Sixteen months ago, California’s prison chief predicted that the inmate population would plummet and that prisons would close. That forecast proved far off the mark, says the Los Angeles Times. The numbers locked up soared to 165,000 – a record number that jammed prisons to twice their intended capacity. Managers wedged inmates into gyms, TV lounges, hallways – even a chapel. Some convicts bedded down on mattresses tossed on the floor. Thousands more were stacked three high in narrow bunks.
Overcrowding has pushed tensions high in an already perilous environment. It has punched a $207-million hole in the $6.25-billion corrections budget. It is jeopardizing one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most ambitious initiatives: to make California’s disgraced and troubled penal system a national model again. Instead of shutting down prisons, the state is opening a new one – and reopening a privately managed facility. Experts warn that overcrowding is a recipe for unrest, as well as health and fire safety problems. California prisons report nearly twice as many assaults behind bars as those in Texas, which has about the same inmate population. “You keep putting rats in a box, and pretty soon those rats go off and kill each other,” said Lt. Charles Hughes, a guards union local president. Increased idleness compounds the problem. Without gyms and day rooms for recreation, without enough jobs and educational and vocational classes, inmates have little to do. They are more apt to brew the crude alcoholic concoction known as Pruno from leftover fruit juice and bread. One prison sergeant, Bruce Carter, said there was “an extreme upswing in violence” because of alcohol consumption: “They are bored stiff.”