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Prison Crisis: Overcrowded And Unconstitutional

Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison crowd between bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners August 28, 2007 in Ione, California.
Justin Sullivan
Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison crowd between bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners August 28, 2007 in Ione, California.
Prison Crisis: Overcrowded and Unconstitutional
California's prisons are dangerously overcrowded with prisoners serving very lengthy sentences. Several class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of this ageing population, alleging that prison medical care is inadequate or non-existent. We investigate the condition of our prisons and what can be done to fix them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. More that 20 years ago, California decided to get tough on criminals. Crackdowns included longer prison sentences, the three strikes law and tougher parole restrictions. Voters decided to keep criminals off the streets and away from society for as long as possible but we seem to have overlooked what affect all that might have on our prisons. Right now, California’s prisons are in a very bad state. Some facilities are housing up to four times as many inmates as they were built to accommodate. Rehabilitation of any kind has been drastically reduced and healthcare behind bars is so inadequate a federal court has ruled it violates inmates’ constitutional rights. After a long process of legal rulings and negotiations, a panel of federal judges has ordered the state to reduce the number of prisoners its holding. That panel is now reviewing the plan the state has come up with to cut the prison population. The present state of prison affairs is a far cry from California prisons forty years ago. Back then, state prisons like Folsom, up near Sacramento, were a model for the rest of the nation. As we begin a weeklong series on California prisons, NPR’s Laura Sullivan brings us a background report about how California’s correctional system got in the mess it’s in.

(audio of recording “Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison”)


LAURA SULLIVAN (Reporting for NPR): It was January, 1968, Johnny Cash set up his band on a makeshift stage in the cafeteria here at Folsom Prison. Half the prison’s inmates watched him play, thumping their fists and cheering from the same steel benches now bolted to the floor. This morning that Cash played may have been the high water mark for this prison and for the California Department of Corrections. These men lived alone in their own prison cells. Almost every one of them was in school or learning a professional trade. The cost of housing them barely registered on the state budget. And when these men walked out of Folsom free, the majority of them never returned. It was a record no other state could match. Things have changed.

LT. ANTHONY GENTILE (California Department of Corrections): Drug activity, gang activity, it’s kind of like a pressure cooker.

SULLIVAN: Lieutenant Anthony Gentile is standing in Folsom's cafeteria just before lunch, beneath chipping paint, rusting pipes and razor wire. Where a photographer stood 40 years ago and captured Cash's famous concert, an officer now stands in a metal cage.

GENTILE: He's armed with a Mini-14, which is the primary weapon, our last use-of-force option for lethal force. He has a 40-millimeter Exact Impact Round, and then he has a .38 caliber revolver as his personal defense.

SULLIVAN: There are now 15 to 20 assaults a week here at Folsom. And where all inmates used to mix, Folsom today is entirely segregated—in the cafeteria, on the yard and in the cell blocks—by race.


GENTILE: The problems tend to simmer and stay there. It creates somewhat of the mob mentality.

SULLIVAN: Folsom was built to hold 1,800 inmates. It now houses 4,427 men. Its once-vaunted education and work programs have been cut to just a few classes, with waiting lists more than a thousand inmates long. Officers are on furlough. Its medical facility is under federal receivership. And like every other prison in this state, 75% of inmates who are released from Folsom today will be back behind bars within three years. To figure out how California could have gotten to such a place, you first have to start in Sacramento.

JEANNE WOODFORD (Former Secretary, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): Honestly, I - you know, I was very hopeful when I went up there.

SULLIVAN: Jeanne Woodford was one of four secretaries the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has had in the past five years. Woodford spent 30 years in the department. As secretary, she lasted two months.

WOODFORD: I thought it was all about the right policies and the right principle. It's really about the money.

SULLIVAN: California can't afford its prisons. Taxpayers are already spending as much money locking people up as they are in the state's entire education system. Experts agree the problems started when Californians voted for a series of get-tough-on-crime laws in the 1980s. The population exploded immediately, from 20,000 inmates throughout the '70s and '80s, to 170,000 inmates. Jeanne Woodford was warden of San Quentin at the time.

WOODFORD: The violence just went out of control. And then the programs started going away. And then I was there during an 18-month lockdown. It was just unbelievably horrific.

SULLIVAN: California wasn't the only state to toughen laws in the throes of the 1980s crack wars, but Californians took it to a new level: increased parole sanctions, prison time for non-violent drug offenders. Voters eliminated indeterminate sentencing, removing any leeway to let inmates out early for good behavior. Then came 1994's Three Strikes, You're Out. Even offenders who had committed a minor third felony, like shoplifting, got life sentences. Voters were inundated with television ads, pamphlets and press conferences from their governor, Pete Wilson.

PETE WILSON (Former Governor, California): Three Strikes is the most important victory yet in the fight to take back our streets.

SULLIVAN: Behind the efforts to get voters to approve these laws was one major player: the correctional officers union. In three decades, it has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. It has contributed millions of dollars to support Three Strikes and other laws that lengthen sentences. It donated a million dollars alone to Governor Wilson after he backed Three Strikes. And the result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped from $15,000 in 1980 to today, where one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.

LANCE CORCORAN (Spokesman, California Correctional Peace Officers Association): We have advocated successfully for our members.

SULLIVAN: Lance Corcoran is spokesman for the union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

CORCORAN: The notion that we are some prison industrial complex, or that we're recruiting felons or trying to change laws is a misnomer.

SULLIVAN: Campaign records, however, show much of the funding to promote and push for the passage of the laws came from a political action committee the union created. It's run out of a group called Crime Victims United of California. Its director, Harriet Salerno, says they are independent from the union but a review of the PAC's financial records show the PAC has not received a donation from another group besides the union since 2004. The union's Lance Corcoran:

CORCORAN: We continue to support a number of victims' rights groups.

SULLIVAN: Why is the correctional officers union involved in victims' rights at all?

CORCORAN: There are people that think that there's some sort of ulterior motive. But the reality is, is we simply want to make sure that their voices are heard. And so we support them with everything that we can.

SULLIVAN: But Corcoran acknowledges the union has benefited from the increase in the prison population after these laws passed.

CORCORAN: We've had the opportunity to grow, and that has brought with it success and criticism.

WOODFORD: The union is incredibly powerful.

SULLIVAN: Jeanne Woodford said she stepped down as secretary of the Corrections Department when she found out the union had been going behind her back to negotiate directly with the governor's office. Secretary Roderick Hickman resigned for the same reason in February 2006.

RODERICK HICKMAN (Former Secretary, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): The biggest problem was the relationship that I had with CCPOA, the union.

SULLIVAN: Hickman says the union was able to undermine efforts to divert offenders from prison and reduce the prison population.

HICKMAN: Maybe I was just impatient it wasn't going to go fast enough. But I think that they're still in the same place I left it, with an $8 billion budget, and now it's over $10 billion.

SULLIVAN: Today, 70% of that budget goes to pay salaries and benefits to the union and staff. Just 5% of the budget goes to education and vocational programs, the kind study after study in the past 10 years has found will lower the prison population.

(Soundbite of circular saw)

SULLIVAN: The mill and cabinetry workshop at Folsom feels different from the rest of the prison when you walk through the metal doors. Here in the shop on this day, a group of black, white and Latino inmates are bent over a table, talking to each other, discussing measurements for a conference table. Inmate Derrick Poole is working on the legs.

DERRICK POOLE: When we're down here, we can get out of that prison politic gang where we don't get along, we don't socialize outside the race. We can - we socialize within a race here.

SULLIVAN: Poole's spending nine years at Folsom for drug possession. In his life, he's been released from prison at least six times that he can remember. It hasn't worked out well.

POOLE: When I got out - you kind of lose your social skills, like, dealing with people. You already - it wasn't learned on the street and then you come in here, you're not learning. So now your mind is even more hollow, more empty.

SULLIVAN: Poole got very lucky this time, beating out hundreds of others to land a spot among just 27 inmates. When he's done, he'll be an accredited woodworker with his GED. Most of the men in Folsom won't be so fortunate. Just across from the cabinetry shop, program administrator Jean Bracy sits in her makeshift office next to the welding class. She knows the statistics by heart.

JEAN BRACY (School Principal and Administrator, Folsom Prison): I have 1,797 inmates that read below the 9th grade level. Three hundred and ninety four of those read below the 4th grade level. When we put them back out on the streets, they're not employable.

SULLIVAN: And back on the streets is where 85% of all of California's inmates are going one day when their sentences run out. Bracy's only got a handful of vocational programs left, enough to reach less than 10% of Folsom's inmates. And the state plans to cut even that in half in the next few weeks.

BRACY: I think this is the worst I've ever seen it.

SULLIVAN: It only costs her about $100,000 to run these programs, not even a blip in a $10 billion-a-year prison budget.

BRACY: It's just not cost effective to throw men and women in prison and then do nothing with them. And shame on us for even thinking that that's safety. It's not public safety. You lock somebody up and you do nothing with them, they go out not even equal to what they came in, but worse.

SULLIVAN: The numbers bear that out, with 90,000 inmates returning to California's prisons every year. Compare that to the Braille program here at Folsom just above the administration building, where inmates learn to translate books for the blind.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SULLIVAN: In 20 years, not a single inmate who has been part of the program has ever returned to prison. This year, the program's been cut back to 19 inmates. Out on the prison yard, one of the oldtimers, an inmate named Ed Stewart, or Lefty, sits in old chair in the only bit of shade on the dusty dirt field. He watches the inmates stand in groups by their race.

ED STEWART: Nowadays, you know, there’s – the kids, they're just coming through like it's a little merry-go-round, like there's nothing to it.

SULLIVAN: Most of the inmates here on this yard aren't here for serious or violent crimes. The number of inmates in California's prison for murder, assault or rape has been relatively unchanged in two decades. The difference is this yard is now packed with drug dealers and drug users, shoplifters who stole something worth more than $500, car thieves. All across this prison are signs of what this place once was, when administrators came from New York and Texas to find out how Folsom kept its violence so low and its inmates from coming back. There's the deserted shop where inmates used to train to be butchers. Its thriving medical facility shuttered. And hovering above the prison, China Hill, a now-barren field where inmates once trained to become landscapers. The prison can't afford to pay the teacher. Warden Michael Evans can see it just outside his office. Its meaning is not lost on him.

MICHAEL EVANS (Warden, Folsom Prison): If I have a dog and I put him in a cage and I beat them regularly, ultimately, they will bite me when I open that door.

SULLIVAN: Evans says after three decades working in corrections, he's come to one conclusion.

EVANS: I think that prison should be a place where an individual has the opportunity to change if they choose to, and we move forward from there.

SULLIVAN: For now, California is at a standstill, unable to find the money to move forward with a different strategy, unable to move backward to a time when it didn't need one.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

CAVANAUGH: That feature report originally aired on All Things Considered. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS, and we’re beginning a weeklong series on California prisons. That feature by NPR national correspondent Laura Sullivan, and Laura Sullivan is here right now. And thank you for that remarkable report, Laura.

SULLIVAN: Well, you’re welcome. It’s a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’m wondering, how long did you spend in Folsom Prison to create that report?

SULLIVAN: I and a producer, Amy Walters, spent two days, two full days at Folsom.

CAVANAUGH: And you say in the report that when you go in the cabinetry shop in Folsom, it has an entirely different feel from the rest of the prison. But I’m wondering, what does the rest of the prison feel like?

SULLIVAN: It – I mean, it feels like, you know, like the yard is like a giant schoolyard, it’s just this dust-covered field but everybody is only standing within their own race. And there’s this tension, the sense of tension. Even when you walk by, you can see them, you know, one group of white inmates is looking over, you know, with a lot of hostility toward another group of inmates. And that, you know, the Latinos are separated from the black inmates or separated from the Asian inmates. And even Native American inmates have their own special space and no one’s allowed to walk into one another’s group, and you’re not allowed to ever be seen speaking to another inmate. And it’s like that in the cafeteria, too, so it creates this very hostile environment, the sense that you could sort of cut the tension with a knife.

CAVANAUGH: As you were preparing this report, Laura, were you surprised at what the prison system was like let’s say back in 1968 when Johnny Cash visited Folsom Prison?

SULLIVAN: I was shocked when I actually pulled some of the statistics. I mean, California had the best rehabilitation rate in the country. The majority of inmates who spent any time in a California prison did not come back, ever. I mean, they just – they would go and they would, you know, their vocation – they would take their vocational program out into the California society and they would find a job and they would make do. I mean, there were some repeat offenders but the majority of them did really well and they came out of prison better educated than they had gone in. And now, it’s just – it’s the complete opposite. It’s completely reversed.

CAVANAUGH: And in the report – in the research that you did, did you find that what’s happened to California prisons seems to be fixing what wasn’t broken in the first place?

SULLIVAN: It seems like over the years that the problem got away from California. It’s like it couldn’t keep – it started spiraling out of control into this giant snowball that now nobody seems to know how to stop. I think that once the overcrowding started, they lost track of, you know, the money that they would have had for rehabilitation programs. That created more inmates coming back to prison, so then the overcrowding got even worse and then all of sudden you had these violence rates that skyrocketed. Without the programs, there was nothing to do so the gangs took over because that was entertainment and it was interesting and it kept people busy. And now all of a sudden you have these violent, overcrowded institutions with no rehabilitation and it’s just cycling people through and through and through.

CAVANAUGH: Now the authorities that you spoke with, the people who used to run the correctional system, some of the people who are there now, all seem to sense that there is a definite fundamental problem here.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. They – I mean, I think that, you know, California’s problems, you know, just even the basic problems of the healthcare and the overcrowding and the lack of funding and the tough sanction laws that are going on would take any state under. But then you compile that with an extremely powerful corrections officers union that has been able to implement policy decisions on whether or not to, you know, have rehabilitation programs, have – to lower some of the sanctions. I mean, the union is making some of those decisions and they’ve also been behind the support and the financing of getting a number of these laws passed, which has increased the prison population and increased the need for more correctional officers. And then – and then top all of that with parole, parole, parole. I mean, it’s just – California’s problem is – just could be eliminated very easily with – part of the problem could be eliminated easily with some serious parole upending that entire system. Because California right now, most people don’t realize that an inmate who goes into the California system, no matter what, no matter what the crime, small, large, violent, nonviolent, has to – has a year of parole at least when they walk out. So, I remember I – when I was in San Quentin, another California prison that’s completely overcrowded, he was living on a gym on a mattress because there was no space for him and he said that he had stolen a car so you would expect him maybe to get a year sentence under California’s very strict laws. But so he did that sentence and then he had a year of parole. He could not make the parole guidelines. He kept moving. He didn’t have a home. His life was chaos. You know, this was difficult for him, so he kept moving without telling his parole officer so he would get sent back for another year of parole. So when I met him, he had been serving 8 years in San Quentin for stealing a car. And there is not a prison system in this country that can afford to incarcerate a man for 8 years for stealing a car.

CAVANAUGH: Laura, thank you so much for speaking with us, and thank you again for that report.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with NPR’s Laura Sullivan. And we have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll speak to the head of the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re discussing the problems in the California prison system this week. And we began with an overview of how that system has declined since the 1960s and some of the reasons for the decline. I’m joined now by the man who oversees the state’s prison system. My guest is Matthew Cate, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the State of California. And, Matthew, thank you for speaking with us.

MATTHEW CATE (Secretary, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, State of California): No, it’s my pleasure. Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, if you could, just so we have a – we’re all on the same page about this, could you tell us a little bit about the California prison system, how many prisons there are, what levels of incarceration there are?

CATE: Sure. We have 33 traditional prisons. We have other small community facilities but 33 prisons. And 167 inmates (sic), another 111,000 parolees statewide. So we’re the biggest state system in the United States. That population has grown since – in the last 10 years by about 7,000 inmates. And we also have almost 8,000 inmates in out-of-state facilities, which has helped alleviate the crowding crisis somewhat.

CAVANAUGH: So that 167,000 inmates, that’s sort of mushroomed in the last 20 years or so, hasn’t it?

CATE: Well, it has. And, in fact, until about three years ago, we were all the way up to about 174,000. But the counties have a few more, a few thousand in their custody now, which has brought the number down but that number is definitely much higher than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

CAVANAUGH: Now what do you do to decrease the tensions that must erupt considering that some prisons are so severely overcrowded? I’m thinking of – there was a prison riot in Chino in the summer, a dorm was burned to the ground. Tell us a little bit about the conditions that lead to that – those kind of tensions. What is the overcrowding really like?

CATE: Well, I think, you know, one of the biggest problems is that we have not enough program space, space for – on the yards for inmates to be out of their cells, clinical space, classroom space, those kinds of things. It’s, you know, we do put two men or two women in each cell but that’s pretty common around the states. What makes California a little bit different is that we really don’t have enough ancillary space for inmates to spend time out of their cells on the prison yard or in a classroom or in a clinic or in a counseling session, and those kinds of things really bring down the stress level. And so we’re going to be working to try to improve that, at least on the clinical space to start with. You know, the other thing that really helps in a prison is professional staff, and in California, everyone knows California pays pretty well for its correctional officers but as a result, we have what I think are the best correctional staff in the world. And so they do a terrific job dealing with a overcrowded and difficult system.

CAVANAUGH: Just to be clear, though, Matthew, I have read about some prisons that have three and four inmates in a cell designed for two. And we just heard a report of somebody being housed on a cot in a gymnasium. That’s some of the result of overcrowding as well, isn’t it?

CATE: Well, I don’t think here in California we triple or quadruple bunk as a practice but, yeah, we do have gymnasiums that we’ve converted to dorms to deal with overcrowding. And we have – we’ve taken dayroom space, which, you know, traditionally was a place where, you know, an inmate could relax during the day and be out of his or her cell, we’ve had to put bunks in those dayrooms. The good part is, though, through the out of state program, we’ve reduced the number of those non-traditional beds from about 20,000 two years ago to 10,000 today. So it’s still 10,000 too many for a safe prison system but it’s better than it had been.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Matthew Cate, Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the State of California. Now you say 10,000 too many. A three-judge panel has ordered the state to free 43,000 prisoners over two years because of dangerous overcrowding. Do you think that the federal panel has it wrong?

CATE: Well, you know, we recognize that we have an overcrowding problem and, you know, I think that the 10,000 nontraditional beds are just a start. I would readily agree that we have to reduce overcrowding everywhere. Now, what we disagree with is that the court wants 40,000 – a 40,000 reduction in only two years. And that concerns us because that doesn’t allow us to use any additional construction. Prison construction takes quite a bit of time. And in our view, there’s – well, on one hand, there are some non-serious, non-violent offenders that we think could be handled locally and removed from the prison system. There are also a crowding of some real serious and violent offenders and sex offenders that we think we just need more capacity for those – for that group. So we think it’s a combination and our concern with the court is just that the numbers and the timing, we may not be able to do that safely.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the reasons that the court got involved in this in the first place is because of the medical care available in California’s prisons. What have you discerned as problems with medical care for the inmates at California’s prisons?

CATE: Well, you know, Maureen, five years ago, I was the Inspector General of the prison system and I spent four years in that capacity, walked all the prisons in this state, and I saw problems in healthcare. There was insufficient clinical space. Some of those were, frankly, not clean. Inmates couldn’t get to a doctor, they couldn’t see – they weren’t seeing quality physicians. We had too many vacant positions. So it was a real struggle, and I think over the last three years, you know, we’ve obviously – we’re spending a lot of money on healthcare now and the receiver’s done a good job. And so what you see now is that the bad doctors have been removed from the system, the incompetent physicians and nurses are removed, vacancies are down to under 10%, and we are seeing much improved clinical conditions as well. So that, the medical system, in particular, is one of the things, I think, that we can be proud of. It’s improving by leaps and bounds. I think the receiver would say he still needs more clinical space and I think he’d like a better filing system and a few other details but I think that’s one area where we have seen some significant improvement.

CAVANAUGH: Isn’t one of the problems with the prison healthcare system the fact that we’re holding inmates longer and now there are more older inmates that need medical assistance?

CATE: Oh, that’s definitely true. We’ve – You know, we are seeing an aging population. You know, our average age is 37 but if you go from prison to prison, you will see plenty of retirement aged inmates who are going to be there for a long time either because of Three Strikes or because they’ve committed life offenses, and so those folks come in the door but they don’t go out very often and their medical expenses, healthcare expenses, are extremely high.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Matthew, so you’re – of course, you run the corrections system in California and what is the goal of incarceration as far as the State of California is concerned? Is it rehabilitation or is it punishment?

CATE: Well, I don’t think – I think it’s public safety. And, really, public safety is two parts. One part is making sure that the officers and inmates are safe in the prisons and that we don’t have escapes so that we don’t want to put the community at risk but the other part is what happens after they’re released and that’s really where rehabilitation comes in. We know, for example, that just teaching an – moving an inmate from illiteracy to literacy can reduce recidivism by at least 5%. We know that if you – if an inmate has a job skill, can have – get a living wage employment when they’re – leave the prison system, they’re 12% less likely to return. So we definitely have, I think, a public duty for public safety’s sake to rehabilitate inmates while they’re in our care.

CAVANAUGH: And let me ask you something. We’ve heard a lot coming out of Sacramento about various reform proposals and reform proposals submitted to a three-judge panel, and I’m wondering what do you support as the head of the corrections system? I know that there was just a letter to the Sacramento Bee over the weekend with your name on it defending the governor’s opposition to that federal order to free the 4300 prisoners (sic) over two years. Why do you oppose that? Or why do you support the governor’s opposition?

CATE: Well, again, I think it’s a matter of, you know, the governor has openly declared that we’re overcrowded and in need of reform. The problem is we think that the state and state government is the right group to decide what reforms to take and how to handle that problem as opposed to getting a federal court order. Again, it kind of goes back to my concern about the sudden release of too many inmates in too short a time and the impact that has on public safety. But, you know, I think that it’s important to remember that we’ve just passed some very important reform legislation. One piece that I’m – I think is particularly worth noting is the reform of our parole system. We’re one of only two states that has everyone on parole, and recently the governor’s supported and the legislature passed a new law that says let’s spend our money on our serious, violent sex offenders and our high risk offenders and stop churning these low level offenders through the prison system for technical violations, so I think that’s going to reduce the overall prison population and especially reduce these short terms, three, four months at a time, that these inmates are spending in the prison system. So that along with some other reforms that have been passed that, for example, give inmates a few weeks of extra credit if they earn a GED or learn a trade, I think those are going to help, and I think it’ll demonstrate to the courts that the state is taking the problem seriously. So I think we can do this if we really stick to it.

CAVANAUGH: And finally, Matthew, if I may, you mentioned something about the state building more prisons or expanding its facilities. Considering the state of the California budget and – Do we have any money to actually do that?

CATE: Well, you know, money is obviously a big concern today but California’s population continues to grow by two percent a year each and every year and where the prisons are at their maximum capacity even for our high level offenders. And so what the governor’s proposing is to spend bond money that’s already been approved by the legislature to build prisons over the next two or three years and, you know, the hope is that this will address overcrowding, will provide some economic stimulus, as we’re going to use only private providers, private construction firms, to build these prisons, and then, really, the expectation is, is about the time these prisons come on line, the state’s economy will have turned around and really we’ll have a system that we can be proud of again.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today, Matthew. Thank you.

CATE: My pleasure, Maureen. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Matthew Cate, Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the State of California. We are embarking on a week-long series on California’s prison system and another guest is on the line. It’s my pleasure to welcome Darrell Steinberg. He’s President Pro Tem of the California Senate. And welcome, Senator Steinberg.

SENATOR DARRELL STEINBERG (President Pro Tem, California State Senate): Nice to be with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I’ve been trying to follow the state of California’s prison reform package and I’ve found it has defeated me. So…

SENATOR STEINBERG: Well, it’s complicated and it’s in many chapters.

CAVANAUGH: Well, suppose – I’m going to ask you to take us through it if you can. I know that there’s a correction reform bill. I understand it may still be on the governor’s desk. I’m not quite sure about that. Tell us about the provisions and what this state is going to do in terms of inmate population reduction and budget savings.

SENATOR STEINBERG: Sure. Well, let me take you back to July…


SENATOR STEINBERG: …when the legislature passed a budget signed by the governor which included a billion dollars worth of savings out of the Department of Corrections, which was essential given the $26 billion deficit we were faced with on top of the $36 billion deficit we resolved in February of 2009. And so Corrections was a key piece. To achieve the one billion dollars in savings, the administration proposed and the Senate Democrats embraced—this is one where we were fully together with the governor and his administration—a series of changes to Corrections law. One was the parole savings that Mr. Cate, who’s an excellent director, by the way, talked about where we would distinguish between the high risk offenders, the sex offenders and the low risk offenders and improve the ratio of parole agent to parolee from 70 to one to 45 to one. That’s actually a big enhancement of public safety.


SENATOR STEINBERG: We were also changing the credit system so that inmates who worked and exhibited good behavior could get additional credits. We also suggested, and the administration suggested, some – changing some property crime thresholds. In addition, and here were the more controversial pieces, we – the administration proposed and we agreed with the establishment of a long term sentencing commission—we called it a public safety commission—that would have the authority over time to review California’s sentencing structure and, again, distinguish between those who commit violent crimes and those who are high risk even with the power to increase those sentences while at the same time decreasing the sentences potentially of lower level offenders who could be served and serve their sentences in a much more cost effective way, consistent with public safety, outside of the state prison.


SENATOR STEINBERG: We also proposed an alternative custody arrangement for low level inmates in the last year of their sentences. So the Senate passed the entire package when we came back in August. It was Senate Democrats working with the governor.


SENATOR STEINBERG: When it got over to the Assembly, the Assembly could not pass the package, which was unfortunate. What the Assembly passed back to us was the parole reform, which is a good thing, the enhanced credits and some of the changes to property crime thresholds, but they did not pass the sentencing commission or the alternative custody piece. And so we’re left about $250 million short but we hope that the governor, in fact, signs the – what remains in the bill because that will be a significant savings to the state and, you know, represents at least a beginning of good policy.

CAVANAUGH: So, indeed, there was a compromise and the bill is on the sort of, what some people characterize as the watered-down bill is on the governor’s desk.


CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering what, therefore, was passed on to the three-judge federal panel as California’s plan to reduce its prison population in compliance with the panel’s recommendation that the state start to free prisoners?

SENATOR STEINBERG: Well, the thinking was, and it certainly was my thinking, that passing the entire package would have been the best case to make to the three-judge panel, that California was, in fact, dealing with its overcrowding problem both through parole reform but also through the establishment of the public safety/sentencing commission. And that didn’t happen, and so the administration was then forced to go to the three-judge panel and make an argument that over time, through parole reform and some of the other things that they now have the opportunity, the governor now has the opportunity to sign, that they will, in fact, reduce the prison population. I’m not sure whether it will be enough, and I think the bottom line here is that we still have more work to do. It was unfortunate, I mean, just to – to digress a little bit on the political end, when you have a Republican law and order governor who is willing to sign comprehensive corrections and public safety reform, including a sentencing commission with some teeth, it’s unfortunate that the Democrats are the ones that – or at least are perceived as holding it up. And on the Assembly side, I know the Speaker fought very hard to get those votes but, you know, you had a lot of people running for other offices and higher offices and, you know, were under a lot of pressure from some elements of the law enforcement community. That’s unfortunate because we’re a couple of hundred million dollars short and we lost, hopefully, not permanently an opportunity to do something very significant when it comes to corrections reform.

CAVANAUGH: Senator Steinberg, thank you so much for explaining that.

SENATOR STEINBERG: Okay. I know it was a little complicated. I hope I explained it.

CAVANAUGH: You did. Thank you so much.

SENATOR STEINBERG: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Darrell Steinberg. He’s President Pro Tem of the California Senate. And now we go to my next guest, independent political consultant Leo McElroy. And you have a wide background, Leo, in California politics and how it influences the state prison system. Leo, welcome.

LEO MCELROY (Independent Political Consultant): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: You heard Senator Steinberg sort of delineate where the legislature is on the prison reform right now. What does – In your analysis, is this going to comply with what the three-judge panel has ordered the state to do?

MCELROY: No. No, it’s not going to get there, and it’s not going to get there for a number of reasons. I think, by the way, that Senator Steinberg may have missed his calling. As a journalist of many years myself, I thought he did a really nice job of trying to delineate what the problem was and where the holes were but there are holes and there are gaping holes. Many of the solutions that have been put forward would begin to address the problem but it’s not going to get anywhere near the population reduction that’s required in the federal government because of the horrendously overcrowded state of our prisons. And I think it’s highly unlikely that the feds are going to buy this partial solution, a lot of which is based on future promises rather than delivery of hard plans. I just – I would be astounded if the feds buy this one.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Leo, you have been involved in the idea of prison reform and also the politics of prison reform for quite some time. We heard in a report earlier in this hour about the powerful prison union and how that has factored into the idea of prison overcrowding and also prison reform. I’d like to hear your take on that. What do you think the prison union, prison guard union, has influenced this whole process (sic)?

MCELROY: I think they’ve been the driver behind the wheel of much of this, fueled by a public that sees anybody who attempts to relax laws as being soft on crime. But it was the prison guards union that really was the force behind the mistakenly constituted Three Strike law that we now have in California. And I say this as a prejudiced person. As a political consultant, I ran the campaign against that Three Strike law, and I ran it as a former political consultant to the Attorney General who believed that this was a badly drawn version of Three Strikes, that there were better versions out there, that, quite correctly, delineated who should be put away for life and who shouldn’t, and that it was stupid to pass a law that would put you away for life for spitting on the sidewalk.

CAVANAUGH: And even so, Leo, today when the Assembly tried to come up with some sort of prison reform plan, it was bogged down because it was still so much of a political hot potato and so many people were warning that public safety would be jeopardized if, indeed, they loosened up the parole system and actually let more inmates out.

MCELROY: Absolutely, and I think Senator Steinberg correctly alluded to that. The fear on the part of those who want to run for other offices that they don’t want to run on the basis of ‘I’m the guy who let people out of prison,’ they believe that they would be defeated and that may be a political reality. I hate to see public policy determined only on the short range political plans of a bunch of politicians who don’t have the courage to do the right thing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I understand in the seventies you were a delegate on prison reform and you pushed for determinate sentencing and, of course, what that means is you get a sentence and you serve the whole thing. Why did you think that was important at that time? And do you think that that, in practice, has actually worked or is it a problem?

MCELROY: I think it has both been a positive development and a problem. And the reason for the problem is that once the determinant sentencing mode was set in place, as we did at the Western American Assembly on Prison Reform, where I was one of California’s three delegates, and we adopted that because we felt that sentencing procedures up until that time were so loose and so based on the judge’s own feelings on whether the prisoner who was to be sentenced looked like a kind of a nice person who could be dealt with leniently or whether it was a minority who would be dealt with harshly, and that was the reality of it. We wanted to end that. We wanted equal treatment for equal crimes. However, the problem is with determinant sentencing that then the politicians, every time they wanted to get a boost at being tough on crime, could increase the sentencing for various criminal offenses. And so we’ve seen the determinant sentencing climb and climb to the point now of the ridiculous, the Three Strike law, which punishes minor offenses as being serious felonies and then misdemeanors as third strikes and sends people to prison for life.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take this the next step politically, since you are a political consultant, Leo. You basically say that that what we have now, the plan we presented to the federal panel, is probably not going to be improve – approved. And so perhaps the federal panel will say that we do need to free 43,000 prisoners over the next two years. The governor says that he’s going to go to – take that to the Supreme Court. Where – How do you see this playing out in the next few months or year?

MCELROY: Well, I think the state strategy at this point seems to clearly be delay. Delay, delay, delay, challenge in court, take it on up, fight it as long as possible, meanwhile hoping for an economic turnaround so they can build more prisons that would solve this. If that doesn’t happen, there may be a solution down the line that would not be quite as pleasant for the prison guards union, which would be to begin sending California prisoners to privately operated prisons where the prison guards union is not employed or even to other states just to reduce the population without letting them out. The clear answer, I think, is that there are a large number of prisoners behind bars for minor, nonviolent offenses, who do not have violent histories, who are often geriatric prisoners who would not be a danger to the population and could be let out. This is what Governor Schwarzenegger saw as a solution. I think it was a realistic one. But I do think that there are too many lawmakers who are afraid of running for office on the basis of having let anybody out from behind bars or of being accused of tinkering with the politically sacred Three Strikes law that we have now.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Leo, we’re heading – California’s heading into a gubernatorial election season. I wonder, do you see anybody taking leadership on this present prison issue?

MCELROY: I don’t see anybody jumping on it. I think there are a couple who could. I – Gavin Newsom, conceivably because he tends to seek rather different solutions, might get on it but might not. It’s politically a little hard to tell which way that particular frog is going to jump. Attorney General Brown, in the past, might have been on the side of changing Three Strikes but lately he’s been portraying himself as a tough-on-crime attorney general. That may not be where he comes down. And of the Republicans, the only one I can see who might be looking at solutions along the Schwarzenegger line would be Tom Campbell, who tends to view things a lot like Schwarzenegger does and look for solutions that might be outside the mainstream.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for speaking with us today, Leo.

MCELROY: You bet.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Leo McElroy. He’s an independent political consultant. I want to thank all my guests today Laura Sullivan, Matthew Cate, and President Pro Tem of the California Senate Darrell Steinberg. Join us tomorrow as we continue our series on California prisons. We’ll hear from prison officials and inmate advocates about what life is like inside Donovan State Prison. Thank you for joining us. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.