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CALIFORNIA BEHIND BARS Published online via the PointCast Netwo
By A. Lin Neumann
Published: 07/25/2000

It starts with the bus ride. Efficient, secure, prison-model, government-owned buses criss-cross the state almost daily, delivering inmates as if they were steel beams or timber. North and south along Highway 99 and Interstate 5, the asphalt ribbons that bisect the Central Valley; east and west along Interstates 8 and 10, through parched deserts and gray scrub land near the Mexican border, the traffic in inmates mingles with the other commerce of the state.serts and gray scrub land near the Mexican border, the traffic in inmates mingles with the other commerce of the state. of state prisons, as much a feature of the modern landscape of California as beaches or Hollywood. Moved from county jails to one of several "reception centers" to a final destination after they are properly categorized, the inmates are held within a system that struggles to cope with their numbers even as our politicians cater to a public mood of anger and revenge.

From the gold rush to the movies, California has always done things on a grand scale. For most of this century, public works projects pointed the way to a boundless future. Beginning in the 1930s, federal and state efforts built the most ambitious water delivery system ever imagined, linking Northern California to the Los Angeles basin and bringing desert land to life. After World War II, the state put its energy into its public university system, making it a preeminent center of academic achievement and offering near-limitless opportunity for eager, qualified students. And in the second half of the century, the freeways mushroomed at a time when America's view of itself was defined by horsepower, high-test gasoline, and the open road stretching to a bright horizon.

But today, farmers, city dwellers, and environmentalists fight over the purity and ownership of the water. State support for higher education has decreased, and the university system, while it still earns high marks for graduate programs, garners more headlines for fiscal scandals, golden parachutes for administrators, and volatile disputes over affirmative action. And our most vivid images of freeways now? Snarls of traffic, with brake lights blotting out the horizon, or bridges washed out by winter rains, victims of neglect, decay, or outmoded technology.

There is one last great project that has not fallen on hard times, however: the California state prison system. A source of livelihood for rural communities diminished by recession and a source of juice for politicians selling a get-tough attitude to a worried public, the prison system has flourished over the past decade; it now ranks as the third largest penal system in the world, after those of China and the United States as a whole. In 1983, there were about 35,000 inmates in California prisons. Today, there are close to 135,000--one-third are white, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic--in thirty-one prisons. Over that same period, the state built twenty new prisons at a cost of $3.5 billion. While other items in the budget froze or shrank, the Department of Corrections grew from a $400 million bureau in 1983 to a multibillion-dollar behemoth with 37,000 employees in 1995-1996. By the year 2000, due to "Three Strikes, You're Out" legislation, California will have an estimated 210,000 inmates, an increase of 60 percent in just five years.

Drive the concrete spine of the state, and you can get a sense of the scope of this public enterprise. On the four-hundred-mile stretch between Sacramento and Los Angeles, you are never more than forty minutes away from a state prison--Folsom, Vacaville, Mule Creek, Stockton, Tracy, Chowchilla, Coalinga, Avenal, Corcoran, Delano, Wasco, Tehachapi, Lancaster. Marked only by discreet signs that point the way to what looks like a factory or a bleak high school surrounded by razor wire, an electric fence, and guard towers, the prison industry has outstripped agriculture in parts of rural California.

"That's where a big, big chunk of California's budget is going, an increasing amount," says former state Senator Robert Presley, the once-powerful Democrat who, as much as any one person, pushed the prison agenda during his years in the legislature. Presley authored the first mandatory sentencing bill in 1978 and carried every bill offered in the Senate for prison construction until his retirement in 1994. "We're at the point now where it's about three and a half billion a year just to operate. It is like our Pentagon."

What happens when a state that once set its sights on providing water, education, and transportation for its citizens makes incarceration its top priority? This special report will go inside California's fastest-growing industry.

The Population Explosion

Four days a week, with the smell of diesel exhaust, the hot whoosh of air brakes, and the solid release of the door, a load of new prisoners is discharged at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County. Like other reception centers throughout the state, Donovan, a medium-security prison built on a rocky hill within sight of the Mexican border, is where inmates begin--or resume--their life behind bars. Led off the bus in shackles, they pass the sign that says "No Warning Shots Are Fired In This Area" and proceed down a wire-mesh gateway toward their temporary quarters. Here they await classification within the system.

The reception area offices occupy temporary trailers due to chronic overcrowding at the prison. On the day I visit, a small cadre of clerks are bent to their tasks. Piles of inmate classification folders are stacked on desks, and metal shelves in a hallway groan under the weight of still more folders. Records clerk Yvonne Vizcarra walks me through the process: an "abstract of judgment" comes with each prisoner, explaining what he or she did to get locked up. A "body receipt" is filed for each arrival, and the inmate gets a prison number. Vizcarra's job is to enter the information into the computer database--the Offender Based Information System--that records each inmate's movements through the correctional system.

Take William S., for example. Vizcarra explains that the forty-three-year-old is coming into the system as an RTC with a WNT. Meaning, he is a parole violator--Return to Custody--who did something else--With a New Term--to earn his trip back to the joint. "Some of the lifers have been here so long, they have several boxes full of files," says one of the guards.

The one thing that governs the classification process is points. The more points a prisoner gets, the higher his custody level (I-IV) and the more restrictive his environment will be. A prisoner gets points for being below age 26 (2 points), not completing high school (2 points), being unmarried (2 points), not having been in the military (2 points), and having prior offenses (up to 12 points). A prisoner also gets points equal to the number of years of his sentence multiplied by three. The points are added up and the total corresponds to a security level: 52 points and above gets you Level IV, maximum security. (Increasing numbers of three-strikes convicts will end up in Level IV, mostly because they face such long sentences. "It's going to be a different prison system to operate when all of a sudden a significant majority of the people have twenty-five years to life," says James Gomez, director of the California Department of Corrections. "As you take away hope, you have a different management problem.")

The last stop for the new inmate is a ten-minute psychological screening. If everything is okay, he is sent on. If not, he may get a more serious evaluation. "In many cases," the screening doctor at Donovan assured me, "we can fix their problems."

Actually, the system isn't about fixing problems. The system is about punishment, a change that was made official in 1978, when the legislature rewrote the penal code to state that the purpose of corrections is punishment, not rehabilitation. At about the same time, the legislature also acted to remove discretionary sentencing power from judges. That move, a change from the old system of indeterminate sentences to the current one of determinate sentences, as much as anything else, paved the way for the expansion of the California prison system.

Ironically, it was liberal criticism that initiated the changes in sentencing structure. Under the old system, a felon was often given a sentence of seven years to life, and it would be up to the parole board to determine when the inmate might be given a parole date. If an inmate was judged to have been rehabilitated, or at least to have had a clean record in prison, he could find himself back on the street in a relatively short time. But liberal opponents of that system charged that the deck was stacked against prisoners because the parole board could keep someone inside indefinitely.

Once that first change was made in sentencing, the legislature was off and running. Since then, more than 1100 bills have passed through the California legislature mandating increased sentences for crimes ranging from drunk driving to drive-by shootings. Three strikes is the most sweeping of the changes, but it is the logical extension of a system run by politicians trading on public fear.

"We understand that the promises we are making by this bill cannot be fulfilled," Assemblyman Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento) told his colleagues during the debate over three strikes. "But we so fear the voters that we are hesitant to talk honestly and publicly about the questions of crime and punishment." Isenberg, whose father worked in corrections and who lived at San Quentin, cast one of only eighteen votes against three strikes in 1994. The vast majority of politicians of both parties mouth the rhetoric of Governor Pete Wilson, who kicked off his short-lived presidential campaign by saying, "As president, I'll appoint judges who know that it's better to have thugs overcrowding our jails than overcrowding your neighborhood."

Prisons Within Prisons

The most unexpected--and perhaps most unsettling--thing about our massive prison superstructure is the quiet. In joint after joint, the volume is turned way down. Secured by lethal 4000-volt, 650-milliampere electric fences, populated by inmates kept firmly in check by no-nonsense guards backed by modern technology, and built miles away from major cities, these tributes to the mean spirit of the new California are virtually stone silent.

California State Prison at Corcoran, located fifty miles south of Fresno and about thirty miles from I-5 on the floor of the Central Valley, is typical of the new breed--orderly, low-slung, and uniformly industrial-block gray, with hardly a grain of sand out of place. On a recent clear summer morning, Lieutenant Pat De Ochoa, the prison's press officer, led me through one chain-link, razor-wire-crowned gate after another, past a glassed-in observation booth and a metal detector, and into one of the state's toughest maximum-security prisons. The crunch of our shoes on gravel was the only sound.

Inside, we entered C Yard, one of three yards in the Level III section of Corcoran. Shared by more than one thousand long-term convicts housed in five units, the yard was full but quiet and unrelentingly grilled by the sun. In one area, some prisoners played basketball while others lifted weights. Small groups of inmates--always strictly self-segregated by race--walked in circles around the yard, three or four abreast, or stood silently against a wall killing time. No one smiled. Above it all, guards chosen for their sharpshooting and armed with Heckler & Koch 9mm rifles watched intently from glass-and-steel gun turrets, ready to fire should any inmate attack another inmate or staff member. Their presence is no idle threat. California guards have killed thirty-eight inmates in the past decade, three times as many as in all other USprisons, state and federal, combined.

Corcoran was not much different from other modern California prisons I toured on tightly controlled visits to the bold new world of penology. Savvy correctional officers well schooled in handling the press speak of getting prisoners to "program" successfully, and of inmate "feeding" schedules. As different from the "big house" of movie lore as a suburban community is from downtown San Francisco, these warehouses for society's castoffs and miscreants are efficient, relatively safe, sanitized repositories of despair.

That there are bad people in prison goes without saying. That there are only irredeemably bad people in prison is open to question. The closure of public mental-health facilities over the past two decades, the deterioration of community services, and the public mood against crime have all contributed to the swelling prison population--a fact even the CDC's Gomez will grant. "Problems with substance abuse, mental health, homelessness--we get them all," says Gomez. "We are a receptacle for all these issues. . . . We are a full-service department."

Each year the CDC's operating expenses take a bigger bite out of the state budget. But for two years, the legislature has failed to appropriate money for new prison construction, and that threatens a crisis. Our new laws demand longer sentences and more punishment, but the system is reaching its limits. "The legislature is going to have to get behind either alternative sentencing programs or more prison building, and it is doing neither," said Geoff Long of the Assembly Budget Committee after the 1995 legislative session ended with no action on a measure requesting $1.6 billion in construction bonds.

"This is the same legislature that voted almost unanimously for three strikes to make the numbers grow to 210,000," said Gomez. "But to the extent that no more prisons are built, the federal courts will eventually mandate a reduction [to ease overcrowding]." Privately, an aide to Gomez fumed over legislative inaction, saying that Governor Wilson had failed to lobby on behalf of the prison system. "He hasn't done anything," said the aide. "When the system breaks down, he won't be in office anymore, and the department will get the blame."

Overcrowded or not, prisons are meant to be dreary. But for those prisoners deemed truly bad by the system--inmates who assault each other or staff, who traffic in drugs or commit other offenses inside the walls--there are worse places. There are the prisons within prisons known as Security Housing Units. Inmates call them "the Hole." California maintains two: one at Corcoran, the other at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border.

Each of the three SHU buildings at Corcoran is divided into three sections with twenty cells and forty men on each side--in the SHU, as in the rest of the system, double-celling is the rule. Inside A section, there is no activity. Occasionally I catch the movement of a shadow behind a cell door. In the guard office, three correctional officers sort paperwork and fill out forms. Next to them, plastic safety razors hang on a wall, to be checked out three times a week to the prisoners. Upstairs, in the control room, an armed guard has a commanding view of the cell block. He also has completely open firing lines through a grate in the floor.

Three times a week, for a total of nine hours, prisoners are taken out of their cells to the SHU yard. They are stripped down to their shorts, searched, and chained together before passing through two barred doors and walking the dozen steps to a heavy steel door that leads to the yard.

The yard is actually an irregular slice of gray cement walled off within the building. It is perhaps sixty feet long, narrowing from forty-five feet wide at one end to fifteen feet wide at the other, and is technically outside in that it has no roof. It contains a stainless-steel toilet at the far end of the wedge and a chessboard painted on the concrete floor. Once they're unshackled, the prisoners can walk, sit, or talk, or play chess with pieces drawn on paper. There are no regulation chess pieces, nothing that might become a weapon. All yard activity is videotaped by a wall-mounted camera. The walls are about ten feet high with loops of razor wire at the top. There is no view of the outside world, just the sky above. "It's okay here," says the officer on duty. "We respect them and they respect us." Is it hard time? I ask. "Yes and no," he says. "They get fed three times a day."

Back in the guard office, I notice a roster of prison ID cards matched to a grid of the cell block depicted on the wall. Grim-faced inmates, surprisingly young, stare out from the ID pictures, like chessmen who never move from their squares.

I ask a pair of convicted murderers who have both done long stretches in the SHU what the experience was like. Marvin M., thirty-nine, who has been in and out of prison most of his life, says, "People get more violent in the holes, because of the isolation. It's really a test." Dwight D., a twenty-nine-year-old doing seventeen to life for a murder he committed when he was about to go to college, adds, "You're either going to adjust or you're going to fold. Those that adjust, come on out. You just do whatever you have to do."

Earning a term in the SHU might begin with getting tripped up by Sergeant D.E. Martin, a steely-eyed cop who runs the security squad at R.J. Donovan. Martin keeps an eye on gang activity, investigates crimes in the prison, and searches for contraband. The weapons he has confiscated show considerable ingenuity. One features a razor blade half-embedded into the melted handle of a toothbrush, perfect for slashing a cheek or an arm. There's a soda can fashioned into a knife, and a three-foot-long spear crafted from layer after layer of moistened paper, sharp enough to do considerable damage if wielded skillfully by someone with sufficient rage. Another knife is made from Styrofoam that's been melted, shaped, and rehardened. "In here it's like trying to police cavemen," says Martin. "They can make something out of nothing. There are always weapons out there."

A Sense of Security

It's hot, dusty, and miserable in Calipatria, a maximum security prison within sniffing distance of the Salton Sea. The still, parched air is filled with the aroma of livestock and chemicals from Imperial Valley farms. Calipatria, like most state prisons, operates at about 180 percent of designed capacity, which means that the vast majority of prisoners spend their days double-celled in a six-by-ten-foot enclosure designed for just one man. The prison has a reputation as one of the most violent in the system. Almost all of its inmates are classified Level IV. What's worse, 68 percent of the inmates have no prison job to keep them occupied because their high-security status makes it difficult to find suitable work for them.

"Everyone out here is a predator--every one of them," says my guide, Lieutenant F.R. Dymond, as we walk through the maximum security yard. "Now, where they're at on the food chain is another matter," he adds. Dymond has been in prison service for more than twenty-two years and has been stationed at Calipatria since September 1993. He says that most guards don't even want to know what an inmate is in for, because it gets in the way of dealing with him fairly. Dymond assumes the worst, he says, and waits to be proven wrong. "You have to look at these guys as the same once they are in here. It's the job."

On May 5 this year, the job turned violent. Five inmates, all of them gang members from South Central Los Angeles, broke into a program office at Calipatria and attacked a guard. Before the melee was over, seven guards had been injured, the most staff injuries from a single incident in a California prison in a decade. The attack raised fears that the bill may be coming due for a decade of serious overcrowding, despite the boom in construction. "We get a lot of young, violent offenders here. They can be pretty volatile," Calipatria security head Lieutenant John Peck told me during my visit.

A CDC study of prison unrest nationwide, conducted before the passage of three strikes, raised concerns that overcrowding, inmate idleness, and inexperienced personnel could lead to disturbances in California's system. "We need to lock up some of these guys who are terrorizing the citizens," says Warden John Ratelle at R.J. Donovan. "But we can't just cram more into the same institutions, because we're going to create more and more problems."

Greater overcrowding is where we're headed, however. The Legislative Analyst's Office projects that in order to accommodate the increase in inmate population over the next five years without any new construction, the prison system will have to operate at about 256 percent of capacity.

Combine that with new restrictions being placed on prison weight lifting and other so-called frills, and it could mean that a lot of tough, young cons at Calipatria will find themselves spending years doing almost nothing. It's a prospect that does not thrill Lieutenant Dymond. "They need to have something to do," he says.

The prisoners themselves see the futility of a system that increasingly offers incarceration without opportunity. "I was given seventeen to life," Dwight D. told me at Corcoran. "Say they keep me in here twenty-five years. If you don't release me with an education, a skill, something I can be beneficial to the community with, then I'm right back where I was twenty-five years before I left. You got a guy that's been down twenty years, he gets out, forty-five years old, and he's a mechanic. `Okay, you're a mechanic. Can you work on this computer chip that's failed in this car?' `Well, no, but I can change your oil.' `Sorry, Mr. Jones, we don't need you.' So he's back in society, and pretty soon he'll turn to crime. And then society holds him up as an example of why we should be tough on crime, and nobody has benefited."

To be fair, most moves to do away with prison "frills"--including new restrictions on overnight family visits proposed recently by the department--do not start with the Department of Corrections but are rather the result of mandates from the legislature, a fact that causes concern among some experts. "Micromanaging the system for political ends leads the system into jeopardy." says Geoff Long, an analyst for the Assembly Budget Committee. "Stripping incentives away from inmates can put us in a very dangerous spot."

Getting tough on crime is what the public seems to want, however, and turning the complex issue of crime and prisons into simple slogans has proved to be a successful strategy for those who sell the agenda to the voters: No Frills. Truth in Sentencing. Three Strikes, You're Out. "Simple is nice," says prison critic Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "Three strikes was beautiful that way. It sounds so simple."

The theory is that by locking up more lawbreakers, we ought to be making ourselves safer. But a report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office tracking crime trends in California says that the crime rate peaked in about 1980, before the massive prison building boom, and has remained relatively flat ever since. Three-strikes advocates point to lower rates of some crimes, but a recently released study by UC Berkeley Law Professor Franklin Zimring, which tracked the effect that prisons have on crime in California, found no evidence that violent crimes (the crimes the public says it most fears) were affected by locking up offenders in greater numbers. "Not one credible person says that this is working," notes analyst Geoff Long. "The only ones who say it works are the political types. Unfortunately, the system is being run by political hacks, not by correctional professionals."

Men of Influence

"California is simply catching up to about twenty years of neglect in terms of the prison system," says Jeff Thompson. Thompson is the chief lobbyist for

one very vocal group that insists the system is working: the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The union of prison guards has exploded right along with the inmate population and has become perhaps the most politically powerful union in the state. "From 1963 to 1984, California's population boom years, not a single new prison was opened, not a single new bed added to the system. So I really can't say that we're doing any more than we should," Thompson continues. "I think the key doctrine is that for the first time the criminal element has been put on notice that they are going to be held accountable for their lifestyle."

Headed by Don Novey, a savvy former Folsom Prison guard who took the reins in 1980, the CCPOA has grown tenfold in fifteen years to about 23,000 dues-paying members. A corrections officer need only be a high school graduate and attend a six-week training academy. In recent years, salaries have risen 27 percent; a senior officer with seven years' experience will earn around $44,0


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