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

Thirty years ago California was renowned for the liberalism of its criminal-justice system. In 1968 an inmate bill of rights was signed into law by Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California. More than any other state, California was dedicated to the rehabilitative ideal, to the belief that a prison could take a criminal and "cure" him, set him on the right path. California's prisons were notable for their many educational and vocational programs and their group-therapy sessions. In those days every state in the country had a system of indeterminate prison sentences. The legislature set the maximum sentence for a crime, and judges and parole boards tried to make the punishment fit the individual. California's system was the most indeterminate: the sentence for a given offense might be anything from probation to life. The broad range of potential sentences gave enormous power to the parole board, known as the Adult Authority; a prisoner's release depended on its evaluation of how well his "treatment" was proceeding. One person might serve ten months and another person ten years for the same crime.

Although indeterminate sentencing had many flaws, one of its virtues was that it gave the state a means of controlling the size of the prison population. If prisons grew too full, the parole board could release inmates who no longer seemed to pose a threat to public safety. Governor Reagan used the Adult Authority to reduce the size of California's inmate population, giving thousands of prisoners an early release and closing one of the state's prisons. By the mid-1970s, however, the Adult Authority had come under attack from an unusual coalition of liberals, prisoners, and conservative advocates of law and order. Liberals thought that the Adult Authority discriminated against minorities, making them serve longer sentences. Prisoners thought that it was unfair; after all, they were still in prison. Conservatives thought that it was too soft, allowing too many criminals back on the street too soon. And no one put much faith in the rehabilitative effects of prison. In 1971 seventeen inmates and seven staff members were killed in California prisons. The following year thirty-five inmates and one staff member were killed.

California was one of the first states in the nation to get rid of indeterminate sentencing. The state's new law required inmates to serve the sentence handed down by the judge, with an allowance for "good time," which might reduce a prison term by half. The law also amended the section of the state's penal code that declared the ultimate goals of imprisonment: the word "rehabilitation" was replaced by the word "punishment." In 1976 the bill was endorsed and signed into law by a liberal Democrat, Governor Jerry Brown.

As liberalism gave way to demands for law and order, California judges began to send a larger proportion of convicted felons to prison and to give longer sentences. The inmate population started to grow. Sentencing decisions made at the county level, by local prosecutors and judges, soon had a major impact on the state budget, which covered the costs of incarceration. Tax cuts mandated by Proposition 13 meant that county governments were strapped for funds and could not maintain local jails properly or pay for community-based programs that administered alternative sentences. Offenders who might once have been sent to a local jail or a halfway house were now sent to a state prison. California's criminal-justice system slowly but surely spun out of control. The state legislature passed hundreds of bills that required tough new sentences, but did not adequately provide for their funding. Judges sent people to prison without giving any thought to where the state would house them. And the Department of Corrections was left to handle the flood of new inmates, unable to choose how many it would accept or how many it would let go.

In 1977 the inmate population of California was 19,600. Today it is 159,000. After spending $5.2 billion on prison construction over the past fifteen years, California now has not only the largest but also the most overcrowded prison system in the United States. The state Department of Corrections estimates that it will need to spend an additional $6.1 billion on prisons over the next decade just to maintain the current level of overcrowding. And the state's jails are even more overcrowded than its prisons. In 1996 more than 325,000 inmates were released early from California jails in order to make room for offenders arrested for more-serious crimes. According to a report this year by the state's Little Hoover Commission, in many counties offenders who are convicted of a crime and given sentences of less than ninety days will not even be sent to jail. The state's backlog of arrest warrants now stands at about 2.6 million — the number of arrests that have not been made, the report says, largely because there's no room in the jails. According to one official estimate, counties will need to spend $2.4 billion over the next ten years to build more jails — again, simply to maintain the current level of overcrowding.

The extraordinary demand for new prison and jail cells in California has diverted funds from other segments of the criminal-justice system, creating a vicious circle. The failure to spend enough on relatively inexpensive sanctions, such as drug treatment and probation, has forced the state to increase spending on prisons. Only a fifth of the felony convictions in California now lead to a prison sentence. The remaining four fifths are usually punished with a jail sentence, a term of probation, or both. But the jails have no room, and the huge caseloads maintained by most probation officers often render probation meaningless. An ideal caseload is about twenty-five to fifty offenders; some probation officers in California today have a caseload of 3,000 offenders. More than half the state's offenders on probation will most likely serve their entire term without ever meeting or even speaking with a probation officer. Indeed, the only obligation many offenders on probation must now fulfill is mailing a postcard that gives their home address.

California parole officers, too, are overwhelmed by their caseloads. The state's inmate population is not only enormous but constantly changing. Last year California sent about 140,000 people to prison — and released about 132,000. On average, inmates spend two and a half years behind bars, and then serve a term of one to three years on parole. During the 1970s each parole agent handled about forty-five parolees; today each agent handles about twice that number. The money that the state has saved by not hiring enough new parole agents is insignificant compared with the expense of sending parole violators back to prison.

About half the California prisoners released on parole are illiterate. About 85 percent are substance abusers. Under the terms of their parole, they are subjected to periodic drug tests. But they are rarely offered any opportunity to get drug treatment. Of the approximately 130,000 substance abusers in California's prisons, only 3,000 are receiving treatment behind bars. Only 8,000 are enrolled in any kind of pre-release program to help them cope with life on the outside. Violent offenders, who need such programs most of all, are usually ineligible for them. Roughly 124,000 inmates are simply released from prison each year in California, given nothing more than $200 and a bus ticket back to the county where they were convicted. At least 1,200 inmates every year go from a secure housing unit at a Level 4 prison — an isolation unit, designed to hold the most violent and dangerous inmates in the system — right onto the street. One day these predatory inmates are locked in their cells for twenty-three hours at a time and fed all their meals through a slot in the door, and the next day they're out of prison, riding a bus home.

Almost two thirds of the people sent to prison in California last year were parole violators. Of the roughly 80,000 parole violators returned to prison, about 60,000 had committed a technical violation, such as failing a drug test; about 15,000 had committed a property or a drug crime; and about 3,000 had committed a violent crime, frequently a robbery to buy drugs. The gigantic prison system that California has built at such great expense has essentially become a revolving door for poor, highly dysfunctional, and often illiterate drug abusers. They go in, they get out, they get sent back, and every year there are more. The typical offender being sent to prison in California today has five prior felony convictions.

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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.

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