As California Fights Prison Overcrowding, Some See a Golden Opportunity

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Inmates at Chino State Prison, which houses 5500 inmates, crowd around double and triple bunk beds at a gymnasium that was modified to house 213 prisoners on December 10, 2010 in Chino, California.

The wooden floor of this dormitory at the state prison in Chino, Calif., is the only indication that inmates once played basketball here. Hoops long since taken down, the gymnasium in the East facility of the California Institution for Men was converted to sleeping quarters over a decade ago and now houses 200 inmates, who mill around their bunk beds in bright orange jumpsuits. Signs painted on the walls advise, CAUTION: NO WARNING SHOT WILL BE GIVEN — a reminder of how seriously the guards treat the riots, fights, beatings and rapes that are common here. "When this place goes off, it's a nightmare," Correctional Sergeant Mike Losorelli says of the facility. "The bunks get used as barricades."

Like the rest of California's penal system, the California Institution for Men struggles with chronic overcrowding. The prison currently operates at 200% of its capacity; with less personal space among inmates, tensions rise, making life more dangerous for prisoners and guards alike. "You put 200 men on top of each other, there'll be friction, problems, more fights," says Chino Correctional Officer Ray Smith. This is part of what the U.S. Supreme Court was referring to earlier this year when it ordered California's 33 state prisons to reduce their populations, ruling that current conditions caused by overcrowding — including a lack of adequate medical and mental health care — caused "needless suffering and death" and constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

On Oct. 1, the state will begin implementing what it calls a "public safety realignment" plan to comply with the ruling, which demands that the prison system reduce its total population by an estimated 37,000 inmates from a total of 156,000. According to California legislation passed in response to the ruling, criminals convicted of felonies that are non-serious, non-violent or non-sex-related will be sent to county jails instead of state prisons. Additionally, "non-non-non" offenders released from prison or jail will be placed under the supervision of local probation officers rather than state parole agents.

Officials in Los Angeles County, the largest county in the nation, are on edge about the plan, to say the least; District Attorney Steve Cooley refers to October 1 as "D-Day." Because of its size, L.A. will receive about a third of the state's offenders, Cooley estimates; that could mean 8,000 new criminals a year in a county jail that he says has only enough beds for about 4,600. Without the capacity to house all the new arrivals, he worries, authorities will be forced to release more offenders before their sentences are up, threatening to spoil the work the county has done to reduce crime levels to historic lows. He also says that despite being labeled "non-non-nons," the group of criminals reassigned to county jails includes those convicted of serious offenses: possession of assault weapons, drug trafficking and large-scale identity theft and insurance fraud.

Making matters worse, violence and overcrowding in Los Angeles' county jail is arguably even worse than it is in state prisons. A report released Wednesday by the ACLU details thousands of complaints it has received from prisoners in the L.A. County jail system — hundreds of — contain allegations of abuse — and calls for L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca to resign. The FBI is also investigating reports of inmate beatings at the jail, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Every time I see those pictures that are supposed to show how bad the overcrowding is in California prisons, I think to myself that the people who are in the L.A. central jail would be happy to be in California prisons," Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, said in an interview with TIME. "The dorms in the central jail are worse."

Rather than worsening an already fraught situation, state lawmakers, non-profit groups and even local media are urging L.A. to start looking into cheaper and more effective alternatives to incarceration. The state's reigning "tough-on-crime" policy, now more than two decades old, boosted spending on prisons but did little to prevent ex-convicts from committing further crimes. At 67.5%, California's recidivism rate — the percentage of individuals released from prison who are incarcerated again within three years — is one of the highest in the country. And with the state mired in a budget crisis, building even more prisons simply is not an option.

Instead, the state has urged its counties to employ alternative programs that have already been shown to stabilize and even reduce recidivism rates in other states. According to a different report by the ACLU, Mississippi reduced its prison population by 22% and lowered its crime rate between 2008 and 2011 by implementing measures such as a plan allowing inmates to earn time off their sentences by participating in educational and reentry programs. Texas, too, saw a drop in crime after it stabilized its climbing incarceration rate by employing a similar credits program, as well as investing in treatment programs for parolees. The text of the realignment bill passed by California's legislators suggests many possible alternative programs, including employment counseling, home detention with electronic monitoring, substance abuse programs, mental health treatment and mandatory community service. "California must reinvest its criminal justice resources to support community corrections programs and evidence-based practices," the bill says. Authorities in some parts of the state have already formed committees and held meetings to develop a plan to implement such approaches. "Reformers are right when they assert that this is California's big chance to get smart on crime," read an August editorial in the Los Angeles Times. "With adequate time, attention and resources, it can work here."

 Officials say they agree, but remain skeptical. Sergeant Losorelli has seen many inmates swear they're going to turn their lives around when they leave prison, only to return to jail months later. He notes that it's a tough sell to encourage an ex-convict to start over with a minimum wage salary when he could be making more money in crime. "These guys are caught up in the gang life," he says. Cooley, the district attorney, doesn't believe rehabilitation programs show much promise. "We predict with some degree of confidence that with respect to this group of criminals, it will fail in many, many, many cases," he says.

Back at the California Institution for Men, inmate Dagoberto Noyola, 45, would be happy to see more alternative programs to help inmates leave their criminal lives behind. Noyola, who has been in and out of prison for the past 25 years, says a program that taught him to give drug counseling to high school students helped him reintegrate into society on his last parole and land a job laying tile at a construction company. He ended up in prison again on a burglary charge, but says he wants to go back to tiling when he's out. Reducing overcrowding, he says, will cut down long waiting lists for educational programs that can boost inmates' chances of getting a job when they're released. "A lot of these guys want to go out there and do good," Noyola says, nodding at the sea of inmates in the gym. "Nobody wants to be in here."