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May 29, 2012

A year after Plata ruling, a "picture of success" fixing California's overcrowded prisons

UTI1646197.jpg_t220Before the completion of the federal litigation that culminated in last year's Plata Supreme Court ruling, the iconic image of the California's persistently crowded prisons was a picture of hordes of men in orange prison garb atop triple-stacked bunk beds in a packed gymnasium that was never intended to house inmates.  Versions of this iconic image were even reprinted in the Supreme Court reporter as part of the majority opinion in Plata which affirmed the federal court order that California reduce its total prison population to prevent continuing constitutional violations of the inmates' Eighth Amendment rights.

Now, thanks to this new article from the San Diego Union-Tribune, which is headlined "Prison crowding eases as local jails house more inmates," we can see a new "picture" of what the Plata ruling has achieved through a photo showing all those bunk beds now empty. Here are excerpts from the article in which this new image of California's prison system appears:

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Just a few months ago, California’s inmates were packed into double- and triple-stacked bunk beds in prison gymnasiums, classrooms and other areas never meant for housing. Now those beds are empty.

The prison population is declining, but not because there are fewer criminals. Instead, a new state law shifted the responsibility for some lower-level offenders to the county jails, which are filling up.

State officials have “taken the monkey off their back and put it on ours,” said Sheriff Bill Gore, whose department runs seven county jails. In the nearly eight months since the law took effect, Gore has used a number of strategies to ward off jail crowding, including early releases, but he insists the county is handling the load. He and other county officials have said that with proper funding the local authorities can do better than the state at rehabilitating criminals so they’re less likely to end up back behind bars. “We can’t warehouse these inmates,” Gore said.

At Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa, rows of graffiti-scarred bunks sit empty in one of the prison gyms, where more than 150 men once slept in an area the size of a basketball court. A couple of inmates likened the experience to “living in the crazy house.”

“It’s horrible. It’s violent. It’s crowded,” said David Dewrance, 50, who spent almost two years in a gym trying to rest and study for his correspondence courses. When space became available earlier this year, Dewrance was moved to a two-man cell in one of the housing units, which allowed him access to one of the preferred vocational programs. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native, imprisoned for second-degree murder, now works in the prison bakery.

Fellow inmate Jesus Yanez said he was housed in a gym at another prison before coming to Donovan five months ago to continue serving his sentence for assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily injury. In an interview this month at the prison, he recalled trying to sleep, shower and keep his bunk clean while keeping watchful eye dozens of fellow inmates.

“I wouldn’t wish that on the worst person,” said Yanez, 40, whose head and arms are inked with tattoos, many of them evidence of his former gang life in Los Angeles. The cells, he said, are “100 percent better.”

Shortly after the state’s prison population had reached an all-time high in the summer of 2007, more than 19,600 inmates were sleeping in so-called nontraditional beds. All inmates were cleared out of Donovan’s gyms and day rooms at the beginning of this year. And in March, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced it had stopped bunking inmates in gyms and day rooms at all California prisons.

“It’s a lot safer,” said Daniel Paramo, a 20-year corrections department veteran who became Donovan’s warden in July. The extra bunks, he said, “made it very difficult to manage the institution.”

As of this month, 3,573 prisoners were being held at Donovan, about 1,000 fewer than the facility housed at the same time last year, but it remains overcrowded. The prison is designed to hold 2,200 inmates with one man to each cell....

In January, the corrections department announced that the population of inmates housed in its 33 institutions had dropped by more than 11,000 inmates over six months. This month, the population was pegged at 122,305 — 153.6 percent of capacity — according to the most recent figures available.

“The population is going down,” said Dana Simas, a department spokeswoman, who acknowledged county officials’ frustrations over rising jail populations. “We never purported that it would be without a few bumps in the road,” Simas said.

Even with the recent inmate reductions, some doubt the state will meet the Supreme Court’s deadline.   Prison officials want the court to allow them to hold the inmate population at 144 percent of capacity — rather than the 137.5 percent as originally ordered — while maintaining constitutional standards for medical and dental care, Simas said. “Our conditions have vastly improved,” she said.

Of course, simply managing to move bodies out of a crowded gym hardly proves that the Plata decision was a perfect ruling or that all is now better in California's often dysfunctional criminal justice system.  But, at the very least, these pictures document that a constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court combined with a serious state effort to respect that ruling can quickly engineer some needed changes to a prison system that had for many years been stalled in a political and practical quagmire concerning overcrowding.

I am hopeful that there will be a number of serious and systematic efforts to take stock of what has followed from the Plata ruling in California.  I have little doubt that the demands on local facilities as a result of the urgent need to move bodies out of state facilities has created various new problems.  Still, this story confirms my gut instinct that, a year after the controversial Plata ruling, the 5-4 decision has produced a net gain for not only the inmates who were suffering Eighth Amendment violations, but also for the entire state of California.  At the very least, there seems to be limited evidence (or at least limited reporting of evidence) that the dire predictions of doom and California crime waves right after the Plata ruling (which appeared in the Plata dissents and on this blog) were a bit overstated and hyperbolic.

UPDATE:  I am intrigued and a bit surprised that oft-vocal "tough on crime" commentors like Bill Otis and federalist, who were quick to condemn the Plata ruling last year, have not yet had anything to say here about the opinion a year later when now it seems the opinion's benefits have been greater than its harms.   In that vein, I found notable this new Sacramento Bee commentary from a former California Assembly member titled "Fear mongers were wrong about prison system's 'realignment'." Here are excerpts:

A year ago we heard fear-mongering voices warning of dangerous criminals being released and counties too broke to provide jail space, parole officers or programming for realigned prisoners.

One year in, how's realignment actually working out? The number of people held in state prison has dropped by more than 25,000 in 16 months since Brown has been in office. The count of people on parole is down almost 30,000, and the number of people held in private out-of-state prisons is down 10 percent; all that without a spike in crime.

The crime rate continues to fall and putting fewer people in state prisons means saving tax dollars, and given the $15.7 billion gap forecast in the May revise those savings have never been needed more than they are now. CDCR estimates that it is saving $1.5 billion a year through realignment and will save another $2.2 billion a year by canceling $4.1 billion in new construction projects....

Corrections built prisons, but it was the Legislature that filled them with hundreds of laws that created new crimes and lengthened sentences. Serious sentencing and parole reforms are long overdue and communities, advocates, and other experts throughout the state have been providing ideas of where to start for decades.

An easy step could be to address the rapidly aging population by implementing a geriatric parole process, and expanding medical parole and compassionate release. Other options include passing legislation to decriminalize drug possession, or supporting the initiative to reform the "three strikes" law on the November ballot. We need only the political will to move away from sentencing and parole policies that have done more to bankrupt our state treasury than to secure safety in our neighborhoods.

Do we return to the course of expanding prisons and jails and expanding the percentage of our resources that go to filling them? Or do we take realignment as only a first step toward further downsizing, offering us the opportunity to use tax funds to invest in the well being of our residents now and in the future? I advocate for the latter.

May 29, 2012 at 09:49 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Quite a deafening silence you've invoked here, Doug. I wouldn't describe it as intriguing nor surprising, but it sure is telling. After shouting "The sky is falling" for months, all these Chicken Littles seem to have flown the coop now that it's clear the heavens have remained intact and their baseless demagoguery has been exposed.

I'm not sure the Plata dissenters on SCOTUS nor the commenters you're calling out even possess the capacity to admit this error. The implications for the whole tuff-on-crime worldview are too profound, like when Alan Greenspan had to admit his entire economic worldview suffered fundamental flaws. Without putting them under oath, as Congress did with Greenspan, I wouldn't expect such admissions or any frank discussion about how they could have been so wrong.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | May 30, 2012 10:08:37 AM

Doug --

The reason neither you nor Grits quotes me is that the your claim that I said the sky would fall is fictional. If not, let's see it. Should I wait?

What I actually said is that the effects would have a lag time of years, just as the effect of increased incarceration had a lag time of years before the significant and sustained drop in crime seriously got under way.

P.S. I've been at my home in Hawaii, temporarily without an Internet connection. Do you take attendance in class too?

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 30, 2012 11:36:28 PM

what cracks me up is they were stupid enough to let someone take that photo!

It confirmes that no matter what lvl of govt! they are RETARDED!

here we had a 20 year set of cases all the way to the supreme court! That boiled down to the prison was too damn full and was being forced to use areas never menat for living FOR living!

Now of course the areas are EMPTY but still not been PUT BACK INTO THE PURPOSE THEY WERE BUILT FOR!

Posted by: rodsmith | May 31, 2012 1:24:07 AM

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