In California, Walls Close In On Prisoners and Policymakers

Inmates in cramped cells and lawmakers outside of them feel the pressure of funding shortage.
by | May 27, 2011 AT 2:00 PM

It was only a matter of time.

The congestion nightmare in California’s prisons has been ongoing for decades now. We’re not talking a few extra bodies and couple more beds. We’re talking cramped cells, bloated beyond capacity. We’re talking a 33-prison network designed to hold 80,000 convicts busting at the seams with nearly double that amount. We’re talking an overcrowding rate higher than any other prison system in the country, which has led to a dearth in mental health and medical care and hazardous conditions for all.

“It’s an unacceptable working environment for everyone,” Jeanne Woodford, a former director of the state prisons and a former warden at San Quentin prison told the New York Times. “Every little space is filled with inmates and they are housed where they shouldn’t be housed, and every bed is full. It leads to greater violence, more staff overtime and a total inability to deal with health care and mental illness issues.”

On Monday, a Supreme Court ruling ordered California to shed some 30,000 prisoners over the next two years. The ruling underlines the cold reality that our current prison system’s lock-up-as-many-people-as-possible-and-throw-away-the-key philosophy is a bad idea. It was always a bad idea. But now it’s a bad idea that officially violates the constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

It was only a matter of time.

But beyond these cramped cells, California’s Legislature is trapped in a different kind of tight squeeze: monetary. The state’s budget gap has crippled any real attempts to fix this overcrowding dilemma. Gov. Jerry Brown has been locked in a partisan stalemate with Republican leaders over how to deliver the state from its $9.6 billion budget hole. But since the GOP is dead set against extending tax increases, even Brown’s better ideas will have a hard time seeing the light of day.

Last month, Brown signed into law a “realignment” plan, which would shift inmates deemed "non-serious, nonviolent and nonsexual" to county jails. Brown used the high court ruling to buttress his plan – outlined in California Assembly Bill 109 -- as a valid and necessary step. "In its ruling, the Supreme Court recognized that the enactment of AB 109 is key to meeting this obligation,” he said in a statement. “We must now secure full and constitutionally guaranteed funding to put into effect all the realignment provisions contained in AB 109.”

Under pressure to ease overcrowding and expand health care for inmates, Brown believes that sending relatively low-level prisoners to county jails will help address these issues and empower local law enforcement.

But without the budget deal, the plan to move thousands of inmates closer to home starts to crumble. Brown’s signature without a funding deal has led feelings of betrayal from local sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies, who had pledged to support the plan as long as there was a way to pay for it. Now, in these cash-strapped times, they’re afraid they’ll get stuck with the bills and might not have enough space, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Some also question whether there are enough county beds for the transferred state inmates. Greg Ahern, vice president of the California Sheriff's Association, Mr. Ahern estimated there are just 10,000 to 20,000 extra beds available in the system.

Meanwhile, counties' public-safety budgets have been slashed due to the recession. Mr. Ahern, who is also sheriff of Alameda County east of San Francisco, said that over the last three years, police layoffs and other cuts in public safety have hurt local policing and the situation could worsen if the state doesn't provide funding.

"You can't expect a good outcome for what the courts want us to do without significant help from the state," said Mr. Ahern.

With the Supreme Court ruling, lawmakers can no longer play keep away with state prison system policies. It’s time to start thinking outside the bloated box.