Unshackling prison reform

Rioting inmates in Chino recently torched a dormitory, ravaged five other dorms and destroyed 1,200 beds. Roughly 1,300 convicts participated and 175 were injured. The state caught a break.

No guard was hurt. And no prisoner was killed.

“It turned out better than we thought,” says Matthew Cate, the state’s prison boss as secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“Officers were able to retreat to a place of relative safety near the administration office. They regrouped, then swept through and retook it with our version of a SWAT team.”


After only about four hours.

It’s a wonder there haven’t been more riots -- and more catastrophic ones -- given the incendiary, overcrowded conditions of California prisons. Tens of thousands of men are stacked practically like cordwood in barracks or gyms, averaging 200 per dorm.

Credit Cate, other prison officials and the much-maligned guards for keeping the lid on an explosive tinderbox.

California’s 33 prisons hold roughly 153,000 inmates in facilities originally designed for 80,000. Another 6,000 are housed in fire camps or local facilities. And 8,000 have been transferred to out-of-state custody.


“When you put a bunch of human beings in an environment in which they’re living in quarters designed for a population half that size, with all the tensions that go into a prison anyway, you’re bound to have an explosion,” says Steve Merksamer, who runs a political law-lobbying firm. In the 1980s, he was chief of staff for Gov. George Deukmejian, a lock-'em-up former attorney general.

“They’re not exactly a docile population. There’s a great deal of racial and ethnic rivalry. . . . The only thing that surprises me is we haven’t had a Chino situation far more often.”

As Deukmejian and Merksamer entered the governor’s office, still fresh in their memories was a deadly prison riot in Attica, N.Y., 12 years earlier that had tarnished Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. That riot lasted four days; 33 guards were taken hostage and 39 people died, including 10 guards and civilian employees.

“My biggest fear always was a prison riot,” Merksamer recalls. “We trained. We’d have mock riots.

“We had prison overcrowding then, but it wasn’t as crowded as it is today. We embarked on the largest prison building program in history.”

That was then. Now the state is virtually broke.

The Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger actually have authorized $2.4 billion in bond issues to build prison cells and $1 billion to construct community reentry housing facilities. But there’s a lousy bond market because of the recession and the state’s shaky budget. So no construction has begun.

Meanwhile, the Capitol is under siege by three federal judges who have ordered the Schwarzenegger administration to reduce the state’s prison population by 43,000 inmates over two years. “Immediate action is necessary to prevent death and harm,” the jurists decreed Aug. 4. They told the governor to send them a reduction plan by mid-September.


Speaking last week at the Chino riot scene, Schwarzenegger declared: “The politicians in Sacramento have swept the problem under the rug for so long that California is quite literally losing control of our prisons.”

Here, I must paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s famous debate line: There he goes again -- Schwarzenegger acting as if he had not been Sacramento’s most powerful politician for nearly six years.

In fairness, Schwarzenegger long has been attempting prison reforms and bed-building. But so has the Legislature. It’s just that legislators are so polarized by partisanship and philosophy that it’s a painful strain to come together and compromise. And the governor has little influence over fellow Republicans.

It doesn’t help that the minority party basically has been contradicting itself: advocating tax cuts and smaller government in most cases while pushing for costly, longer sentences in state prisons. Both parties also have had a love-hate relationship with the powerful prison guards union, which won a fat wage and benefits contract under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

The end of political gerrymandering -- legislators drawing their own districts -- should help by spurring campaign competition and the election of more pragmatic centrists beginning in 2012. Another partial remedy would be an open primary system, and that will be proposed on the June 2010 ballot.

One more systemic flaw highlighted by the current fight over prison cost-cutting and reform is term limits, which create a distracting game of musical chairs.

In the Assembly, nearly 40% of Democrats (19) are running for another office. Most are fearful of being branded by campaign opponents as “soft on crime” if they vote for, say, early release from prison of even decrepit old blind men.

That’s why a plan by Democratic leaders and the governor to reduce the prison population by 27,300 inmates this year and save $525 million passed the Senate 21 to 19 last week, but stalled in the skittish Assembly. No Republican supported the bill, but none was needed because it required only a majority vote to pass.


An amended, watered-down measure may be debated on the Assembly floor today. It will retain the feature Schwarzenegger deems most important: an overhaul of the parole system by focusing on the riskiest parolees and paying little attention to the rest, resulting in fewer ex-cons being returned to prison for minor violations.

All this can be worked out and space freed up in the barracks and gyms. Better to do it now than after the predictable prison blowup.