California's prisons will be full in 2001 FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 5 Apr 1999 21:00:29 -0700 (PDT)


FWD  Associated Press - April 1, 1999

     CALIFORNIA'S PRISONS WILL BE FULL IN 2001

     By STEVE GEISSINGER

TRACY, Calif. (April 1, 1999 4:46 p.m. EST http://www.nandotimes.com) -

California's prisons boast the largest inmate population in the nation with
160,000 inmates, and, by 2001, there won't be any more room for them, state
officials say.

How crowded are California's prisons? The inmates sleep nearly head-to-toe, sit
elbow-to-elbow to use the toilet and wait in lines even for water. They swelter
in summer and freeze in winter.

They are sullen young men who mill about in the dim light of a converted gym,
wandering along narrow aisles between rows of bunk-beds stacked two and three
high.

"It's unconstitutional," said Rafael Harper, a 38-year-old drug offender built
like a heavyweight boxer. "It's very crowded. You can't hardly move around. In
the bathrooms, your buttocks are bumping each other."

This is the prison at the Deuel Vocational Institute, a "temporary" conversion
of a dingy, half-century-old gym that has housed prisoners for more than a
decade.

Robert Presley, Gov. Gray Davis' new cabinet secretary for prisons, knows
exactly when the state's rising inmate population will outstrip available
space.

"April 2001," he said. "By then, we will have exhausted every cranny and nook."

Although a slowing crime rate has eased inmate growth, Presley has warned
lawmakers that state prisons are approaching "critical mass."

"This is a time to take a critical look at all facets of the correctional
system. This is a good time to consider alternatives," he said.

Presley says he will try to reduce recidivism among the 110,000 supervised
parolees by expanding drug treatment programs and boosting educational
opportunities for inmates.

The inmate population in California increased sixfold in the 1980s and early
1990s thanks to stricter sentencing laws. At the same time, the prison system
nearly tripled, from 12 to 33 facilities.

California spent more than $5 billion in an unprecedented attempt to build its
way out of the overcrowding problem. Voters approved about half the money and
the rest was covered by bonds.

When voters stopped approving prison bonds in 1990, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson
deadlocked with Democratic leaders over expensive new construction.

Now the burden falls on Davis, a Democrat who is still forming his policies,
and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The dilemma is whether to build more
prisons or possibly be forced in two years to release felons.

Advocates of social change see an opportunity at hand.

"Prison should not be the catchall solution to all of the social problems that
we have - to mental illness, to homelessness, to lack of health care, to the
lack of education," says Angela Davis, a former '60s militant turned prison
reformer.

Still, Assemblyman Bill Leonard, a Republican, has introduced a $4 billion
prison construction bond measure that would go before California voters in
March 2000.

"I'm very concerned," Leonard said. "We will have court orders when we reach
full capacity that would entail release of violent felons."

Construction to relieve crowding, even if approved, would take three to four
years and must be combined with social reforms to reduce the number of inmates,
legislative analysts warn.

In the meantime, prison officials are using every cranny they can find for
inmates, creating a volatile atmosphere in a system already plagued by
violence.

In the converted gym near Tracy, 60 miles east of San Francisco, TV cameras and
razor-wire haven't prevented fistfights among the inmates, who swell to more
than 600 by the evening count.

"When it's crowded like this, the potential for anything to happen is that much
worse," said Glenn Schmidt, 37, a convicted burglar.

Added Rene Gallegos, a slight 24-year-old drug offender wearing prison blues:
"We're human beings. We can't be living like savages. That's what it's coming
to."


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