Schwarzenegger: riot 'terrible symptom' of crowded prisons

California’s inmate population is double prison capacity. The governor says he has a plan to reduce overcrowding and save money, but some lawmakers are skeptical.

By , Staff writer

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    Dozens of burned-out bunks are seen in a dormitory damaged by fire, during a tour of the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif. on Aug. 11.
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The Aug. 8 riot in a Chino, Calif., prison that involved 1,300 inmates was a “terrible symptom” of a much larger problem facing California’s overcrowded correctional system, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a press conference on Wednesday morning.

The governor’s comments followed a tour of the charred and damaged prison dorms, which were wrecked in a melee that injured 175 inmates in fighting reportedly stoked by racial tension. He commended the prison staff at the California Institute for Men (CIM) for ending the brawl without any fatalities.

“It looks like a scene from one of my movies except this is the scene of real violence and destruction,” said Governor Schwarzenegger, who stood in front of a burned dorm as he spoke to reporters.

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He used the venue to illustrate the need for prison reform and push for his own set of proposals to reduce the state’s swelling inmate population.

“Politicians in Sacramento have swept the problem under the rug for far too long,” he said.

California has been under intense pressure from the courts and prisoner advocates to shrink the size of inmate populations – 150,000 prisoners are housed in 33 facilities. The prison system is roughly double its intended capacity.

On Aug. 4 a federal judicial panel ordered the state to come up with plan to relieve the system of 40,000 inmates within two years.

That decision follows several years of judges and prison lawyers trying to get state lawmakers to cut inmate populations. And while the governor has introduced his own set of reforms – even declaring a state of emergency due to overcrowding – he has met resistance from his Republican allies in the legislature.

One reporter asked the governor to respond to some Republican doubts over the severity of overcrowding inside the state facilities. He responded by noting that 6,000 inmates are housed at Chino’s CIM, which is a facility designed for half as many inmates.

“That is the case all over the state of California,” he said.

Lawmakers are expected to take up the governor’s prison reform plan in the coming weeks.

Schwarzenegger says he can trim $1.2 billion from the prison budget – cuts that the newly passed state budget call for – as well as reduce the average daily prison population by 27,000 during the next year.

The plan includes:

• Changing sentencing guidelines for property crimes and upping the threshold for which of those crimes are considered felonies from $400 to $2,500.

• Giving low-risk inmates the ability to serve out the last year of their sentences under house arrest.

• Putting only the most violent and high-risk offenders on active parole after they have been released from prison.

The governor says he does not agree with some prison-rights advocates who say the state needs to back away from its tough three-strikes sentencing guidelines, which can be used to sentence offenders to life terms after their third felony conviction.

“We must find a way to cut costs and relieve overcrowding without sacrificing public safety,” he said.

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