California prisons rocked by problems
California prisons rocked by problems
By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer
Sat Apr 5, 6:02 AM ET
A stabbing attack this week on four guards at one overcrowded state prison and a racially sparked brawl at another mark the type of violence that guards, inmates' attorneys and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have been worried about for years.
The violence comes at a critical juncture for the nation's largest state prison system.
Later this year, a panel of federal judges will consider whether the crowding has become so severe that the state must cap the inmate population or release some prisoners early.
At the same time, lawmakers are considering a Schwarzenegger proposal to save money for the deficit-ridden state by releasing more than 20,000 inmates before their sentences end.
"For the last two years, we've said something worse than this was inevitable," said Chuck Alexander, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, referring to this week's prison unrest. "It's just a matter of where and when it's going to hit. In our view, it's a precursor of what's to come."
On Thursday, two inmates armed with homemade knives attacked guards at the California Correctional Institution about 40 miles southeast of Bakersfield. One of the guards was hospitalized with a skull fracture and stab wounds.
A second attack erupted Friday. A dozen inmates were injured during a brawl in a crowded dormitory at the California Institution for Men in Chino, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. A statewide lockdown was lifted Friday afternoon.
"There's more violence. The prisoners are unsafe, and there is less safety for the officers, as well," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in San Rafael.
He is among inmates' rights attorneys asking the panel of three federal judges to order the state to reduce the prisons' population. In an unusual alliance, the prison guards' union has joined the push.
Schwarzenegger opposes a federally mandated population cap. But the Republican governor is proposing the early release of some 22,000 inmates and eliminating about 4,500 prison guard positions to help shave $400 million from the budget of the state corrections department.
Michael Bien, whose San Francisco law firm also is seeking a reduced inmate population, said the early release plan is irresponsible because guards already are working large amounts of overtime and are under mounting stress.
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Lisa Page said the governor's plan would retain the current guard-to-inmate ratio while freeing space for rehabilitation programs.
In October 2006, Schwarzenegger declared an emergency to allow 8,000 inmates to be sent to private prisons in other states. It was part of an effort to relieve overcrowding that eventually led to a $7.8 billion prison and jail building program.
At the time, he warned that California's overcrowded prisons could explode into violence, leading to the kind of riots that killed 43 in Attica, N.Y., in 1971.
Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, a Democrat, faulted Schwarzenegger for not doing enough to reduce crowding, end labor unrest with the prison guards union and increase rehabilitation programs.
"This is the beginning of the long, hot summer," said Romero, one of the Legislature's experts on prison reform. "It does take, sadly and unfortunately, something like this to snap people's necks around to say these are the consequences of overcrowding."
California's 33 prisons have a capacity of roughly 100,000 inmates but hold about 170,000. A commission advised Schwarzenegger in 2004 that the prisons could safely hold about 135,000.
The conditions are blamed for a variety of problems, including poor inmate medical care and mental health services, that have prompted inmates and advocacy groups to file numerous lawsuits.
Some of those lawsuits eventually led to federal court oversight and the three-judge panel that will consider how to address the array of difficulties this summer.
Chino Mayor Dennis Yates said the dilapidated prison dormitory where Friday's fight between inmates took place was built to house 60 men but holds nearly 200.
"It's a ticking bomb down there," he said.
The California Correctional Institution, where Thursday's attack on the guards took place, has been expanded to hold about 2,800 inmates. It currently has about 4,700 inmates but held about 5,500 just a few weeks ago.
Assaults on inmates and staff increased statewide, along with the size of the prison population, from 6,225 in 1997 to 9,090 in 2006, corrections department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said. At the same time, the number involving weapons declined from 2,123 to 1,869.
Out-of-state inmate transfers and improvements in parole and rehabilitation programs have helped reduce the prison population from a record of 173,479 in October 2006 to 170,371, as of this week. The number of inmates in makeshift dormitories has dropped from 19,618 last August to 15,111.
"We've made a lot of progress," Thornton said. "We're definitely moving in the right direction."
Associated Press writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Copyright ¬© 2008 The Associated Press.