FOLSOM, CALIF. – From the bottom bunk of his bed inside a crowded gymnasium that is now a makeshift dormitory for prisoners at California State Prison Sacramento, inmate Frank Smith doesn’t need the governor or any politician to tell him the prisons are severely overcrowded.
Smith, 47, is one of 270 inmates living inside two prison gyms converted into prisoner housing areas at CSP Sacramento because most of the facility’s cells are occupied, leaving no more room to house the growing number of convicts being sent behind bars.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve been in the pen a long time,” he said. “It’s hard because you have to deal with so many things now as far as cleanliness, sickness and different attitudes.”
Smith is serving his 26th year of a 15-to-life sentence for second-degree murder after being convicted in Los Angeles County in 1980. Since then, he said he has witnessed the population of inmates rapidly outpace the number of available prison beds.
It is a problem that is expected to reach a crisis point this summer.
Officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have warned that the state’s 33 prisons – nearly all of which are at overcapacity – will soon run out of bed-space for new inmates. The warning is leaving state politicians scrambling for solutions to an old debate about how to overhaul the largest prison system in the country, which currently houses 70 percent more than its original capacity at 173,000 inmates and costs taxpayers $8.6 billion to operate annually.
On one side, prisoner advocates argue that lawmakers need to reform California’s strict sentencing laws and provide opportunities for recently released parolees to get a job and remain out of prison.
Others, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, are looking to increase the system’s capacity instead. As part of a statewide strategic growth plan, the governor has proposed $10.9 billion in bonds to expand and construct new prisons in the state.
Experts analyzing the politics behind the issue said stakeholders in the discussion are seizing the overcrowding problem for their own ulterior motives.
“Public safety is not the issue here,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “The issue is you’ve got greedy unions, you’ve got right-wing politicians who want to mouth off and posture about being ‘who’s the most macho on crime,’ and it’s hard to find a progressive middle on this. As a consequence, the thing continues to reel out of control.”
While the debate continues, inmates report that overcrowding has fueled heightened tensions between prisoners. These tensions frequently result in spates of prison rioting, leaving reform-minded convicts, like Smith, victims of their assaults.
“Walking around here all the time, you never know what’s going to go on in this place,” Smith said. “You gotta really fight and push yourself away from all the garbage and stay away from people that [are] doing the wrong things. You take a beating, but that’s what you got to do.”
Recently, prison officials at CSP Sacramento have cut the number of inmates allowed in the recreation yard from 300 to fewer than half that number because of melees sparked by having too many prisoners and not enough guards.
“Some of us are stupid,” said inmate John Manning, 44, who is serving life without the possibility of parole after being convicted of first-degree murder in 1994. “Some of us adults are still 12 years old, walking around here, and it takes one of these situations to grow up really fast.”
The number of prisoners inside the converted gymnasiums, however, continues to balloon.
Inside Smith’s grimy cement living quarters, a level-one maximum security housing facility that holds some of the least violence-prone convicts, prisoners once played basketball and held boxing matches. But five years ago, the prison ran out of bed space and officials took the hoops down, dismantled the ring and allowed the yellow lane markings on the waxed concrete floor to fade.
Soon after, rows of three-tiered metal bunks and steel lockers were installed in a military barrack formation, enough to house several hundred convicts in crowded conditions that were dubbed a temporary solution to overcrowding.
However, like many other state prisons, the bunks have become permanent. On Apr. 12, the headcount inside Smith’s gymnasium – which fluctuates every day as new prisoners move in and out – stood at 133 inmates, fewer than previous headcounts, but enough to produce a stale musk inside the building that prisoners deal with daily.
“I’ve been in this gym for three years,” said Bobby Dale Earls, a Sacramento native whose bunk is located down the row from Smith’s. “I hate it here, and … I have no options, so I’m stuck.”
Earls, 58, is serving 21 years behind bars after getting busted for holding up an area bank in 1985. Prior to that, he served shorter stints at San Quentin, Pleasant Valley and Folsom State prisons for a series of bank robberies that started in 1972.
He criticizes Schwarzenegger for failing to address prison overcrowding and correct a California criminal justice system that sees a high recidivism rate because of what Earls refers to as the state’s excessively strict three strikes and probation laws.
“You can keep building for life, and as long as they’re here, it’s just like the field of dreams – build them and they’ll come,” he said. “You’ll find a way to fill a prison if it’s built. You can’t build out of this; you have to change what you have now.”
It is a sentiment shared by state prisoner advocacy groups – many of which said the lack of reentry programs in communities shortchanges recently released parolees and increases the likelihood of their committing another crime.
“Rather than stockpiling people from the streets into cages, we should be stockpiling people into job-training programs and education,” said Debbie Reyes, director of the California Prison Moratorium Project, a group that opposes the construction of new prisons in the state.
Reyes pointed to 1,000 new felonies California lawmakers made into law in the last 20 years, including several which concern parolees, to prosecute citizens as one of the root causes of prison overcrowding.
“I feel it should be a little more lenient, but the way the laws are written, they’re really strict here in California,” said inmate Dean Rose, 53, who is serving a four-year sentence for a petty theft. “I don’t agree they should be able to lock you up for life if you haven’t taken a life.”
In the meantime, prisoners said they are hoping that relief from the overcrowding problem comes soon, before tensions continue to result in violence and conditions worsen even further.
“It’s like anything; if you keep forcing and keep forcing and keep forcing, after a while the lid blows off because it keeps bubbling,” Frank Smith said. “You got to find a way to relieve the pressure.”
This writing was originally published on April 26, 2007 in The California Aggie as part of an on-going series on the issue of prison overcrowding in the state. The story was honored by the California College Media Association in the category of Best News Feature Writing in 2007. The photographs that accompany this piece were taken by my good friend, and talented photojournalist Andrew Leonard.