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Packed Prisons Brace for New Crush

Another 23,000 inmates will crowd into state facilities within five years, a forecast says.

April 22, 2006|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Already bulging with inmates wedged into gyms and hallways, California prisons must make room for 23,000 more felons over the next five years, according to new projections that are forcing managers to explore still more unusual options -- even tents -- to house bunks.

The forecast, which outlines much steeper growth than numbers released just six months ago, predicts enough new convicts to fill five prisons. California would have more than 193,000 inmates by 2011.

The growth is being driven by increases in new prison admissions and by parolees who either commit new crimes or violate the terms of their release and are re-incarcerated for short stays.

Though a recent report showed a decline in California's recidivism rate, officials said the state's overall population expansion inevitably means more people breaking the law.

The crowding is intensifying during a time of management turmoil. This week, the acting corrections secretary quit -- the second top official in two months to leave amid concerns about the guard union's influence over prison management.

On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named a temporary replacement who told reporters that crowded conditions were a safety hazard and were among his top concerns.

In January, Schwarzenegger proposed building 83,000 more cells -- some in county jails, some in state lockups -- with bond sales totaling $13.1 billion. But that idea, part of his sweeping public works plan, stalled in the Legislature, and corrections officials are scrambling to create bed space.

Already, they say, most of the state's 33 prisons are at twice their intended capacity, jammed with about 170,000 people -- enough to fill the Rose Bowl more than two times over.

"Legally, we don't have the ability to say there's no room at the inn," said John Dovey, chief of adult institutions for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "And every week the population keeps going up."

Last fall, Dovey wrote a memo to the corrections secretary warning of a "population crisis" in the prisons.

"We believe that an imminent and substantial threat to the public safety exists requiring immediate action," he wrote.

Since then, 3,970 more convicts have arrived, and officers who walk the tiers say tensions are alarmingly high.

The cost of housing the growing numbers is also straining the $8.2-billion corrections budget, already taxed by rising medical and mental healthcare costs.

And by forcing wardens to convert classrooms and vocational workshops into living quarters, the crunch is undermining Schwarzenegger's stated goal of rehabilitating -- rather than merely incarcerating -- California felons, Dovey and other officials acknowledge.

"Some of these places look like prisons I've seen in Alabama, or in Texas during its worst days," said Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz who has studied corrections for more than 20 years and recently visited the men's prison in Chino. "The department is overwhelmed by numbers, and for the inmates that means terrible living conditions, idleness and virtually no meaningful programs to make their transition back to free society a successful one."

Prison officers say the crowding creates conditions ripe for unrest.

At many locations, inmates are stacked in triple-decker bunks crammed into makeshift dorms that resemble refugee camps. Long waits for showers, meals and medical care cause tempers to flare. Overloaded toilets and inescapable noise -- from radios, yelling and the constant drone of televisions -- add to the strain.

"It's a caldron, and at some point it's just going to boil over," said Chuck Alexander, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the union representing prison guards. "We're at the edge, and this administration and this Legislature need to do something before we lose [control of] a prison."

One way to control population is changing sentencing laws. Other states, Ohio among them, have cut inmate numbers -- even closed prisons -- by diverting thousands of drug offenders, check forgers and other nonviolent criminals into community correctional facilities.

California lawmakers have shown little interest in that approach. Over the last decade, nearly two dozen bills have been introduced by Democrats -- most of them focused on easing the three-strikes law or reducing sentences for inmates who work or attend drug treatment programs. But virtually none of them passed; many legislators are reluctant to support measures viewed as soft on crime.

Like many other states, California has experienced rapid growth in its correctional system in recent decades -- a sevenfold increase in the population since the early 1980s. Still, two years ago, corrections leaders predicted a decline in the numbers and the possible closure of three prisons.

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