California's Great Prison Experiment | The Nation


California's Great Prison Experiment

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Overcrowding in a California prison. Courtesy Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP

On February 22, 1998, Pete Gallagher arrived at Building 13 at Solano State Prison in Vacaville, California. It was Gallagher’s thirteenth year behind bars, and he’d already done time in Chino, Folsom, San Quentin and, most recently, the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility outside San Diego. Building 13 was large, open, fluorescent-lit and crammed with double bunks. Inmates were everywhere. It reminded Gallagher of a warehouse or a military barracks. He took one look, then found a corrections officer. “I’m not going to live like this,” he told him. “Take me to the hole.” 

About the Author

Tim Stelloh
Tim Stelloh is a freelance writer based in New York.

But for the next fourteen years, Gallagher, who is on parole and did not want his real name used, did live like that, and he watched as conditions deteriorated further: triple bunks replaced doubles, and new bodies filled the new beds. No toilets or sinks were added. The law library became too cramped to use, and visiting hours were chaos. Men died from the miserable healthcare: one from an abscessed tooth, another from hepatitis C. “If you weren’t ambulatory, you didn’t go to the doctor,” Gallagher says.

By 2006, the California prison system had reached a crisis point: built to house 80,000 inmates, it held more than twice that number. “It was like the USSR,” says Jim Mayer, executive director of California Forward, a nonpartisan government reform group. “It was going to implode on itself.” A few years later, a three-judge panel handed down a dramatic ruling in response to two federal class-action lawsuits filed by inmates: the first, from 1990, claimed that mentally ill prisoners did not have access to minimal care; the second, filed eleven years later, described similar conditions for regular medical treatment. The panel found that inmates had been subject to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The judges ordered California to shrink its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates. The state appealed, but on May 23, 2011, the US Supreme Court upheld the order in a landmark ruling, Brown v. Plata. By June 27, 2013, the Court ruled, California’s prisons would have to look very different. 

So began “realignment,” an unprecedented overhaul of California’s thirty-three prisons, described as the largest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America. Tens of thousands of low-level offenders would be kept in their hometowns instead of being shipped to state prisons. Law enforcement would seek smarter, cheaper justice models. That, at least, was the theory. And while the Court’s deadline has since been pushed from June to December, the question remains: Is California doing enough to reverse its prison crisis?

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Five months before the Plata ruling, in December 2010, California Governor-elect Jerry Brown summoned law enforcement officials to a conference room in Sacramento. It was his last month as attorney general, and for the second time in his career—he was also governor from 1975 to 1983—he was preparing to be inaugurated. As police and probation chiefs, district attorneys and others crowded around a conference table, Brown laid out the state’s most urgent criminal justice problems: a $26 billion deficit and a looming Supreme Court decision that could have vast implications. Then he introduced the broad outlines of a plan that would transform the state’s prison system.

It was ironic that Brown was delivering this policy initiative. During his earlier terms as governor, he had overseen a very different kind of transformation of the prison system. Soon after his election in 1974 and into the next three decades, punishment flourished: the state passed a slew of tough sentencing measures, including, in 1994, the notorious three-strikes law (recently softened by a ballot measure). Rehabilitation programs were gutted. The prison guard union—and its political power—exploded, the “war on drugs” was declared, and as Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon has pointed out, a new generation of parole officers with little interest in rehabilitation sent waves of offenders back to prison for so-called technical violations. Between 1984 and 2006, California built twenty-one new prisons and, in roughly the same period, increased its prison population from 34,000 to 173,000 prisoners. The racial composition of the inmate population shifted from largely white to largely black, and the number of people incarcerated for drug sales and possession charges tripled. Corrections dollars from the state’s general fund quadrupled. One study found that within three years, 66 percent of parolees had returned to prison. Even Brown, whose office did not respond to requests for an interview, called the system a “scandal.”

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor in 2003, he promised systemic changes. A panel of experts developed recommendations, beginning with a reduction in overcrowding, as well as a variety of rehabilitative programs. “Rehabilitation” was even added to the state corrections agency’s name. 

But as Stanford University law professor Joan Petersilia has pointed out, Schwarzenegger largely failed. He signed a bill that funded one of the largest prison and jail construction programs in state history. The cost of housing inmates rose, as did the prison population. Meanwhile, investments that might eventually reduce incarceration—toward things like education or substance abuse treatment—remained pitifully low: just $2,000 of every $49,500 spent annually to house a single inmate funded rehabilitation.

On February 14, 2006, a district court judge appointed a federal receiver to take over the delivery of inmate healthcare. Behind the ruling was a startlingly bleak portrait of the prison system—one filled with feckless administrators, negligent doctors, and inmates who were dying at the alarming rate of one every six to seven days. One doctor refused to see a prisoner who was experiencing abdominal and chest pains. The inmate died two weeks later, and the physician, who was the subject of sixty-two grievances, later said that most prisoners with medical complaints were trying to take advantage of the system. “By all accounts, the California prison medical system is broken beyond repair,” the judge wrote. “The harm already done in this case to California’s prison inmate population could not be more grave, and the threat of future injury and death is virtually guaranteed in the absence of drastic action.”

A few years later, and just three months after Brown’s December 2010 meeting, his plan for such drastic action would become law. It acknowledged decades of failed prison policy, and though it didn’t roll back some of the state’s toughest sentencing laws, as prison reformers had advocated, it offered a vision that was in stark contrast to the tough-on-crime years. “The law set out a statement of findings and legislative intent that read as though, literally, the ACLU might have written them,” says Allen Hopper, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

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