Folsom Embodies California's Prison Blues When Johnny Cash played for inmates in 1968, Folsom was a model prison and California's low recidivism rate was unmatched. Today, Folsom is emblematic of everything wrong with California's prisons - and critics say it starts with a too-powerful corrections officers union.

Folsom Embodies California's Prison Blues

Folsom Embodies California's Prison Blues

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Multimedia promo: Folsom Prison Blues
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Johnny Cash performs for inmates at Folsom State Prison in January 1968. Dan Poush/AP hide caption

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Dan Poush/AP

Johnny Cash performs for inmates at Folsom State Prison in January 1968.

Dan Poush/AP

In January 1968, Johnny Cash set up his band on a makeshift stage in the cafeteria at Folsom State Prison in California.

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," he said in his deep baritone to thunderous applause. Song after song, the inmates thumped their fists and cheered from the same steel benches now bolted to the floor.

The morning that Cash played may have been the high-water mark for Folsom — and for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The men in the cafeteria 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 to prison.

It was a record no other state could match.

Things have changed. California's prisons are all in a state of crisis. And nowhere is this more visible than at Folsom today.

Overcrowded, Underfunded

Folsom was built to hold 1,800 inmates. It now houses 4,427.

It's once-vaunted education and work programs have been cut to just a few classes, with waiting lists more than 1,000 inmates long.

Officers are on furlough. Its medical facility is under federal receivership. And like every other prison in the state, 75 percent of the inmates who are released from Folsom today will be back behind bars within three years.

California's prison system costs $10 billion a year. Its crumbling, overcrowded facilities are home to the highest recidivism rate in the country. And the state that was once was the national model in corrections has become the model every state is now trying to avoid.

'Kind Of Like A Pressure Cooker'

Lt. Anthony Gentile, spokesman for Folsom, stands in the prison's empty cafeteria, beneath chipping paint, rusting pipes and razor wire.

"There's drug activity, gang activity," Gentile says. "It's kind of like a pressure cooker."

Where a photographer stood 40 years ago and captured Cash's famous concert, an officer now stands in a metal cage. He's armed with three guns and pepper spray.

There are now 15 to 20 assaults a week here at Folsom. And while inmates used to mix with one another, Folsom today is entirely segregated by race — in the cafeteria, on the yard and in the cell blocks.

"When they're confined in this environment," Gentile says, "the problems tend to simmer and stay there. It creates somewhat of the mob mentality."

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

Jeanne Woodford is one of four secretaries that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has had in the past five years. She spent 30 years in the department. As secretary, she lasted two months.

"Honestly, I was very hopeful when I went up there," Woodford said about Sacramento. "I thought it was all about the right policy and the right principle. It's really about the money."

And lots of it. California can't afford its prisons. Taxpayers spend as much money locking people up as they do on the state's higher education system.

How Did Things Get So Bad?

Experts agree that the problem started when Californians voted for a series of get-tough-on-crime laws in the 1980s. The state's prison population exploded immediately. It jumped from 20,000 inmates, where it had held steady throughout the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Today there are 167,000 inmates in the system.

Jeanne Woodford was warden of San Quentin during the prison population boom.

"The violence just went out of control," she remembers. "And then the programs started going away. I was there during an 18-month lockdown. It was just unbelievably horrific."

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.

Voters increased parole sanctions and gave prison time to nonviolent drug offenders. They eliminated indeterminate sentencing, removing any leeway to let inmates out early for good behavior. Then came the "Three Strikes You're Out" law in 1994. Offenders who had committed even a minor third felony — like shoplifting — got life sentences.

Derrick Poole is enrolled in Folsom's mill and cabinetry program. Due to the high prison population and budget problems, Poole is one of only 10 percent of Folsom inmates who can participate in the prison's vocational programs. Amy Walters/NPR hide caption

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Amy Walters/NPR

Derrick Poole is enrolled in Folsom's mill and cabinetry program. Due to the high prison population and budget problems, Poole is one of only 10 percent of Folsom inmates who can participate in the prison's vocational programs.

Amy Walters/NPR

Voters at the time were inundated with television ads, pamphlets and press conferences from Gov. Pete Wilson. "Three strikes is the most important victory yet in the fight to take back our streets," Wilson told crowds.

But behind these efforts to get voters to approve these laws was one major player: the correctional officers union.

A Prison Guard Union With Political Muscle

In three decades, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. The union has contributed millions of dollars to support "three strikes" and other laws that lengthen sentences and increase parole sanctions. It donated $1 million to Wilson after he backed the three strikes law.

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: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.

Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the union, says it does what is best for its members.

"We have advocated successfully for our members," he said.

But he disputes that the union has purposefully tried to increase the prison population.

"The notion that we are some prison industrial complex, or that we are recruiting felons or trying to change laws, is a misnomer," he said.

Money And Influence

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 is run out of a group called Crime Victims United of California.

Its director, Harriet Salarno, says the committee is independent from the union. But a review of the PAC's financial records shows the PAC has not received a donation from another group besides the union since 2004.

Corcoran does not deny that the two are closely connected.

"We support a number of victims' rights groups," he said.

When asked why the correctional officers union is involved in victims' rights at all, Corcoran said: "There are people that think that there's some sort of ulterior motive, but the reality is we simply want to make sure [the victims'] voices are heard."

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

"We've had the opportunity to grow," Corcoran says, "and that has brought with it both success and criticism."

Secret Dealings With The Governor

Woodford says she stepped down as secretary of the corrections department when she found out that the union had been going on behind her back to negotiate directly with the governor's office.

"The union is incredibly powerful," Woodford says.

Former Secretary Roderick Hickman resigned for the same reason in February 2006.

"The biggest problem that I had was the relationship that I had with the union," Hickman says.

Hickman says the union was able to control the department's policy decisions, including undermining efforts to divert offenders from prison and reduce the prison population.

"Maybe I was just impatient," he says, "or it wasn't going to go fast enough, but [the department] is still in the same place I left it, with an over $8 billion budget. Now it's over $10 billion."

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 of programs that study after study in the past 10 years has found will keep inmates from returning to prison.

Shop Talk: A Chance To Cross Race Lines

From the instant you walk through the metal doors of the mill and cabinetry workshop at Folsom, you get a different feeling from other parts of the prison. In the shop on a recent day, a group of black, white and Latino inmates are bent over a table, talking to each other, discussing measurements for a conference table.

"When we're down here, we put all the politics to the side," says inmate Derrick Poole as he works on the table's legs. "It gives us a place to go where we can we can get out of the prison politics gang, where we don't get along, where we don't socialize outside our race. We socialize outside our race here."

Poole is spending nine years at Folsom for drug possession with intent to sell. In his life, he has been released from prison at least six times that he can remember. It hasn't worked out well.

"When I got out, you kind of lose your social skills," Poole said. "You get used to segregating yourself. You already weren't learned on the street. Then you come in here and you're not learning, and now your mind is more hollow, more empty."

Poole got very lucky this time, beating out hundreds of others to land a spot among just 27 inmates in the cabinetry program. When he's done, Poole will 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 and school Principal Jean Bracy sits in her makeshift office next to the welding class. She knows the statistics by heart.

"I have 1,797 inmates who read below the 9th grade level; 394 of those read below the 4th grade level," Bracy says. "When we put them back out on the streets, they're not employable."

And back on the streets is where 85 percent of all California's inmates are going one day when their sentences run out, regardless of whether they spent their time in prison dealing drugs and running a gang or learning how to weld.

Bracy only has 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.

"I think this is the worst I've ever seen it," Bracy says.

'A Merry-Go-Round'

It only costs her about $100,000 to run these programs — not even a blip in a $10 billion-a-year prison budget. But, says Bracy, the programs are always the first to go. Sometimes she almost feels like giving up.

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

The numbers bear that out, with 90,000 inmates returning to California's prisons every year.

But compare that to the Braille program here at Folsom. Inmates are learning to translate books for the blind. In 20 years, not a single inmate who has been part of the program has ever returned to prison. This year, the program has 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 and shakes his head.

"Nowadays, you know, the kids are just coming through this like it's a merry-go-round," he said. "Like there's nothing to it."

Most of these inmates here on this yard aren't here for serious or violent crimes. The number of inmates incarcerated in California's prisons 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, car thieves and shoplifters who stole something worth more than $500.

What Used To Be

But 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; it was closed when the prison couldn't afford to remove the asbestos.

Its thriving medical facility was shuttered when it couldn't keep up with thousands of new inmates.

And hovering above the prison is 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 China Hill just outside his office. Its meaning is not lost on him.

"If I have a dog and I put him in a cage and I beat [him] regularly, ultimately [it] will bite me when I open that door," he said.

After three decades working in corrections, Evans says he has come to one conclusion.

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

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.

Correction Oct. 8, 2009

An earlier version of this story said that California spends as much money on corrections as its entire education system. The story should have said that the state spends as much money on corrections as its higher education system.