State prison system ‘collapsing under its own weight,’ Schwarzenegger says


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, after touring the site where a major prison riot occurred 12 days ago, said Wednesday that the state’s prison system is “collapsing under its own weight” and called on lawmakers to make changes that could reduce overcrowding and spending on inmates.

The governor and his corrections chief, Matt Cate, walked through the destruction at a housing unit for prisoners at the California Institution for Men in Chino, where 1,300 inmates rioted on the evening of Aug. 8.

The prison housed nearly 6,000 prisoners, twice the number for which it was designed. About 1,200 beds were lost due to the damage, forcing the state to transfer inmates to other facilities.


Schwarzenegger, who used to visit prisons to work out with inmates as a bodybuilder in the 1970s, said the system has vastly changed since then, with California now spending almost $49,000 a year -- far more than other states -- to incarcerate a single inmate in a system that is “very, very dangerous.”

“It is hard to argue that the money is spent wisely and efficiently,” he said. “We have one of the highest rates of recidivism in the nation. . . . The politicians in Sacramento have swept the problem under the rug for so long. California is quite literally losing control of our prisons.”

Schwarzenegger has failed to bring the prison system under control since his election almost six years ago, despite pledging to do so.

A federal judge seized control of inmate medical care on his watch.

The governor reorganized the corrections agency to emphasize rehabilitation, but recently suggested gutting rehab programs to save money.

He also has proposed scaling back parole supervision and releasing low-level inmates, but he has backed away from some of those plans under pressure from law enforcement groups. Other plans have died in the Legislature.

The state is under pressure to reduce costs at its lockups due to its budget crunch. Schwarzenegger and lawmakers agreed to cut $1.2 billion from prisons in last month’s budget deal, and lawmakers have said that they will vote on details of the reductions today.


A plan backed by Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders would reduce the prison population by 37,000 over two years through a variety of measures, such as offering house arrest during the last year of an inmate’s sentence and letting inmates earn their way off parole earlier. Republicans say the proposal would endanger public safety.

The state also is under pressure from the federal courts to reduce overcrowding.

A three-judge panel presiding over a pair of inmate lawsuits said this month that it would order the state to reduce its prison population by more than 40,000 unless officials devise a plan to do so first. California now has nearly 170,000 prisoners in custody.