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COLUMN ONE : A System Strains at Its Bars : The state prison population is exploding. Taxing the facilities are violence, labor disputes and a rising number of ill and infirm inmates.

The Price of Punishment. The Booming Business of Running California's Prisons. One in a series. About This Series: Prisons building already has become a multibillion-dollar industry in California, and with the "three strikes" law, an even bigger boom is forecast for the coming decades. The Times visited prisons, from the Imperial Valley to the North Coast, and reviewed thousands of pages of public records to examine the state's prison construction program, life inside the penitentiaries and issues that already are severely straining the penal system. * Sunday: How tough-on-crime legislation has created a Pentagon-like bureaucracy and generated unprecedented prison construction that has touched all corners of the state.* Today: A journey through the California prison system, where the flow of inmates has far outstripped construction of 16 new facilities since 1984.* Tuesday: With the state planning up to 25 more prisons by the turn of the century, many communities weigh the potential impact on jobs, housing, public services and property values.* Wednesday: The cost of keeping the ever-expanding prisons system running is being driven ever higher by the influx of inmates, inflated salaries and health care costs.

October 17, 1994|JOHN HURST and DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CHINO — This is the gaping maw, the jaws through which convicts pass to be evaluated and processed before they are spit out once again and force-fed into California's swollen prisons.

Every day of the week, buses from jails throughout Southern California roll into Chino to disgorge their forlorn and often dangerous passengers behind the faded beige walls of this Reception Center. And every day, buses roll out of Chino loaded with newly processed convicts bound for prisons throughout the state.

"It's a machine that will chew you up," lifer Luis Rodriguez said from Pelican Bay State Prison. "It doesn't care a damn thing about you. There is no sense of rehabilitation. It's a multibillion-dollar industry, and we're the commodities."

Prison guards are scarcely less bitter. Many view their jobs as dangerous, thankless and ultimately futile.

"We take all the responsibility away from them (prisoners)," said Correctional Officer John Baird, "then kick them out and tell them, 'OK, get a job, pay your bills.' We're not correcting a damned thing. The (Department of Corrections) should be renamed the Department of Confinement."

Baird, a veteran of 22 years who now transports prisoners, and Rodriguez, a convicted killer of two highway patrolmen, have little in common--except the knowledge that prison time is largely dead time, filled with fear, scheming, monotony, hopelessness.

Inmate-on-inmate violence is down compared to a decade ago. But California prisons remain dangerous. Knifings are common. Convicts kill four or five of their fellows a year. Guards kill a like number. In the past decade, officers have shot 36 inmates to death while breaking up fights, more than three times the number killed by their counterparts in the other major U.S. prison systems combined.

Despite an unprecedented construction program that has created 16 prisons, 126,000 inmates are crammed into space for only half that many. Under "three strikes" sentencing laws, the real crunch is yet to come. As the prison population balloons, this already strained system will be tested.

Officials will grapple with tens of thousands of physically and mentally infirm inmates, contentious labor-management relations and felons who are likely to become more rebellious as their sentences grow longer, and privileges are revoked. For example, inmates at one overcrowded prison went on strike in July after the warden decreed that they had to give up their 13-inch televisions for ones with 9-inch screens.

"At the point where any individual has nothing to lose, they act out," said David Tristan, deputy director of corrections in charge of institutions. "That's human nature."

The Chino Reception Center--one of six such facilities throughout the state--processed 32,500 inmates last year and still the buses come.

On a recent day at Chino, newly imprisoned men in orange jumpsuits stood in a sullen line before an intake sergeant. The officer recognized many of these men. They had served time before.

The men, who had just showered, stood in puddles. Nearby, a yellow plastic bin was piled high with clothing that the men had discarded. They would not be needing it anytime soon.

Prison officials assign them a place to sleep, but virtually every space is filled: cells, day rooms, gyms. In the cells, one inmate sleeps in a bunk bed, the other on a mattress on the floor. In the summer, the heat is suffocating.

In the gym, where more than 200 inmates sleep in rows, head-to-head, there's a swamp cooler. The inmates can spend their days watching TV, shooting the bull or playing cards. There is little else to do until they are assigned to a prison.

Officials make assignments based on criteria such as the type of crime committed, the length of sentence and family ties. Options range from Level I minimum security forestry camps to Level IV prisons such as Pelican Bay near the Oregon border for the hardest cases. Between these extremes is the medium security Correctional Training Facility at Soledad.

Soledad: Bloody Past, Grim Present

The entrance is deceptively pleasant. The lawn is flanked by yellow and purple pansies and red roses. But beyond the grass and flowers is a double fence topped by coiled razor wire and studded with gun towers.

Built in 1946, Soledad once was one of the most notorious penitentiaries in the state. Its three-tiered cellblocks were home to the Soledad Brothers, convicts accused of beating a guard to death in 1969 after three inmates were fatally shot from a gun tower.

Corrections officials have not torn down old, hard-to-operate joints like this Monterey County prison because of the burgeoning convict population. Instead, they have renovated them and filled them with lower-security inmates.

The administration is proud of its vocational programs teaching such skills as furniture making, print shop and upholstery. But there are not enough training slots or jobs, and 40% of the inmates at the prison are idle. Some are on waiting lists. Others choose to do nothing.

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