Page 2 of 2

Inside California's Prison Crisis

The Supreme Court has ruled that getting locked up in the Golden State amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Read our 2008 examination of the nation's most dysfunctional prison system.

Michael Brady sits in a small children's playroom just off the main visiting hall at San Quentin State Prison, considering the case of Bob R. A sad-looking middle-aged white man with a goatee, Bob has the rough, red face of a serious drinker. He wears a standard-issue bright orange jumpsuit and is shackled at the waist. There are Winnie the Pooh posters taped to the walls, and brightly colored toy trucks, but the air is thick and oppressive.

Brady is a deputy commissioner on California's parole board; he is, in effect, judge and jury for parolees who have been arrested for violating the terms of their release, the so-called technical violators. Previously, he was a deputy secretary in the corrections department and helped design the New Parole Model. Now he's hearing cases, most of which last less than 20 minutes.

Brady quickly peruses the file and notes that Bob, who had his parole revoked once before after serving 16 months for a fraud conviction, recently "absconded" for 43 days without reporting to his parole agent.

"You have an alcohol problem," Brady says. "When you drink you don't report, right?"

Bob admits that he was on something of a bender and trying to tend to his wife, who's sick with liver disease. He unfolds a tattered handwritten note spelling out his troubles— alcoholism, homelessness, failure to find work. "Please help," it concludes.

Brady gives him what he asks for, a six-month placement in a privately run residential rehab program, but only after Bob serves a three-month sentence, what is known as "six with half," meaning the parolee serves only half the stated time of six months.

That may sound like a modest punishment, but such sentences can be debilitating; not only do they cause serious disruptions in the lives of parolees, who often lose jobs, apartments, and cars while inside, they condemn them to one of the worst and most poorly designed areas of prison life, the "reception center." Reception centers are intended to be temporary homes for newly arrived inmates, where they are tested, treated for urgent medical problems, and then assessed for more permanent prison assignments elsewhere in the state. But because parole violators receive such short terms, they never leave what are among the prisons' most crowded and disease-ridden sections.

Take the reception center in the desert city of Lancaster, just north of Los Angeles. The prison there, designed for 1,350 inmates, holds nearly 5,000 men, nearly half in its reception center. Many newly arrived prisoners stay in open gymnasiums jammed with rows of triple bunks, self-segregated along strict racial lines. They are stuck inside for 22 hours a day, leaving only for meals and twice-a-week visits to the yard. "We're just warehoused. There's nothing to do at all," says Vernon Bell Jr., who was sent to Lancaster for threatening his parole agent.

The reception center at San Quentin is even starker. Just inside the center, in the prison's West Block, are three tiny wire cages for inmates either waiting for a transfer or who have caused trouble. On a visit this winter, the three cages held men barely able to move in the narrow enclosures. Just inside the interior doors to the shadowy block were two more cages, both filled. Above rose five tiers of cells, some of the doors left open as the inmates simply roamed at will. Each cell is 4 feet by 12 feet, with a double bunk, an open toilet, and a small sink. It is cacophonous, and a constant rain of refuse floats down from the open tiers. The guards chat with each other and sit at battered desks. The nearly 900 inmates, the majority of them parole violators, spend most of the day indoors. They may get a couple of trips a week to the yard, but other than that they receive no "programming," which means no rehab, no classes, no vocational training. They get no contact visits from their families and are permitted no telephone calls, except to attorneys. This is where Bob R. and the 13 other parolees Brady will see on this winter morning will end up.

Following Bob, the melancholy parade continues with Mr. Lewis, a young black man who takes numerous medications for schizophrenia and the voices he says he hears inside his head. He failed to report to his parole agent immediately after release from San Quentin because, he explains haltingly, he got on the wrong bus outside the prison. Lost and confused, he called 911 and was arrested. "I see people every day who are so seriously mentally ill that I have to send them to a doctor just to get them stabilized to talk to them," Brady says, and that is what he orders for Lewis before sending him to the reception center. "The prisons have become our mental institutions."

The US prison population has doubled since 1990. It has increased 367% since 1980.

Walt is one of several of the morning's supplicants whom Brady greets like an old friend. "What are you doing here again, my man?" Brady asks. Walt, a 28-year-old who appeared at a revocation hearing less than a year earlier, nods warmly and then tries to explain away an apparent crack buy witnessed by a police officer. It's hard to put one past the 56-year-old former criminal defense lawyer; 10 years ago, before he started working for the state, Brady fought addictions to alcohol, cocaine, and meth, which landed him in prison for a year. That was followed by a 100-day stint for violating parole and a return to sobriety. He is unmoved by Walt's convoluted explanation and insists on rehab. Walt agrees, but first there's the prison time.

Next, Tyler explains how he got arrested after a dispute over a credit card. It has been six months since he served some time for a previous parole violation. "I don't want to see you again," Brady scolds after handing out a brief term and a rehab order. Tyler responds with a smirk. "I don't want to see you again, either."

Prison Break

Over the past year, Schwarzenegger has thrown several Hail Mary passes in a desperate attempt to ease the crisis. In January, he proposed the release of more than 22,000 nonviolent inmates with very short terms or close-to-completed longer terms. Tilton, the corrections chief at the time, was less than enthusiastic, saying he endorsed the proposal only because of a looming $17 billion budget shortfall. "I'm not a fan of early release," he said.

California legislators said they would fight such a move. "They're taking the easy way out, just releasing them, but it's not the easy way because they'll just end up back in prison later," said Todd Spitzer, a Republican from Orange County who heads a state Assembly committee on prison issues. Schwarzenegger flip-flopped in May, dropping the early release plan, saying that the prison population was starting to inch down on its own.


391 prisoners have been executed in Texas since 1982. Nearly 1 in 5 declined a last meal. Of the 317 who ate one:

22% asked for fried chicken.

16% asked for steak. 1 requested filet mignon.

14% asked for a double-meat cheeseburger.

49% asked for a side of fries. 1 ordered "freedom fries."

Most popular drink: Coke, followed by tea, milk, and Dr. Pepper

Oddest meal request: A jar of dill pickles

Denied: 1 request for bubble gum

Most specific request: 10 pieces crispy fried chicken (leg quarters); 2 double-meat cheeseburgers with a side order of sliced onions, pickles, and tomatoes, mayonnaise, ketchup on the side, salt and pepper, lettuce if possible; 3 deep-fried pork chops, breaded, trimmed, and well-done; 1 small chef salad with chopped ham and Thousand Island dressing; 1 large order of french fries cooked with onions; 5 big buttermilk biscuits with butter; 4 jalapeno peppers; 2 Sprites; 2 Cokes; 1 pint rocky road ice cream; 1 bowl of peach cobbler or apple pie. —Jen Phillips

Last meal of Oregon inmate Harry Moore

Schwarzenegger is also falling back on the solution of building bigger warehouses because the old ones have filled up. Last year, he approved $7.7 billion in new prison construction, a move his office hailed as an "important step toward solving California's prison overcrowding crisis." The massive project will add as many as 16,000 regular prison beds and an additional 16,000 beds in community-based reentry facilities for soon-to-be-released inmates. The governor's insistence that the plan will serve existing prisoners rather than prepare for new ones has not placated those who insist the money would be better spent on reducing recidivism, as states such as Kansas and Texas are doing. "That is just the stupidest thing you could do," says Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice and the author of Downsizing Prisons. "You get nothing by doing all that building, nothing in the way of getting better outcomes."

California would have to reduce its inmate population by more than 15 percent just to begin to function effectively, says James Austin, the prison consultant, who helped draft the Roadmap, one of the state's recent prison-reform plans. But reform, he says, is pointless unless it's accompanied by downsizing. "I don't care how good you manage; you can't do anything positive with the population they have now." In April, the Democratic president pro tem of the state Senate asked Schwarzenegger to clarify how the policies of early release and new beds fit together. "With all of the proposals out there," he wrote, "the prison population is a bouncing ball; we have no target."

The governor's spokeswoman, Lisa Page, says the prison expansion program "will reform and reduce the prison population by focusing on rehabilitating the state's current prisoners," while any early releases would free up space for treatment programs.

The latest proposals have left some experts throwing up their hands in frustration over another lost opportunity for reform. "Either we have a governor who lives in Hollywood and believes that wishing makes it so, or, more cynically, it's government by press conference," complains Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and a member of the Roadmap panel. "The governor has continually fallen down on action. He has not delivered anything he has said he would."

Prison Break

As the governor wrestles with a paralyzed bureaucracy and tries to build his way out of the crisis, much of the responsibility for real change remains in the hands of the courts and the Prison Law Office. Fed up with the piecemeal efforts, and convinced that overpopulation is at the root of everything wrong in the prisons, Donald Specter and his team are now pushing the federal courts to order the state to slash its inmate population by 30,000. At press time, the Prison Law Office and the state were in intense negotiations to come up with a settlement.

Before he became the third corrections secretary to step down since 2006, Tilton said that he looked forward to implementing the changes that would get Specter out of his hair once and for all.

"Do you know how many times I've heard that?" responds Specter, sitting in his cluttered office not far from the gates of San Quentin, wearing jeans, sneakers, and a faded plaid shirt. "Every new guy running corrections for the past 20 years has said he's going to put a stop to all the litigation. I've stopped blaming the head of the system, because I've started to see it doesn't matter too much who is in that job.

"Schwarzenegger could put us out of business if he wanted to just by doing what he said he would do," Specter sighs. "Everyone in this office would go home tomorrow if conditions permitted. But once again, the governor is letting the courts decide. I'm not sure that's the best way to manage."

And so the Prison Law Office continues to micromanage the monster, fighting what often seems like an absurd battle. In their recent case on the conditions at San Quentin's death row, Specter and his colleagues produced photographs of laundry carts covered in bird droppings and another that contained a putrefying mouse. Lawyers from the state attorney general's office admitted that the photos pictured "what appeared to be a dead mouse in a laundry cart." But, they insisted, "the mouse had not started to decay."

Life Is Cheap

It costs more than $117 million each year to keep 671 men and women on California's death row. Here's a snapshot of some of the costs of executing a killer there—and what it would cost to keep him locked up for life. —Celia Perry






$900,000 (average)

$2.7 million (average)

Longer trial, additional legal staff, expert witnesses, and extra security

Direct appeal



State pays capital defense attorneys more, and their workload is bigger.

Habeas corpus



State provides lawyers to death-row inmates, but not lifers.




Death-row inmates get their own cells and extra guards. They spend an average of 20 years on death row.

Last meal and execution


$50 maximum (meal); $90 (3-drug cocktail)


Page 2 of 2