A Too-Obvious ‘Emergency’

State prison leaders’ declaration of an “emergency” because of overcrowding is mostly a sign of their inability to anticipate California’s correctional needs.

The calamity -- the arrival of 1,200 more inmates than had been expected -- was predictable. For over a year, county sheriffs have made no secret of the fiscal crises forcing them to fold local beds and bus thousands of “wobblers,” or inmates who could be housed either in local jails or state prisons, to state facilities.

One consequence of the emergency declaration, reported Tuesday by Times staff writer Evan Halper, is that it will let state prison officials move scores of nonviolent offenders into jammed, three-bed cells with violent offenders and no treatment. These inmates were previously housed in cellblocks where drug treatment and other rehabilitation services were sometimes available. As it is, only 21% of California prisoners complete parole without returning to prison, according to the state’s legislative analyst. In recent months there have been scores of hearings and lots of indignation, but remarkably little has changed:


* The department is six months behind in its plan to send 15,000 nonviolent offenders (people convicted of such “administrative” parole violations as a positive drug test or failure to meet a parole agent on time) not to prison but to drug treatment centers or into home detention with electronic monitoring.

* There are no plans to alleviate the overcrowding in the most obvious, cost-effective way -- by reopening the three private prisons closed only five months ago. The prisons charged taxpayers $16,000 to $19,000 an inmate a year and provided such services as drug abuse counseling and job training. When they were closed, inmates were transferred to public prisons at a cost of $50,000 an inmate, without rehabilitation.

* No one is compelling prison officials to explain why they have recently reclassified thousands of low-risk inmates as high-risk. The chief beneficiary may be the prison guards union, for whose members it creates opportunities to earn lucrative overtime in high-security prisons. Even if all of the people transferred from counties do need to stay behind bars, the cost would be far less in the private prisons.

At least one bill active in the state Legislature would address some of the problem. SB 1468 by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), which the Senate Public Safety Committee passed Tuesday, would reward counties that develop programs to reduce repeat offenses and keep nonviolent offenders out of $70-a-day county jail beds. It would also create a commission to measure success in both state prisons and county jails.

The state’s prison system continues to be skewed and distorted by the prison guards union, whose lavish campaign contributions have bought them huge salary increases and too much power over how prisons are run. Taxpayers are still waiting for legislators to fix this calamity behind bars.