California Prison Overcrowding
December 16th, 2013
Prison Overcrowding in California
Alarming issues that causes society to stir up continue to expand every day. Some of these issuesinclude the educational system, existing healthcare laws, unemployment and economic matters,and the water crisis… all of which are major problems in California. One major problem, however, is often ignored. Over the past two to three decades, California’s prison population has grown by 750 percent (“California’s Continuing Prison Crisis”). As this percentage continues to increase, inmates are suffering in prison cells, officials are negotiating over the issue, and the public is protesting to make their opinions count. The prison crisis has continued to expand over the years, causing a great uproar among all of California’s thirty-two state prisons. Prison overcrowding has been an increasingly vital issue since the mid-1970s. Due to many different factors that directly relate to imprisonment such as increased punishment for crimes, carefully monitored drug laws, new criminal offenses, and a high recidivism rate, a large amount of inmates have been deprived of proper treatment while other ill mannered behavior has broken out within the prisons. A few main causes of overcrowding include an increase in returning customers and the effects of the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. These two factors play the greatest role in overcrowding as the numbers of inmates continue to double and then triple over the years. Overcrowding prison systems in California has affected its inmates to an unimaginable extent. Some targeted issues that have occurred due to overcrowding include health and safety risks within the prisons, an increase of violence and transmission of infectious illnesses, riots breaking out in some local cities, hunger strikes involving tens of thousands of inmates, and a decrease in opportunities for self-improvement and rehabilitative programs. Prison overcrowding in California is an urgent and imperative issue that must be taken care of immediately before it grows out of the people’s reach.
After years of controversy and a timeline of events over the decades-long saga, people are able to understand how much the growth of imprisonment has increased over the years. In September 1995, California’s mental health programs were placed under special control after a federal judge criticized state officials of improper psychiatric healthcare for inmates. Seven years later, in January 2002, another class-action law suit regarding inadequate medical care in prisons is addressed and settled. During this time, California agreed to overhaul its healthcare programs by 2008. In July 2005, a federal judge declared control of the state prison healthcare system. By August 2009, a three-judge panel ordered for prisons to be at a 137.5% capacity. In order to follow constitutional standards, 43,000 inmates must be released within the next two years. In May 2011, an additional 33,000 inmates must be released from the prisons. Officials began sending nonviolent offenders to county jails rather than state prisons in order to reduce overcrowding. This realignment process did not reduce the prison population enough by January 2013, and overcrowding was still a vital issue. In this time period, Governor Jerry Brown declared that the prison crisis is over and called for a return to state controls. By June 2013, federal judges were still not satisfied with Brown’s perspective on the prison issue, and ordered for an additional 9,600 inmates to be removed by the end of 2013. Two months later, in August 2013, Brown appealed the order to the U.S. Supreme Court and announced a plan to house inmates in private prisons and other facilities (Megerian).
Prison overcrowding in California has become an increasingly alarming issue because the numbers continue to grow over the years. In a graph reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, the annual percent change in state prison populations shows an increase of either 1%, 2%, or 3% from the year 2000 to 2008. California and Texas, reported as two of the largest crime states, contribute to these statistics (Sauter). Also reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. houses more inmates than the top thirty-five European countries combined. The overcrowded prison crisis in California is in need of immediate attention as its conditions continue to worsen. Hundreds of inmates are crammed into a gymnasium room, unsanitary conditions exist throughout the prisons, human rights are neglected, and hunger strikes have broken out (UN Torture). Don Specter, a long time defense lawyer who has spent years petitioning the state, reported to The Los Angeles Times, “Prisoners are getting injured and dying because of poor care. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has never taken its obligation to provide basic healthcare seriously” (UN Torture). Not only has overcrowded prisons affected inmates and their family, but prison officials, state officials, federal judges, and the public are affected as well.
Some main causes of prison overcrowding in California include a high recidivism rate, the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, new criminal offenses added to the penal code, and strict drug policies.Recidivism, reported as the number one reason for overcrowded prisons, release inmates, allow them to return home, and then welcome them back into prison after they have committed new crimes or violated parole rules. The Pew Research Center, an American think tank that provides information directly related to social issues, public opinions, and demographic trends shaping the U.S., reported that California has the second highest rate of recidivism in the country. Nearly fifty-eight percent of the state's offenders are sent back to prison within three years of their release, according to the Pew Center (McDonald). Another main reason of prison overcrowding is the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” Law, passed in 1994. The Three Strikes Law imposed a life sentence for almost any crime, no matter how minor, if the defendant had committed two serious or violent crimes beforehand. This new law created by the California Penal Code plays a major factor in prison overcrowding as the numbers of inmates continue to grow due to multiple crimes. According to students that had taken part in Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, “Statistics from the California Department of Corrections show that the law disproportionately affects minority populations. Over 45 percent of inmates serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law are African American. The Three Strikes law is also applied disproportionately against mentally ill and physically disabled defendants” (Stanford Three Strikes Project). Lastly, the “War on Drugs,” a set of drug policies that are intended to discourage the production, distribution, and consumption on drugs, has been sending nonviolent offenders to prisons for minimal drug crimes. The number of offenders in prison due to drug crimes has skyrocketed since the past few decades.
Effects of prison overcrowding include health and safety risks, increase of violence within the prisons, inappropriate riots and behavior, hunger strikes, and a decrease in opportunities for self-improvement. Donald Spector, director of Prison Law Office of Berkeley, California, reported that there is substantial risk to the health and safety of workers inside the prisons (Spector). In order to express their anger toward long term, solitary confinement, inmates have gathered into groups to perform uncontrolled riots and peaceful hunger strikes. Last January, California Governor Jerry Brown declared that the prison crisis was over, but the issue has only deepened with hunger strikes.As the hunger strike against solitary confinement in California prisons enters a critical sixth week, Governor Jerry Brown is preparing to force-feed scores of inmates rather than meet any of their demands for improved conditions. Due to overcrowding and lack of space and freedom within the prisons, inmates are unable to participate in self-improvement and rehabilitative programs.
Some solutions can be offered to fix this overcrowding issue. For instance, sentences for drug offense should be cut down. There are 219,000 inmates in the federal prisons system compared with 25,000 in 1980, and about half are there for drug offense (Spector). Another solution is that more prisoners can reduce their sentences through credit for good behavior. Criminals are sent to prisons to be punished for their crimes, serve their sentences, as well as enter a process of self-improvement. With self-improvement, they should be able to ear good credit and reduce their sentences. Elderly prisoners should also be released. According to a study from the Bureau of Prisons custody, after the age of 55, people who are released from prison are highly unlikely to commit new crimes (Spector). Other ideas to reduce overcrowding within California’s prisons include promoting participation in rehabilitation programs and creating opportunities for exercise, sports, cultural and religious activities. In addition, alternatives can be considered such as community based punishments rather than prison for non-dangerous offenders.
Although many solutions are offered to reduce the prison crisis, a few obstacles stand in the way. A few main obstacles that stand in the way of solving this issue are time, money, and controversy among officials. For Fiscal Year 2013-2014, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was allocated a total of $8,961,368,000. As the numbers of prisoners continue to increase over the years, the state cannot afford to fix this issue in time. As time passes, inmates continue to double, and then triple. In addition, federal judges and state officials are involved in a constitutional crisis, as the two sides disagree over the prison issue and how it should be solved. Overcrowding is a vital issue in California that must be addressed immediately. Toavoid it by any means, people should avoid going to prison.
“California’s Continuing Prison Crisis.” Editorial Board.Nytimes.com. The New York Times SundayReview, 10 Aug. 2013. Web 11 Dec. 2013.
Megerian, Chris. “Prisons timeline: A scramble to comply after years of controversy.” Articles.latimes.com. Los Angeles Times. 09 Sept. 2013. Web 14 Dec. 2013.
McDonald, Harriet. “California’s Recidivism Problem.” Huffingtonpost.com. Huff Post Los Angeles. 31 May 2013. Web 16 Dec 2013
Sauter, Michael. “States Sending the Most People to Prison: 24/7 Wall St.” huffingtonpost.com. Huff Post Business. 28 July 2013. Web 14 Dec. 2013.
Spector, Donald. “Everything Revolves Around Overcrowding: The State of California’s Prisons.”2010 Overcrowding Article. Web 12 Dec. 2013.
Stanford Three Strikes Project.Law.stanford.edu. Stanford Law School. Web 14 Dec. 2013.
“UN Torture Investigator Condemns California Prison Conditions.” Rt.com/USA. 22 Oct. 2013. Web 12 Dec. 2013.