With inmates like Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, California's Corcoran State Prison was destined for notoriety when it opened for business 10 years ago.
But when seven inmates were shot dead by guards in the early 1990s, it earned a reputation no one wanted or expected: the nation's deadliest prison. Federal indictments, a pair of state investigations, and legislative hearings currently under way about an alleged coverup have rocked the state prison system and sent political reverberations through the offices of the state's current governor and the man who wants to succeed him, Attorney General Dan Lungren.
While things at Corcoran may change, a number of prison experts say apparent excesses at the facility southwest of Fresno, Calif., are the logical outcome of a prison system - both state and federal - growing ever- more violent and inhumane.
"It's a look at the future," says Jerome Miller, president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va. "As sentencing laws get tougher and punishment proposals get more vicious, there's a tendency toward a great wave of dehumanization of inmates."
It's that dehumanization, says Mr. Miller, that lies behind the incidents at Corcoran, where guards are alleged to have staged fights between prisoners and then resorted to extreme violence to stop fights when they got out of hand.
Critics of the nation's exploding prison population, and the policies behind it, point to everything from chain gangs in Alabama and Wisconsin to the comment by Georgia corrections chief Wayne Garner that many of that state's prisoners weren't "fit to kill," as signs of a society increasingly out for vengeance rather than justice.
A report this week from the Department of Justice shows the United States could populate a new small town of over 60,000 each year with the number of people sent to state and federal prisons. With over 1.7 million people behind bars, the United States has the second-highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, after Russia.
And the growth in the 1990s is coming primarily from violent offenders, who last year made up more than half the growth in the prison population. That's contrary to the trend of the 1980s, when an explosion of drug arrests and prosecutions played a larger role in the swelling prison population.
That's not necessarily because the country is becoming more violent. Indeed, crime rates have been dropping. Rather, the growth of drug arrests and imprisonment has slowed, says Allen Beck, author of the latest Justice Department report, while incarceration rates for violent offenders have remained strong.
But the growth of violent offenders does mean the prisons are coping with an increasingly volatile prison population.
Assaults in prisons, both against fellow inmates and against staff, have more than doubled in the past decade, according to statistics gathered by the Criminal Justice Institute in Middletown, Conn. Last weekend, more than 2,000 inmates at New York's Attica prison were confined to their cells because of several attacks on guards.
While some experts regard the growing number of assaults as a logical outcome of prisons that are, on average, filled 20 percent over capacity, others point out that the actual assault rate, measured against the size of the prison population, is falling.
There is little doubt that prison conditions have gotten tougher. In a number of state and federal prisons, prisoner privileges have been reduced. And rehabilitation programs are either being cut or not expanding rapidly enough to keep pace with the prison growth rate, say some analysts.
Place to punish
The message from prisons these days is simply "we're here to punish," says Jenni Gainsborough of the National Prison Project, an advocacy group critical of prison conditions. "We can't keep them all locked up forever. They're going to be out on our streets at some point, and our job should also be to improve them before they get out on the streets." She says recidivism rates are not declining and that rate, ultimately, is the measure of whether the nation's corrections policy is working.
Ms. Gainsborough and others blame politicians more than corrections officials for the system's flaws. Despite a decline in many categories of crime nationally, crime remains high on the list of public concerns according to most polls. That's made it far to easy to advocate ever-tougher sentencing and stricter prison conditions without much regard to their effectiveness, say critics. These changes range from three-strikes laws that impose mandatory sentences after two convictions to the elimination of parole for certain offenses. At the same time, Congress has limited the use of class-action lawsuits on behalf of prisoners, something civil rights groups have bemoaned.
While the public may link the dropping crime rate with tougher sentencing laws, experts say there is no proof that is the cause. A host of other demographic forces, such as the aging of the baby boom population for instance, could also explain the trend.
Whatever the cause, the exploding prison population carries enormous social and economic costs that can feed off each other.
For instance, Corcoran was the first state prison in California to install lethal electric fences. A Department of Corrections spokesman says the main motivator was to save money by reducing prison staff. But critics like Miller of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives says lethal fencing, along with the reduced movement of prisoners in the so-called "super max" (maximum security) prisons, is part of a corrections management trend that is "becoming almost sadistic."
Lance Corcoran of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association says "overcrowding has not benefited anyone. Assaults inside have risen as a result." But he defends modern prison design, including lethal fencing, saying it has sharply reduced the state prison system's mortality rate for attempted escapes and assaults.
A federal grand jury has indicted eight Corcoran Prison officers with staging fights, but Mr. Corcoran of the Correctional Peace Officers Association says he's confident they will be exonerated.
Hearings in the state legislature are focused on whether two state investigations, one by the office of Attorney General Dan Lungren, were deliberately restrained because of the political clout of the Peace Officers Association. An investigative report last month by the Los Angeles Times called the state investigations a "whitewash."