California's Pressure-cooker Prisons

In the early morning hours of June 21, 1995, about 35 inmates at Calipatria state prison in Imperial County, California were rustled out of bed, handcuffed, and loaded onto a bus. A sergeant told the prisoners they were being transported 10 hours north to Corcoran prison, near Fresno, California. But he didn't explain why the California Department of Corrections (CDC) was making the unusual early-morning transfer.The inmates soon found out.According to Millard Murphy, a staff attorney with the Prison Law Project in Davis, California, the bus pulled into Corcoran yard 4B following the evening count, which meant Corcoran inmates were already locked down and could not witness the events that followed. The bus was met by a group of 20 correctional officers wearing riot gear and black gloves and carrying batons and shields. Some wore their caps backward.In a written statement to Murphy, one inmate said: "[An officer] grabbed me by the throat without provocation and proceeded to trample me to the front steps of the bus, where I was met by [another officer], who greeted me by savagely grabbing my groin, shouting 'You are going to be sorry,' " he wrote. "I was propelled off the bus into the hands of several waiting correctional officers, who at this point proceeded to grab, punch, and knee me.... [Then with an officer] holding me face down, [another officer] proceeded cutting hair from my head with electric clippers."Murphy said the entire busload of African American inmates received similar treatment in what he said may have been an act of retaliation for the stabbings of seven correctional officers at Calipatria prison in May 1995."It was black people who stabbed the officers at Calipatria, so it was blacks who had to pay the price," he said.Alarmed at the possibility that prison officials may have sanctioned the incident -- according to the complaint, people dressed in suits observed the alleged beating -- Murphy dashed off letters to CDC officials, who responded by saying that nothing inappropriate had occurred. Only after FBI agents started snooping around, it appears, did CDC launch its own investigation.CDC disclosed earlier this month that it had fired two high- ranking Corcoran officials -- an assistant warden and a captain -- while sending 30 correctional officers through disciplinary hearings. "We feel abuse and brutality occurred and this is why we took action," said Tip Kindel, a CDC spokesperson.While this tale of payback is shocking, it is hardly an aberration among inmates and their keepers in California. The cycle of violence -- involving assaults, stabbings, and suicides -- is beginning to spiral out of control in many prisons and county jails, according to official figures."This is absolutely a concern for the Department of Corrections," said Christine May, a CDC spokesperson in Sacramento.The conventional explanations for this unrest -- overcrowding and gangs -- are still relevant. But California voters threw fresh gasoline on the brushfire of inmate and guard violence in 1994 by approving the "Three Strikes, You're Out" ballot measure. The law is not only going to cause an explosion in the size of the inmate population, which is expected to triple -- from the current 135,000 to 274,000 -- by the year 2026. Criminal justice insiders say enraged inmates are also lashing out because they consider the law profoundly unjust, particularly to nonviolent offenders who can be sentenced to 25 years to life for petty theft, such as stealing a bicycle. According to a recent California Board of Corrections survey, only 33 percent of all Three Strikes charges are for violent offenses."During 1995 we had 19 stabbings of officers, much more than in previous years," said Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. "Three- strikes has definitely contributed to these attacks. I've walked the line and talked with these second- and third-strike inmates. You can see the hostile attitudes on their faces. They feel they have nothing to lose."Most Three Strikes prisoners are now awaiting trial in county jails. The Board of Corrections survey found an "alarming" increase -- 27 percent -- in the number of inmate assaults on staff since the Three Strikes law was enacted. San Francisco has experienced almost a tripling of escape attempts -- which often end with bailiffs chasing and tackling the panicked inmates in courthouse hallways, said Sheriff Michael Hennessey."These are people we wouldn't have profiled as potential risks," said Hennessey. "Just routine crooks."Other Three Strikers choose to take their own lives rather than face the harsh reality of life behind bars. "A number of our Three Strikes clients have come into court on the day of sentencing with a concealed cutting object and have slit their own wrists and necks," said Los Angeles County public defender Michael Judge. "This is something that doesn't normally occur, even in felony land."Three Strikes inmates in county jails soon will be entering state prisons that are packed to 180 percent of design capacity. CDC officials are already putting beds in gyms, day rooms, and other open spaces, and are even considering triple- bunking. In this pressure-cooker atmosphere, tempers flare without much provocation, and vulnerable prisoners -- a rival gang member, an informant, or a sex offender -- are no longer placed in single cells for their protection.Steve Fama, a lawyer with the Prison Law Project in San Quentin, said that even after one prisoner was attacked and blinded by his cellmate, administrators failed to isolate him. "He was assaulted again and suffered a broken bone," Fama said.California Gov. Pete Wilson is calling for construction of as many as 19 new prisons by the end of the decade to handle the ballooning inmate population. But as long as state lawmakers continue to pander to the public's fear of crime and ratchet up sentences for almost every felony on the books -- a trend that's continuing in this legislative session -- the new prisons will be overcrowded from the day they open.The connection between tough penalties and a reduction in the crime rate is dubious at best. "My clients either don't know about the Three Strikes law or they misunderstand it," said Jay Rorty, a lawyer formerly with the Bayview-Hunters Point Community Defender in the San Francisco area. "They think the third strike has to be a serious or violent offense. They don't say, 'Now that the penalties are so severe, I must quit my life of crime.' "Advocates of sentencing reform in the state capital have one thing going for them: the budget crisis. Because voters have lost their appetite for huge prison bond measures, it's unlikely Wilson will get all the prisons he wants. There's a small window of opportunity for reformers such as Bay Area Democratic state senator Bill Lockyer, who wants the growing number of petty thieves and minor drug offenders to be assigned to less crowded county jails and given drug treatment and other help.San Francisco public defender Jeff Brown, who testified before a state senate committee in February about the impact of the Three Strikes law, sees trouble if it isn't changed."I warned the committee that we are headed for an Attica-style uprising," he said.

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