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California Budget Woes Squeeze Overcrowded Prisons

August 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As California continues to struggle over budget gaps, Spencer Michels measures the likely effects of funding cuts on the state's overcrowded prisons.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, California’s crowded prisons and shrinking budget. The state legislature meets tomorrow to identify more than $1 billion of cuts in the prison budget. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: An 11-hour riot at this state prison in Chino recently cast a harsh spotlight on California’s overcrowded prisons: 250 inmates were injured; 6 dormitories were badly damaged by fire; and 1,000 men had to be relocated.

MATTHEW CATE, secretary, California Corrections: It looked like helter-skelter, you know?

SPENCER MICHELS: I guess. Well, was it an organized thing or did it just sort of erupt?

MATTHEW CATE: No, it had been planned.

SPENCER MICHELS: Matthew Cate, Governor Schwarzenegger’s secretary of the state department of corrections and rehabilitation, flew to the prison Sunday morning.

MATTHEW CATE: We’re at 190 percent of capacity, and it’s difficult to manage a system that’s that chockfull of inmates.

SPENCER MICHELS: And is that what prompted the riot, do you think?

MATTHEW CATE: I think the riot was prompted probably by the same issues that often prompt these things: gangs and race issues and so forth. But our ability to manage it, our ability to retake the institution, our ability to stop those from occurring in the first place, all those things are easier if you’re not overcrowded to the level that we are.

SPENCER MICHELS: At San Quentin and elsewhere, gymnasiums have been turned into sleeping quarters, because there aren’t enough cells to house the state’s huge prison population of 150,000 inmates in 33 institutions.

Meanwhile, the $10 billion state prison budget is about to be slashed by more than 10 percent, victim of the state’s budget shortfall. State prison officials say education and vocational training, like this prison printing shop, are on the chopping block.

MATTHEW CATE: We’re cutting hundreds of positions from headquarters to try to run a leaner prison system. Secondly, and unfortunately, we’re going to cut about half of our rehabilitative programs.

SPENCER MICHELS: Those programs already are few, and many inmates don’t get a chance or don’t want to take part in them.

DALLAS BROWN, inmate: You got guys that are doing two or three years that don’t get a chance to go to these vocational programs, because all these guys doing life are taking these all up.

Judges order release of inmates

SPENCER MICHELS: Fewer programs means the 10,000 prisoners who leave prison each month will be less prepared for the outside. And now, a three-judge federal panel -- reacting to prisoner lawsuits -- says the prisons have to release about 40,000 inmates, in order to reduce overcrowding and provide adequate mental and physical health care. The judges argued that prisoners are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment because of poor health facilities, sloppy record-keeping, and an inadequate and incompetent staff.

Clark Kelso is the federal receiver appointed by the court to oversee California's prison health care.

CLARK KELSO, California Prisons receiver: Right now, the care still, in my judgment, falls below constitutional standards. It's better than it was.

SPENCER MICHELS: At San Quentin, as a result of pressure from the federal receiver, improvements in health facilities are further ahead than at most other prisons. The emergency room is now clean and spacious. New doctors and nurses have been hired. And a large health building is nearly completed on the prison grounds, at a reported cost of $146 million. Still, Kelso thinks more needs to be done.

CLARK KELSO: Doctors are practicing without information that they need. People are being denied care when they need it. And these sort of problems do result in greater illness and, at times, death.

SPENCER MICHELS: But State Attorney General Jerry Brown, who was California governor 30 years ago, says enough is enough. He is thinking of appealing the court-ordered prison population reduction.

JERRY BROWN (D), attorney general, California: I'm very skeptical of these accusations of deaths and horror and unmitigated neglect. This is a massive system that has increased its spending to an amount now where health care in California for prisoners is higher than it is for civilians.

SPENCER MICHELS: Brown says the problems in prisons, including a recidivism rate of 70 percent, go far beyond the health system and overcrowding.

JERRY BROWN: There's lots of changes needed, and I would say health care is one of the least important. I would say getting rid of their drug addiction, getting rid of their hostile criminal attitudes. I would say learning how to read and write. I'd say getting a skill. None of those things are happening.

Changing sentencing and penalties

SPENCER MICHELS: Yet, even if the state appeals and is not forced to cut the prison population, officials still want to reduce the number of inmates to save money. But opposition from some Republican legislators, who fear the release of dangerous criminals, has made that difficult.

The governor wants to give more credit toward early release to inmates who complete education or drug programs, to deport non-violent illegal aliens, and to release older and infirm prisoners. And even more controversial, says Corrections Secretary Cate, to change penalties for some crimes.

MATTHEW CATE: To reduce some crimes that can be prosecuted right now with a prison sentence, reduce those to a misdemeanor so that you serve your time in county jail. All told, we think that's about 27,000 in the first year who won't necessarily be released, but we'll see that total reduction in the system over time.

SPENCER MICHELS: Everyone agrees that, if there are to be releases, public safety should be foremost. One inmate we talked to -- serving a long sentence for murder -- says inmates serving life sentences have the best odds of staying clean on the outside.

ERNEST MORGAN, JR., inmate: The men that we release from prison now, we have a 75 percent recidivism rate in California. Men who have done life crimes, who have the opportunity of being paroled, we have a 0 percent recidivism rate. We've worked on ourselves for so many years. I can never believe, if I ever came to prison for the first time, that the safest person to release from prison was an individual who did 27 years on a life plan.

SPENCER MICHELS: Criminologists say studies indicate that's true, though few lifers get paroled in the first place.

While the prisons are unlikely to release many long-serving inmates, officials do want to reduce the number of parolees, like these, who are often sent back to prison for offenses like drug and alcohol use and put a strain on the system.

JERRY BROWN: The parole system probably brings some people back to prison who don't belong there. The prisons also let out people who shouldn't be let out, and it also gets people who should never be there in the first place. It is a screwed-up system.

SPENCER MICHELS: While Brown wants deep, basic changes to reduce the recidivism rate, state legislators will have to decide whether to change the parole system and, even more difficult, some sentencing rules.

More immediately, the governor and lawmakers have to figure out how to squeeze $1.2 billion out of a system already overextended and overcrowded without making it worse.