A Gulag Mentality in the Prisons

Franklin E. Zimring is a professor of law and director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at UC Berkeley

The pace of progress in reforming criminal justice institutions has been quite uneven over the past generation. The record in urban police departments has been very good news on a number of fronts--professionalism, diversity, sensitivity to community concerns. Much more discouraging has been the trend in American prisons and jails, where progress in minimum standards imposed from courts and other outside institutions has been counterbalanced by inertia and regression in the politics and administration of prisons.

What have been the reasons for big steps forward in policing while prisons lagged far behind? What does the comparison say about how to address the needs of the prisons in the coming decades?

The departments and the people who police our cities have been changing rapidly for 25 years in the United States, and almost all the change has been positive. City police were, for a long time, an exclusive club of working-class white males. The big-city police force of the 1990s has taken important steps toward becoming rainbow coalition, opening its doors to people of different colors and ethnicities as well women and representatives of many different social classes. In 1998, our city streets have more cops from the ghetto than ever before and more cops from UCLA.

Urban police in 1998 are more sensitive to community concerns, have a better self-image, higher social standing in their communities and have much more effective leadership than ever before in their history.


This happy talk about police reform might strike readers in the city of Rodney King as being a trifle overblown. If our cops are getting so much better, why the scandals and emphatic public dissatisfaction with them? The loud noise about policing is evidence we care about police performance. Citizen expectations about police have been rising as fast as the standards of the police, sometimes even faster.

There has been little sustained improvement in prisons over the past generation, nationally or in California. Some progress toward racial and ethnic diversity in the custodial staffing of prisons has occurred, but there has been no sustained increase in the self-image or professionalism of prison staffers. With the decline in belief that prison programs can rehabilitate, our prisons have been the scene of declining social expectations. All the public expects from prisons is physical restraint. Guards can no longer think of themselves as the staff of a treatment program; they are no longer asked to identify with the needs and aspirations of inmates. Instead, the custodial relationship in the modern prison is an adversarial one. The prison guard is the sworn enemy of the persons he presides over.

The administration of prisons in California and elsewhere has remained a low visibility enterprise in two important respects, in stark contrast to city policing. Most members of the public have no great interest in what goes on within the walls of the state prison. Our prisons are far away, unlike the streets patrolled by police. Put together the quarter of a million Californians in penal institutions and you would have the 11th largest city in the state, bigger than Riverside or Stockton. But only prisoners are at direct risk in the prisons, so most citizens do not feel personally threatened as they would by police inefficiency or brutality.

And the 1990s provide a poor political climate for getting voters to worry about the safety and dignity of prison inmates. Instead, the public has been asked to support the stripping away of recreational opportunities and inmate privileges.


The health and welfare of inmates has not been the highest priority of correctional officials in California either. Instead, the major task of running the state’s prison system for the past 18 years has been managing growth. Since 1980, the state prison population has grown almost sevenfold, the greatest prison expansion in American history. During such a growth spurt, inmate safety, prison industries, drug treatment and everything else take a back seat to absorbing the additional prisoners. When administrators are preoccupied by managing growth and are also contending with a politically powerful and aggressive guard union, institutions like the Corcoran facility can slip out of control all too easily.

Will things get better in California’s prisons? Only a little bit. There will be some improvement in internal inspections and control because of a natural cycle of scandal being followed by some reform. But there will be no steady progress in reform of prisons because there is no public demand for any.

It is no accident that prisons like Corcoran and Pelican Bay have been pushed about as far from our major metropolitan centers as possible. The chief obstacle to prison reform in California is a Gulag mentality that will remain as long as public indifference about prisons is a persistent feature of the landscape.