Soledad, Monterey County -- They arrive in the dead of night, parking alongside a frontage road with no name.
By dawn on most Saturdays, a tiny community springs up on the road outside this state prison off Highway 101. Wives, girlfriends and mothers, waiting to visit an inmate, shake off a long drive and a bad night's sleep in a cramped car by chatting, chugging coffee, or applying lipstick and eyeliner with the help of a rearview mirror.
"If I had known I would be spending so many nights in here, I would have bought a different car,'' noted Dawn Boston, after changing from sweatpants and a sweatshirt to a flower-print dress inside her two-seat Miata.
To save money, California corrections officials this year reduced the number of visiting days at prisons from three or four to two, Saturdays and Sundays. Now scenes like the one here play out every weekend at many facilities across the state.
Fearful they'll be denied access to overcrowded visiting rooms, relatives of inmates arrive in droves overnight, parking in lines outside the prison to assure they'll get in.
Inside prisons, visits are shorter to allow as many people through as possible. Visiting rooms are packed, chaotic and loud. Arrive by late morning or early afternoon at some prisons and risk being turned away.
Prison officials project they'll save more than $11 million in personnel costs next fiscal year through the visiting reductions. Visiting days cost money because more guards are required to oversee the process and prevent illegal drugs from getting inside.
Victims' rights groups say two days a week of visiting with family is plenty for inmates who, after all, probably hurt someone else's family.
"Many of us don't have any visiting with our loved ones at all,'' said Harriet Salarno, the president of Crime Victims United of California. Salarno's daughter was murdered in 1979.
But as the state is launching new parole reforms to help lower its staggeringly high recidivism rate, prisoner advocates and some experts say reducing the chances for inmates to stay in touch with the outside world is a shortsighted way to shave money off the department's $5.3 billion annual budget.
Most prisoners get out, they say, and policies that hinder family connections on the inside produce more dangerous parolees.
"Contact with loved ones keeps you from being entirely consumed by the prison culture,'' said Terry Kupers, an Oakland psychiatrist who works with inmates and has studied the effects of prison visitation. "The evidence is pretty overwhelming: The fewer quality visits a prisoner receives, the less chance he has to turn things around. If a prisoner has no contact with family, the prisoner will fail once he gets out. It's almost inevitable.''
Corrections officials don't disagree.
Jeanne Woodford, recently appointed as the director of corrections, said in an interview last week that she believes visits are important and that at some point, she will work to add more visiting days back in prison schedules.
But the pressure is on corrections officials to reduce spending, and Woodford said the cuts in visiting were unavoidable. "Right now, we just don't have the money,'' she said.
Others say there are plenty of other options.
A state audit this year concluded that prisons were awarding expensive health care contracts without proper cost controls, for example, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is hoping to persuade the state's prison guards to forgo at least part of an 11 percent raise they're due in July.
"Rather than cutting salaries of prison guards, or spending less on maintenance or other things, the higher-ups in Sacramento have decided that prisoner families will bear the brunt of budget cuts,'' complained Charles Carbone, an attorney with California Prison Focus.
Until this year, many prisons allowed visits four days a week, typically Thursday through Sunday.
The change has added all kinds of headaches for those hoping to see an incarcerated loved one.
At Folsom State Prison, the Saturday crowds force most visitors to wait more than three hours to get from the front gate into the visiting room.
At Solano State Prison in Vacaville, a line of cars stretching almost a mile congests a two-way road leading to the prison. Lt. Mary Neade said the prison was shuffling about as many visitors through the facility in two days as it did in four. The prison, which holds about 6,000 inmates, can only accommodate about 600 visitors a day.
And in Soledad, the frontage road-turned-parking lot led to an accident last month involving a guard on his way to work and a visitor who pulled out from her space along the road.
Outside the prison in Soledad, called the Correctional Training Facility, women like Pua Reinhardt have converted vehicles into tiny hotel rooms. Reinhardt drives three hours from the Central Valley city of Tulare every Friday, then sleeps on an old Army cot in the back of her minivan to be in line to see her husband, serving a 15-year sentence for drug offenses.
A train comes by at 3 a.m. every day, a not-so-welcome wake-up call. There are enough car campers now that a farmer who owns land adjacent to the prison has agreed to come by on weekend mornings and pick up a garbage bag full of trash created by all of the roadside guests.
Reinhardt and Boston, who makes a 286-mile drive from Lancaster in Los Angeles County every other weekend, are typically two of the first visitors inside when visiting begins at 9 a.m. They hold hands with their husbands, play cards, or eat overpriced food from vending machines.
To allow as many people as possible to get in, the early ones are usually forced to leave by noon.
"Sometimes it feels like the (corrections department) just wishes we would all go away -- just stop coming,'' said Boston, who works for a Southern California construction company.
Boston and several other visitors interviewed by The Chronicle on a recent Saturday morning are part of love stories that can only be described as unorthodox. Boston began corresponding with her husband, Andre, via e-mail, and married him in the visiting room.
Her husband received a 50-year sentence for crimes that Dawn Boston doesn't want to discuss; he could be paroled as early as 2010.
"I really believe my purpose is to help him get out so we can lead good lives together,'' she said.
California has an astonishingly large prison population, ranking in size only behind systems run by China and the U.S. federal government. An overwhelming number of California inmates have been inside before: About 70 percent of released convicts return to prison within three years.
Because it costs more than $33,000 annually to house each of the state's 162,000 prisoners, corrections officials have embarked on major reforms to lower the recidivism rate. There will be more mental health treatment, more pre-release planning with inmates and drug treatment programs for parolees who fall off the wagon.
But Kupers, the psychiatrist, says prison officials could affect recidivism by promoting more family contact with inmates. He cites studies conducted throughout the 20th century that show inmates with many visits are far less likely to commit crimes again once they're out.
The danger in reducing visiting hours is that families will get discouraged and stop coming, leaving inmates with little incentive to behave in prison and once they're out, according to Kupers.
Woodford said budget constraints mean that a return to more visiting days doesn't seem likely anytime soon. Long lines at state prisons will continue, despite increasing complaints from inmates' families.
"They did the crime, and they should do the time,'' said Reinhardt, sitting in her minivan. "But these are our husbands, our fathers, our brothers. We just want to be able to see them.''
E-mail Mark Martin at email@example.com
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