Conditions are poor in California’s 33-prison system, the nation’s second-largest after the federal Bureau of Prisons, reports the Washington Post. Despite a vow from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cut the prison population, it has surged more than 173,000, the worst overcrowding in the country, costing taxpayers more than $8 billion a year. Many inmates return to prison because the state has the nation’s highest recidivism rate. A senior prison official warned of “an imminent and substantial threat to the public” and fears of riots have only increased, prison officials and correctional officers said. The situation has left Schwarzenegger, who faces reelection this year, with one of his biggest political problems.
Once, California had the nation’s premier system, studied by other states and nations. It had an admired research staff and worked to educate and rehabilitate its inmates. Unlike many other states, however, which in recent years have looked for ways to ease prison population and lower recidivism, California has achieved little reform. “When it comes to prison systems, California is the 800-pound gorilla,” said Alexander Busansky of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons. “The problem in California is that hope is lost.” Critics say the decline reflects of the deterioration of a variety of government services, California’s educational system and its highways, that were once the envy of the nation. At work in California’s prisons also is the effect of the nation’s experimentation with tough sentencing, combined with the internal machinations of state politics.