The Prison-Industrial Complex

Correctional officials see danger in prison overcrowding. Others see opportunity. The nearly two million Americans behind bars—the majority of them nonviolent offenders—mean jobs for depressed regions and windfalls for profiteers
More

About 200 inmates were in the A yard at New Folsom when I visited not long ago. They were playing soft-ball and handball, sitting on rocks, standing in small groups, smoking, laughing, jogging around the perimeter. Three unarmed correctional officers casually kept an eye on things, like elementary school teachers during recess. The yard was about 300 feet long and 250 feet wide, with more dirt than grass, and it was hot, baking hot. The heat of the sun bounced off the gray concrete walls enclosing the yard. "These are the sensitive guys," a correctional officer told me, describing the men in Facility A. Most of them had killed, raped, committed armed robberies, or misbehaved at other prisons, but now they were trying to stay out of trouble. Some were former gang members; some were lifers because of a third strike; some were getting too old for prison violence; some were in protective custody because of their celebrity, their snitching, or their previous occupation. A few of the inmates on the yard were former police officers. As word spread that I was a journalist, groups of inmates followed me and politely approached, eager to talk. Lieutenant Billy Mayfield, New Folsom's press officer, graciously kept his distance, allowing the prisoners to speak freely.

"I shouldn't be here" was a phrase I heard often, followed by an impassioned story about the unfairness of the system. I asked each inmate how many of the other men in the yard deserved to be locked up in this prison, and the usual response was "These guys? Man, you wouldn't believe some of these guys; at least two thirds of them should be here." Behind the need to blame others for their predicament and the refusal to accept responsibility, behind all the denial, lay an enormous anger, one that seemed far more intense than the typical inmate complaints about the food or the behavior of certain officers. Shirtless, sweating, unshaven, covered in tattoos, one inmate after another described the rage that was growing inside New Folsom. The weights had been taken away; no more conjugal visits for inmates who lacked a parole date; not enough help for the inmates who were crazy, really crazy; not enough drug treatment, when the place was full of junkies; not enough to do—a list of grievances magnified by the overcrowding into something that felt volatile, ready to go off with the slightest spark. As I stood in the yard hearing the anger of the sensitive guys, the inmates in Facility C were locked in their cells, because of a gang-related stabbing the previous week, and the inmates in Facility B were being shot with pepper spray to break up a fight.

The acting warden at New Folsom when I visited, a woman named Suzan Hubbard, began her career as a correctional officer at San Quentin nineteen years ago. Although she has a degree in social work from the University of California at Berkeley, Hubbard says that her real education took place at the "college of San Quentin." She spent a decade at the prison during one of its most violent and turbulent periods. In her years on the job two fellow staff members were murdered. Hubbard learned how to develop a firm but fair relationship with inmates, some of whom were on death row. She found that contrary to some expectations, women were well suited for work in a maximum-security prison. Communication skills were extremely important in such a charged environment; inmates often felt less threatened by women, less likely to engage in a clash of egos. Hubbard was the deputy warden at New Folsom on September 27, 1996, when fights broke out in the B yard. At nine o'clock in the morning she was standing beside her car in the prison parking lot, and she heard three shots being fired somewhere inside New Folsom. Everyone in the parking lot froze, waiting for the sound of more gunfire. After more shots were fired, Hubbard hurried into the prison, made her way to the B yard, and found it in chaos.

A group of Latino gang members had launched an attack on a group of African-American gang members, catching them by surprise and stabbing them with homemade weapons. The fighting soon spread to the other inmates in the exercise yard, who divided along racial lines. As many as 200 inmates were involved in the riot. Correctional officers instructed everyone in the yard to get down; they fired warning shots, rubber bullets, and then live rounds. When Hubbard arrived at the yard, about a hundred inmates had dropped to the ground and another hundred were still fighting. The captain in charge of the unit stood among a group of inmates, telling them, "Sit down, get down, we'll take care of this." Hubbard and the other officers circulated in the yard, calling prisoners by name, telling them to get down. It took thirty minutes to quell the riot. Twelve correctional officers were injured while trying to separate combatants. Six inmates were stabbed, and five were shot. Victor Hugo Flores, an inmate serving an eighteen-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder, was killed by gunfire.

Hubbard finds working in the California penal system to be stressful but highly rewarding. She tries to defuse tensions by talking and listening to the inmates on the yards. She and her officers routinely place themselves at great risk. Last year 2,583 staff members were assaulted by inmates in California. Thousands of the inmates are HIV-positive; thousands more carry hepatitis C. Officers have lately become the target of a new form of assault by inmates, known as gassing. Being "gassed" means being struck by a cup or bag containing feces and urine. The California prison system, especially its Level 4 facilities, is full of warring gangs—members of the Crips, the Bloods, the Fresno Bulldogs, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi Lowriders, the Mexican Mafia, and the Black Guerrilla Family, to name a few. In addition to the organized violence, there are random acts of violence. On June 15 of last year a correctional officer was attacked by an inmate in the infirmary at New Folsom. The officer, Linda Lowery, was savagely beaten and kicked, receiving severe head wounds. Her attacker was serving a four-year sentence for assaulting an officer.

California's correctional officers are not always the victims when violence occurs behind bars; in recent months they have been linked to several widely publicized acts of brutality. At Pelican Bay State Prison at least one officer conspired with inmates to arrange assaults on convicted child molesters. At Corcoran State Prison officers allegedly staged "gladiator days," in which rival gang members were encouraged to fight, staff members placed bets on the outcome, and matches often ended with inmates being shot. As the FBI investigates alleged abuses at Corcoran and allegations of an official cover-up, correctional officers are feeling misrepresented and unfairly maligned by the media—only adding to the tension in California's prisons.

The level of violence in the California penal system is actually lower today than it was a decade ago. But the rate of assaults among inmates has gradually climbed since its low point, in 1991. Studies have linked double-bunking and prison overcrowding with higher rates of stress-induced mental disorders, higher rates of aggression, and higher rates of violence. In the state's Level 4 prisons almost every cell is now double-bunked. The fact that more bloodshed has not occurred is a testament to the high-tech design of the new prisons and the skills of their officers. Nevertheless, Cal Terhune, the director of the California Department of Corrections, worries about how much more stress the system can bear, and about how long it can go without another riot. "We're sitting on a very volatile situation," Terhune says. "Every time the phone rings here, I wonder ..."

Jump to comments
Presented by

A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In