have been inmates are beside us on the bus, in the line at Safeway. They're at the swimming pool with us and our children. And it's in all of our interests that they come out of prison able to lead healthy, productive, contributing lives.
BRAND: Keith Butler is a former inmate trying to live one of those productive, contributing lives.
Mr. KEITH BUTLER (Former Inmate): The whole overcrowding issue really reflects on everything, from the medical treatment, the clothing, to your food and to your house. It all has a ripple effect.
BRAND: Butler was originally busted for selling drugs more than a decade ago. Until two years ago, he was in and out of California prisons, Corcoran, Pelican Bay, San Quentin. The conditions, he says, were so bad that some inmates were frequently housed outside cells in common areas.
BUTLER: I've see guys, overflowing toilets above guys sleeping out in open on the fifth tier or fourth tier, and the feces and urine running down the tiers and juts falling on the guys that's sleeping out in the open, because there's not enough cells to house guys. I see instances where the (unintelligible) he's at, they run out of food because there's just too many guys. They house guys in the gymnasiums, you know, in every prison. The gyms are not being used. They're not being utilized. You know, they put people wherever they can.
BRAND: Marilyn Austin-Smith did two stints in California prisons, originally for burglary. She just got out in May from the Valley State Prison in Central California after serving time for a parole violation.
MARILYN AUSTIN-SMITH (Former Inmate): Well, three years ago the conditions was bad. I mean, going to prison, the condition is never good. There's nothing positive about going to prison. The difference is that in 2004, the prison wasn't as overly populated as it is now.
BRAND: Well, what happens when there are too many inmates in a confined space? How did you guys interact with each other?
AUSTIN-SMITH: Well, of course you're going to have quarrels. You have a bunch of women, and you've got 56 women overcrowding a middle of the room that's really basically is for people to really come and sit down and eat or watch television. And you put them in the middle of the floor, half of the times the prison is locked down due to violence or whatever they locked to prison down for at that time might have happened. And it starts chaos. People don't get a chance to really go out to breathe, so it starts more criminal activities inside the prison.
BRAND: What kind of violence are you taking about?
AUSTIN0-SMITH: Biting, stabbing, things like that.
BRAND: Did that happen a lot?
AUSTIN-SMITH: Well, from the time I was there I guess they've closed the prison down three times.
BRAND: The federal judges appeared to be growing impatient with the pace of change in the prisons. They've called for a cap on the total number of prisoners allowed in the system. I asked Pat Nolan what effect that would have.
Mr. NOLAN: One, it would start backing up in the county jails that are already way overcrowded. You see, it won't stop the criminal trials from going on in the counties. So they'll be convicting people and ordering them to state prisons with the cap on. They won't have state prisons to go to. So they'll just stack up in the county jails.
The second thing is, if they order some inmates released and that has happened in other states, these men and women that would be released have had no preparation. I mean it's cruel to set them loose without any idea where they're going to sleep, how they're going to find a job, where they even get their next meal.
So I think what needs to be done is, if the judges keep the pressure on to lower the prison capacity or the crowding, that's good. But California has to begin immediately preparing the next wave of inmates released, start right now preparing them. It's clear they're reluctant to take over the system. Federal judges don't want to run prison systems. But prisons have just not been responsive to these scandalous conditions.
I'm impressed with other members of the strike team. They are not typical bureaucrats coming up with excuses. They really are dedicated, saying we're going to look at the system from stem to stern and come up with ways to lower the prison population while keeping the public safe.
BRAND: You sound pretty hopeful that you can come up with something to improve the system. The judges, from what I've read, seem, well, doubtful that a lot can be accomplished.
Mr. NOLAN: And I think their skepticism is right. It's up to us to show not only that it can be done, but it is being done, and to convince the judges of that. We have a tough hill to climb because the record has been very sparse in that area. The judges are right to be skeptical. They've gotten empty rhetoric so far. And I think the mandate is very broad authority to bring about the changes necessary to bring California into constitutional status, but frankly just morally.
BRAND: Pat Nolan is a member of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's strike team. It's charged with overhauling California's prison system. Pat Nolan is also a former federal inmate.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.