More Prisoners, More Violence?
The violence comes at a critical juncture for the nation’s largest state prison system
Don Thompson, AP Writer
Published: April 10, 2008 11:56 

SACRAMENTO (AP) – The stabbing attack on four guards at one overcrowded state prison last week 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. Meanwhile, 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.” 

Last week, two inmates armed with homemade knives attacked guards at the California Correctional Institution about 40 miles southeast of Bakersfield. One of the guards remained hospitalized April 4 with a skull fracture and stab wounds. 

A second attack erupted April 4. 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. Prison officials described it as an attack by Hispanic inmates on white prisoners. Five were sent to hospitals, including two with puncture wounds. 

“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, New York, in 1971. 

Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, faulted Schwarzenegger for not doing enough since then 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. 

California’s 33 prisons have a capacity of roughly 100,000 inmates but hold about 170,000. A commission headed by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian advised Schwarzenegger in 2004 that the prisons could safely hold about 135,000. 

Overcrowding means more tension, less opportunity for recreation, education and other rehabilitation programs, less interaction with guards, counselors and visitors, and more difficulty in monitoring inmates. Many bunks are set up in converted gymnasiums and classrooms. 

The conditions are blamed for a variety of problems, including poor inmate medical care and mental health services, which 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 last week’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 the April 3 attack on the guards took place, was built in 1933 and 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. 

For 2006, the most recent year available, there were 3,873 assaults on prison employees. Of those, 938 involved weapons. 

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Thornton said. “We’re definitely moving in the right direction.” 

Prison Violence, The Classification System, But No Incentives

The California Department of Corrections ("CDC") has recently stated that violence among inmates and against employees is their single biggest problem. In order to curb prison violence, the CDC recently implemented changes to their Inmate Classification System under emergency rule change provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA"). 

While this may be a step in the right direction, it is essentially a subterfuge to avoid the real problems: The inmates have no incentives. They no longer receive substantial time reductions from their sentences, the Legislature and CDC have slowly eroded their rights and privileges, they are kept in oppressive overcrowded conditions with little or no realistic rehabilitation, and in many cases no hope for their future. Long ago, the California Legislature inserted language in the Penal Code essentially stating: That a person convicted and sentenced for a crime in California faces punishment of hard labor for as many hours per day as is feasible. In 1997, the Legislature eviscerated the "Prisoners Bill of Rights," Penal Code §2600 and §2601. 

When the truth in sentencing and three-strikes laws were passed, the Legislature removed the greatest known incentive for inmates to behave and better themselves. Previously, under the Determinate Sentencing Laws ("DSL"), inmates received a reduction in their sentence when they worked or attended education or vocational programs. A time credit of one day was earned for each day served--providing the inmate was successfully participating in the Work Training Incentive Program ("WTIP"), as set forth in Penal Code §2933. This one for one credit earned the acronym of "half-time." In other words, the inmate served one half of his sentence for successfully participating in the WTIP--this being a step toward rehabilitation. Moreover, the inmate would lose those earned time credits for misbehavior--another rehabilitation tool. 

That all changed with the truth in sentencing laws which limited earned time credits to 15% for most crimes. Now, these same inmates are still expected to fully participate in the WTIP, and also behave themselves, but they must now serve 85% of their sentences. In addition to insufficient earned time incentives, the get tough on crime movement has pushed for, and achieved, eliminating most of the prisoners' rights and privileges. All of the things the inmates hold dear are gone or going. For the knuckleheads who are already prone to violence, there simply is insufficient incentive remaining for these inmates to change their behavior. Simply stated: If you treat a person like an animal, that person will behave like an animal. 

A brief explanation of the present classification system is necessary for one to understand why changes are needed. Simply stated: It is primarily based on the length of the inmate's sentence. For example, an 80 year old inmate who is blind and in a wheelchair will receive the highest level security classification if he receives a 19 year sentence. A gang banger who receives a five year sentence will receive a minimum security level classification. 

This happens because the present system is mathematically based on points. The inmate's total sentence minus one year is multiplied times three. For example, the inmate in the wheelchair with a 19 year sentence: Take 19, subtract one which equals 18, then multiply times 3 which equals 54. (19-1) x 3 = 54. His total term points are 54. To this, myriad other points are added, e.g. three points if he does not have a high school diploma or G.E.D., three points if he has never served in the military, three points if he is not married, three points if he does not have a good employment record, and others. 

It becomes obvious that with the lengthy sentences presently being meted out, the term points essentially determine the classification level for a great many inmates who are not necessarily violent. The facilities themselves are classified by level, and the inmate's final points score determines the level facility to which he will be assigned. Level I is the lowest level security and houses those with 0 to 18 points. Level II is 19 to 27 points. Level III is 28 to 51 points. Level IV, the maximum security classification, is 52 and over points. Level I and II are generally open dormitory housing, while Levels III and IV are two man cells. 

Based on term points alone, our 80 year old blind person in a wheelchair with 54 points is classified a maximum security Level IV inmate. Our other example, the gang banger with a five year sentence, has (5-1)x 3 = 12, or 12 term points, and becomes a minimum security inmate. This system clearly defies common sense and logic. Even the most casual observer can quickly tell which of these two is a greater risk to become involved in prison violence--like a gang related riot. And this casual observer didn't need this outdated convoluted classification system to reach his conclusion. 

The CDC will claim it's not that simple, and they are right, but it will take much more than modifications to the present classification system to curb violence. It will require the return of incentives, and aggressive prosecution of assaultive inmates. The CDC will also claim these are extreme examples. But are they? The gang banger example is quite common. The 80 year old blind inmate in a wheelchair would certainly be rare, but it does happen. However, nothing changes when you remove any two of those factors. If he is just 80, how dangerous is he compared to the gang banger? Or 70, or 60, or 50? Or just blind? Or just in a wheelchair? Now we are including a large number of inmates obviously mis-classified maximum security, based solely on their term lengths, yet the violence potential, without other factors, must still go to the gang banger. 

The length of term factor, which is the primary classification factor with the most weight, is also the most unreliable.  Unless this is corrected the classification system will remain flawed. This factor has its roots in the philosophy that the longer the term the inmate must serve, the greater his incentive to escape, and therefore, the higher the security necessary to house him. This, however, is outdated. With the introduction of double fences and armed perimeter guards, and then the addition of a third lethal electric fence at many facilities, the potential for escape is little. 

Since the security concerns have now shifted from escape potential to violence as the primary problem, the term length factor should now be given much less weight, if any at all, and definitely not be the controlling factor. If a Level II facility has the new secure perimeter fencing, the same type of perimeter as the Level IV facility, then our elderly and/or invalid inmate with the 19 year sentence would, by common sense, be more appropriately and more economically housed at the Level II facility. This would open up bed space at maximum security facilities for those who truly need to be so housed. It is common knowledge that true escapes are extremely rare. The majority of, so called, escapes are in reality "walk-aways" from the CDC camp system, such as fire fighting camps. Classification points based on term lengths do not address this or serve their intended purpose. 

The typical dope fiend, for example, who has received a short sentence by burglarizing, or otherwise stealing, property he will sell or exchange in order to support his drug habit, will receive the lowest classification level. Yet, he will be the most likely to steal in prison, to attempt to smuggle and distribute drugs inside the prison, to "walk-away" from a camp facility to obtain drugs, etc. Things that are well known security problems and violence instigators, yet he is classified minimum security based on term length. To create further confusion, California labels many Penal Code Sections as violent crimes, when there may be no actual violence involved. The classification system does not always consider the realty of each individual situation. 

The single most important concerns to an inmate is: When do I get out? Other than a few unredeemable inmates, who by their actions earned their way to high security housing, the vast majority of inmates will do nearly anything to secure early releases. Next comes rights and privileges that provide sufficient incentive for the inmate to choose remaining in general population, over acting-out and being placed in Administrative Segregation ("The Hole"), can have a great effect on curbing violence. 

However, when time credits, and rights and privileges are removed, coupled with oppressive living conditions, the inevitable result is violence. This has been true from the beginning of time. Activists and historians warned the Legislature when the truth in sentencing laws were enacted. Other activists warned the Legislature when they removed inmates' civil rights, and again each time the CDC eliminates another privilege. 

There are no incentives, and there are no true rehabilitation programs or philosophies within the California Prison System. Therefore, no one should be surprised that the violence level is on the rise, and they should not be so naïve as to believe changing the classification system, without more, will stop the violence. 

Inmate Tom Watson 
Shasta County Jail 
1655 West St. 
Redding, CA 96001

Inmate Shot, Dozens Injured in Folsom Riot
By Jenifer Warren 
Times Staff Writer 

December 13 2002 

SACRAMENTO -- A race-related riot involving more than 100 inmates at Folsom State Prison on Thursday left two convicts with serious wounds -- one inflicted by a guard's gunshot -- and dozens with minor injuries. 

It was the first time in almost two years that an inmate has been shot in a California prison. No staff members were injured in the riot, described as the worst in a decade at the medium-security prison housing about 3,600 inmates east of Sacramento. 

Corrections officials ordered the prison placed on lockdown status, meaning all inmates must remain in their cells, losing most privileges, until an investigation is completed. The riot involved blacks and Latinos and began shortly before 7 a.m. in a housing unit. Guards quickly contained that brawl by firing rubber bullets, one of which struck an inmate just below an eye, said a prison spokesman. 

About 20 minutes later, more than 100 inmates in the dining hall began fighting. When pepper spray and rubber bulletsfailed to quell the riot, a correctional officer fired a single shot from a high-powered rifle, striking an inmate in the hip area, corrections officials said. At that point, the rioting, which lasted more than five minutes, stopped.

Editorial: Another report? No need
Existing reports tell the tale about prisons
- (Published February 6, 2004)
Memo to: Governor Schwarzenegger

Subject: Reports, old and new

Another day, yet another prison horror story. This time, it involves an inmate who bled to death in his cell at Corcoran State Prison on Super Bowl Sunday. Although he howled through the night and one guard asked a superior if he should check on the inmate, apparently no one bothered until the next morning. The inmate was found dead, in a pool of blood that had drained out of his body and seeped onto the floor outside his cell. The death is yet another graphic example of lethal incompetence and neglect in California's prisons.

The question, governor, is what do you plan to do about it?

Earlier this week, you told a radio interviewer that you wanted to name another panel to examine prisons. You now appear to be backing way from that idea. That's good. Frankly, governor, you don't need a new report on the subject.

In the past decade, plenty of reports have been written. Those reports, now gathering dust in government offices around the state, document waste, fraud, abuse and outright criminal conduct in the prison system.

Before you order up any new reports, here's a suggestion: Check out the list of suggested readings below. Then, settle into a comfortable chair this weekend for some extended reading.

You should begin with the recent report by John Hagar. He's the special master appointed by a federal judge. His report depicts a prison system dominated by the prison guards union and alleges criminal acts by some of the Department of Corrections' highest officials.

That report should make it clear why the state simply can't afford to wait for you to assemble another team of "experts." As Steve White, the former inspector general for the Department of Corrections and now a Sacramento Superior Court judge, says, a new "commission will simply delay action already long overdue."

After you finish reading, you might want to spend a bit of time considering who advised you to form an "independent commission" on prisons. Was it the same advisers who counseled you to dismantle the Office of Inspector General? If so, you should get yourself some new advisers.

The Office of Inspector General has consistently investigated and reported wrongdoing within Corrections. Anyone who counsels you to shut it down wants to stall reform in the hope that the prison scandals will fade from the headlines, and that the public will forget.

If your advice came from legislators, check out who contributed to their election campaigns. Chances are the contributors included the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guards union whose members have benefited handsomely from the status quo.

Corrections is bleeding money that the state doesn't have. Inmates and correctional officers alike are in danger. There is no shortage of information about these problems. What's lacking is the political will to fix them.

You say, governor, that you want to stop "the corruption going on ... the overspending ... the code of silence." If you really want to do that, stop dismantling the Office of Inspector General and ask the federal courts for help. Ask the courts to send in a monitor with wide authority to help honest and capable prison administrators take control of a prison system that has gone badly awry.

But first, take a few hours and do some reading. You won't find the subject matter entertaining, but it certainly will be enlightening.

California's prison crisis: Recommended reading


This list includes investigative reports and audits compiled by various agencies and institutions since 1994. It does not include more than two dozen investigative reports by the state Office of the Inspector General, many of which include allegations of criminal misconduct. Some of those reports have not been made public, but you and your staff have access to them.

* Draft Report Re: Departments of Corrections Investigations and Employee Discipline; Federal Special Master, January 2004.

* Back to the Community, Safe and Sound Parole Policies; Little Hoover Commission, November 2003.

* Survey of Educational Programs at California Department of Corrections Level IV Institutions; Office of the Inspector General, July 2003.

* Management Review Audit: California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison Corcoran, California; Office of the Inspector General, January 2003.

* California Department of Corrections: A shortage of Correctional Officers, Along With Costly Agreement Provisions, Raises both Fiscal and Safety Concerns and Limits Management's Control; State Auditor, July 2002.

* California Department of Corrections: Its Fiscal Practices and Internal Controls are Inadequate to Ensure Fiscal Responsibility; State Auditor, November 2001.

* Department of Corrections: Though Improving, the Department Still Does not Identify and Serve All Parolees Needing Outpatient Clinic Program Services, but Increased Caseloads Might Strain Clinic Resources; State Auditor, August 2001.

* California Department of Corrections: Poor Management Practices have Resulted in Excessive Personnel Costs; State Auditor, January 2000.

* Wasco State Prison: Its failure to Proactively Address Problems in Critical Equipment, Emergency Procedures and Staff Vigilance Raises Concerns About Institutional Safety and Security; State Auditor, October 1999.

* Prisons Industry Authority: Its outside Purchase of Goods and Services is Neither Well Planned nor Cost Effective; State Auditor, September 1998.

* California Department of Corrections: The Cost of Incarcerating Inmates in State Run Prisons is Higher Than the Department's Published Cost; State Auditor, September 1998.

* Early Intervention Program: Flaws found in the 1997 Report On the Benefits of Early Intervention; State Auditor, April 1998.

* Beyond Bars, Correctional Reforms to Lower Prison Cost and Reduce Crime; Little Hoover Commission, January 1998.

* Prison Industry Authority: Has Failed to Take Significant Corrective Action on Many State Auditor Recommendations; State Auditor, August 1997.

* Prison Industry Authority: Statutory and Cost Control Problems Adversely Affect the State; State Auditor, April 1996.

* Boot Camps: An Evolving Alternative to Traditional Prisons; Little Hoover Commission, January 1995.

* Putting Violence Behind Bars: Redefining the Role of California Prisons; Little Hoover Commission, January 1994.


 Watson Writings Index

 Judicial Terror in Shasta County

 Three Strikes Legal - Index