A Guide to California’s Broken Prisons and the Fight to Fix Them

By Sacremento Bee & Propublica, Mother Jones

The exterior of San Quentin State PrisonManny Crisostomo/Zuma

The exterior of San Quentin State PrisonManny Crisostomo/Zuma

A decade ago, so many inmates were crammed into California’s prisons that the sprawling system had reached a breaking point. Prisoners were sleeping in gyms, hallways, and dayrooms. Mentally ill prisoners were jammed into tiny holding cells. There were dozens of riots and hundreds of attacks on guards every year. Suicide rates were 80 percent higher than in the rest of the nation’s prisons.

The California prison population peaked at more than 165,000 in 2006—in a system designed to house just 85,000. That dubious mountaintop came after years of tougher and tougher laws like mandatory sentences, juveniles prosecuted as adults and a three-strikes initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1994.

Since then, California has struggled to deal with a cascading series of problems and almost constant oversight by federal judges. In recent years, the state has undergone the biggest transformation to its prisons since the first, San Quentin, opened in 1851.

Here are some takeaways from the epic journey:

Arnold’s Lift

Long before he ran for office, Arnold Schwarzenegger had an interest in prisons and inmate rehabilitation. He felt bodybuilding and fitness could help inmates focus and build character. In a scene from Pumping Iron, the 1977 documentary that catapulted Schwarzenegger onto the international stage, you can see him showing off his muscles to federal prisoners at the Terminal Island, California, lockup: It was something of a coincidence, then, that prison reform and inmate rehabilitation became a major preoccupation for Schwarzenegger soon after he was elected governor. Swept into the governorship in 2003 in a recall that ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger faced a prison crisis. Overcrowding and the treatment of mentally ill patients topped the list. The governor declared an emergency on overcrowding, and he ordered 8,000 prisoners to be housed out of state. He added the word “Rehabilitation” to the California Department of Corrections’ name and restructured the agency. Costs skyrocketed—to almost $50,000 per inmate annually. He opened the state’s 33rd prison.

In 2006, a federal judge seized control of the dysfunctional prison health care system and appointed a receiver to fix the problems. Two years later, Schwarzenegger signed a sweeping prison measure that provided $7.75 billion to add 53,000 state prison and county jail beds. And then a federal three-judge panel ordered the release of 44,000 inmates to ease overcrowding. That order was put on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considered California’s incarceration fate.

Schwarzenegger, a Republican, tried to walk a line between being tough on violent offenders and simultaneously attempting to reduce the prison population to satisfy federal judges who demanded fixes.

When a prison riot broke out in Southern California at the California Institute for Men in Chino, injuring 175 inmates, Schwarzenegger toured the facility and likened the damage to a scene from one of his movies, “except this is real danger here and real destruction.” At the time, Chino housed about 6,000 inmates, twice the number it was designed to hold. Schwarzenegger blamed tough sentencing laws on prison overcrowding, but he made sure to mention he was not in favor of weakening the state’s three-strikes law.

In 2009, through the state legislature, the governor attempted to reduce the prison population with home detention and tracking devices for some inmates and shifting some felons to county jails, among other efforts. But he had always faced opposition from within his own party, and the plan was rejected. Finally, the governor got permission from federal judges to implement a modified prison-overcrowding plan in 2010—his last year in office and with a Supreme Court ruling on the horizon.

A ‘Radical Injunction’ From the Supreme Court

In January 2011, California got a new governor, Democrat Jerry Brown. Previously elected in the 1970s as California’s governor, Brown had just served as state attorney general.

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