Prisons in California

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The California State Prison System is administered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Division of Adult Institutions. which had 170,588 inmates as of 2007 – 475 inmates per 100,000 state residents), has been the focus of attention for growing influence upon the state's political arena. Former Governor Gray Davis was accused of favoring the prison guard union more than the interests of education.[who?] Allegations of prisoner abuse gave rise to increased attention of the prison oversight committees. Accusations of police guard favoritism by these committees have occurred as well.


The California system has been the origin of many trends in prison conditions within the United States as a whole. The state's large and diverse population, large size, large urban areas, history of gang and drug-related crime, tough sentencing laws and its status as an entry point to the U.S. for both immigrants and drugs has given California a large and complex prison environment. As of November 14, 2011 the California prison system held 143,643 prisoners in state prisons designed to hold 84,130. At last count there were 1,439 prisoners in in-state contract beds, and 9,439 prisoners held in private, out-of-state prisons.[citation needed] California prisons are overcrowded, with a number of facilities holding more than 200% of their design capacity.

The system, like the state as a whole, lacks a racial/ethnic majority among the population, with Hispanic inmates making up approximately 37% of the population, African American and white inmates each representing about 27%, and other inmates representing 8% as of 2006. Prisoner identification and affiliation is tied closely to race and region of the state, which has contributed to tension and violence within the system. There has been a long running racial tension between African American and Southern Mexican American prison gangs and significant riots in California prisons where Mexican inmates and African Americans have targeted each other particularly, based on racial reasons.[1] California is the birthplace of the United States' most powerful and well-known prison gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, and the Black Guerrilla Family. State efforts against these gangs made California a pioneer in the development of Security Housing Unit "supermax" control-unit facilities.

The overcrowded conditions and accusations of inadequate medical facilities and mistreatment have caused the federal courts to intervene in the system's operation since the 1990s, appointing special oversight and enforcing consent decrees over the system's medical system and the SHU units and capping populations at several facilities. As of 2007, the state has plans to continue to expand the system and to involuntarily transfer inmates to other states or federal prisons. Also as of 2007, by order of federal courts, the system's medical system is under federal receivership, and a federal court may impose a mandatory limit on the system's total population by June 2007.

Prison growth and overcrowding[edit]

The California incarceration rate has ranged from about 1‰ of the population to about 5‰.

From 1982 to 2000, California's prison population increased 500%. To accommodate this population growth from the war on drugs, the state of California built 23 new prisons at a cost of 280 million to 350 million dollars apiece. By way of comparison, during the 112-year-long period between 1852 and 1964, the state of California had constructed just 12 prisons. California's prisons are public and are financed by the Public Works Department and operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The state funds the prison system's annual costs. In 2005 the state rate of incarceration was 616 per 100,000 adults, or about .6%.

There are many explanations for the prison growth. One is the perceived drug epidemic in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the presumed consequent threat to public safety. Building more prisons counters this threat with supposed stability. Another explanation is that, during this period, prison sentences increased and minimum sentencing gave lesser crimes longer jail terms. Moreover, unemployment led many citizens to commit property-related crimes, although, ironically, California has a relatively low rate of property crime occurrence compared to other states. In response to the perceived increasing crime rate, the citizens of California passed the three strikes law, stipulating a life sentence for those who were convicted of three felonies. Government officials, policy advisers and the media tied the public concern over crime to the need for more prisons. Alleged decreases in crime due to such "crackdowns" are unsupported by researchers which note that crime rates have declined across the nation without regard to whether more punitive laws were enacted or not.

Pleasant Valley State Prison, a minimum security prison in Fresno County, California

Of the 160,000 prisoners in California, two-thirds are African-American and Latino. Approximately 17% were born abroad. Most prisoners come from California's high density population areas, however incarceration rates in less populated areas are higher than from more congested areas. About 62% of inmates in 2005 were sentenced from Southern California. The largest racial group in California prisons was whites from 1980 to 1986, blacks from 1986 to 1992, and Hispanics from 1992 to the present.[2]

The increase in prisons has led to job opportunities for communities in which prisons are located but locals are generally not benefited by these openings as rural areas where these new institutions are built are not populated by people with the skills or education required to be hired in the prisons. Negative impacts of prisons in such areas mainly include the attraction of inmate visitors who are often impoverished and bring little economic consumption to the community. The better paid prison staff generally lives and shops in other areas than where prisons are located. (See LA Times, May 3, 2010.)

The California Prison Industry Authority provides the inmates themselves with productive job opportunities. The inmate work program's main aim is to rehabilitate prisoners and promote their successful re-entry into society after their punishment has been completed. Through the program, approximately 5,900 inmates are given work assignments in 60 different lines of work at 22 California prisons. The goods produced by the inmates are available for local, state, and federal governmental agencies. Prisoners are able to earn between 30 and 95 cents per hour of work.

Supreme Court verdict on unconstitutional conditions[edit]

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Brown v. Plata that overcrowded conditions in California prisons constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishments.[3] The decision upheld a lower court decision which found that "an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies."[3] The Court found that, at the time of the lower court trial, California jailed nearly twice as many prisoners as its prisons were designed to hold.[4] In the majority opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population. ... State may employ measures, including good-time credits and diversion of low-risk offenders and technical parole violators to community-based programs, that will mitigate the order’s impact. The population reduction potentially required is nevertheless of unprecedented sweep and extent.

Yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations. For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.

Overcrowding has overtaken the limited resources of prison staff; imposed demands well beyond the capacity of medical and mental health facilities; and created unsanitary and unsafe conditions that make progress in the provision of care difficult or impossible to achieve. The overcrowding is the “primary cause of the violation of a Federal right,” 18 U. S. C. §3626(a)(3)(E)(i), specifically the severe and unlawful mistreatment of prisoners through grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care.[4]

The findings were later reaffirmed by a federal panel.[5] In 2013, approximately 29,000 California prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest ongoing conditions.[5] Around this time, California asked the Supreme Court to release it from an order to reduce its prison population.[5]

Prison Spending[edit]

California has "seen its prison-related spending swell to $10.4 billion for the 2008-2009 fiscal year (Washington Post, 5/5/08)".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Racial segregation continues in California prisons[dead link]
  2. ^ [1][dead link]
  3. ^ a b Liptak, Adam (23 May 2011). "Justices, 5-4, Tell California to Cut Prisoner Population". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 July 2013. 
  4. ^ a b "Brown, Governor of California, et al. v. Plata et al.". Supreme Court of the United States. May 2011. Retrieved 15 July 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c "California Seeks to Evade Overcrowding Order as Hunger Strike Continues". DemocracyNow!. 11 July 2013. Retrieved 15 July 2013. 

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