California pays rising price for prison growth

Amid a budget crisis, the state is under pressure to approve $7 billion more for prison healthcare.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Crisis: The gymnasium at San Quentin State Prison is filled with nearly 400 double-bunked inmates, because of overcrowding.
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California, home to 1 in 10 American state prison inmates, is getting a nudge from the federal government to move faster to revamp its overcrowded prison system.

Already engaged in an extensive $7.7 billion plan to dramatically expand prison capacity, the state now faces federal pressure to oversee another $7 billion in upgraded healthcare facilities for prison inmates. The legislature this week will examine a request to approve the new spending, which would require new borrowing.

The plan comes at a crucial time for California's prison system – and the state's finances. The combined tab of nearly $15 billion for prison reform has dismayed lawmakers already faced with a $16 billion budget deficit that has prompted huge proposed cuts in spending on education and health care.

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"This couldn't have come at a worse time," said Steven Maviglio, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. "It makes a disastrous budget scenario even worse."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also announced the prison system's fourth new head in five years – Matthew Cate, who has been inspector general of the corrections department since 2004.

A prison system in crisis

Operating at almost double capacity, with almost 172,000 inmates in 33 facilities, California's problems reflect a national pattern, say experts. Years of tough crime policies, including "three strikes you're out" laws and harsher parole rules, have resulted in overcrowded prisons and inadequate health services.

"California is a window into what many US states are facing with overcrowded prisons that are now more apparent to taxpayers during hard financial times," says Michael P. Jacobson, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization based in New York.

Local and state lawsuits have forced prison reforms in states from Texas and Alabama to Connecticut and Kansas in recent years. But California's expensive new measures may have broader implications in igniting public pressure to scale back mandatory sentencing laws, remedy parole services, and find new ways to control prison costs.

"California's current predicament is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when states continually let their prison populations grow by passing all sorts of mandatory sentencing laws and parole policies that are tougher on returning prisoners to the system," says Mr. Jacobson.

Pressured by two class-action lawsuits to relieve its overcrowding, the state legislature and the governor last year approved a plan to build space for nearly 50,000 more beds – including $1.14 billion for beds in medical and mental health facilities.

Governor Schwarzenegger has also started sending inmates to other states, and late last year put forward the idea of releasing over 20,000 low-risk inmates early.

But one of the judges of a three-judge federal court panel set up to look into the state's prisons, dismayed by the slow pace of reform, appointed a new federal receiver in January to speed up the process.

The judge had earlier found the healthcare system to be "broken beyond repair," causing an "unconscionable degree of suffering and death." On average, an inmate in a California prison needlessly dies every six to seven days due to grossly deficient medical care, it found.

Paying for reforms

Federal receiver J. Clark Kelso's three-to-five-year plan includes the construction of seven facilities by mid-2013 to house 10,000 chronically sick or mentally ill inmates now in traditional cells. "This money is for construction of facilities that are desperately needed," says Mr. Kelso. "What we have in Californian prisons is incredibly old and not maintained."

The state's prison problems began over a decade ago, he says, with the decision to stop constructing prisons. Instead, prisoners began doubling up in gymnasiums and vocational spaces, robbing prisoners of needed exercise and creative outlets.

He pressed Californian legislators last week to pass the $7 billion price tag up front.

"This will be a real test, how do legislators vote to help prisoners when schools, parks, and other services important to voters are being cut," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

US District Judge Thelton Henderson, one of the three-judge panel, is also weighing a cap on the number of prisoners.

He and Kelso have borne the brunt of criticism that spending must be shelved until the budget crisis is weathered. But H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state department of finance, says it is not a matter of choice. "This is a federal directive," he said in a phone interview.

Kelso and Mr. Palmer also say the needed billions can come from bonds that spreads payment out over 25 years. "By our calculation, the amount of money used from the next budget will be as little as $50 million," says Palmer. Critics counter that the borrowing plan will nonetheless straightjacket future budgets by billions.

Whatever the cost, experts say state legislators shun federal takeovers. "From a state governance point of view, you don't want to lose control over your prison system," says Jacobson. "It's also an embarrassment that says you are not running your services well."

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