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Van de Kamp Sounds Warning on Overcrowding in California Prisons

May 12, 1987|DAVID FREED | Times Staff Writer

California is facing a crisis in jail and prison overcrowding that will inevitably lead to an Attica-type uprising or court intervention if remedies are not found soon, Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp warned Monday.

Speaking to members of the California Peace Officers Assn., Van de Kamp predicted that even with the state's $1.85-billion prison building campaign, the number of inmates in 1991 will exceed the capacity of California's prison system by 81%.

California county jails, presently operating at 144% of capacity statewide, will exceed capacity by an additional 36% if the present rate of incarceration continues, Van de Kamp told more than 325 law enforcement officials attending the association's weeklong conference in Los Angeles.

'No Room at the Inn'

"The interactions are too complex to be separated; overcrowded jails can no longer provide temporary housing for inmates on the way--or on the way back--to prison," Van de Kamp said. "There's simply no room at the inn. . . . The whole system is groaning and wobbling toward collapse. . . . California is headed toward disaster in corrections."

To ease the crush of inmates and jail prisoners, he suggested that authorities consider such alternative measures as not jailing drunk drivers but finding "other means of ostracizing them," offering early release to some convicts and allowing still others to serve time in their homes.

"Thus far, California has managed to operate successfully at levels of overcrowding far beyond those that have triggered court orders in other states, but we will not always be that fortunate," Van de Kamp said. "If we are lucky, court intervention will come after lawsuits. If we are unlucky, it will come after a deadly, Attica-style explosion in our prison system."

Forty-three inmates and guards were killed in September, 1971, during an inmate uprising at Attica State Correctional Facility in New York that was prompted, in part, by overcrowded prison conditions.

As of last week, 62,655 inmates were housed in California's prison system, which was designed to accommodate 35,206, according to state Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Gore in Sacramento.

Corrections officials estimate that by June 30, 1991, there will be 97,700 inmates in California's prisons, the increase due largely to drug-related offenses. The number of prison beds, meanwhile, is expected to grow by only 20,000 in those four years, leaving the system more than 80% beyond its maximum rated capacity.

Gore downplayed Van de Kamp's prediction that California's prisons are headed toward mass violence or court-mandated reform because of chronic overcrowding.

"We've been at this level--severely overcrowded--for three years, and we've been dealing with the situation," Gore said. "There's no doubt that overcrowding is a crisis and that in each one of the prisons there is a potential for a major disturbance, but we haven't had anything that approaches a mass incidence of violence."

Van de Kamp said he believes that unless steps are taken voluntarily by state and county officials working together to reduce overcrowding, the courts may move to reduce the chances of prison violence by requiring that large numbers of inmates be released.

That's what has happened in Texas, where state corrections officials are under court orders to run Texas' prison system at no more than 95% of capacity or face $800,000-a-day fines, Van de Kamp noted. The Texas Department of Corrections has been forced to release thousands of prisoners while refusing to house hundreds of others.

"If we were forced to come down to 94% of capacity this year, we would have to release some 24,000 prisoners back into California's streets," Van de Kamp said. "And when they began to commit the crimes they would surely commit, we could not put them back in prison without releasing a like number of others."

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