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.
The California legislature has not authorized a new bond issue for prison construction since 1992, deadlocked over the cost. Meanwhile, the state's "Three Strikes, You're Out" law has been steadily filling prison cells with long-term inmates. Don Novey, the head of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), helped to gain passage of the law. He now worries that if California's prison system becomes much more overcrowded, a federal judge may order a large-scale release of inmates. Novey has proposed keeping some nonviolent offenders out of prison, allowing judges to give them suspended sentences and a term of probation instead. He has also advocated a way to save money while expanding the penal system:build "mega-prisons." California already builds and operates the biggest prisons in the United States. A number of California prisons now hold more than 6,000 inmates — about sixtimes the nationwide average. The mega-prisons proposed by the CCPOA would house up to 20,000 inmates. A few new mega-prisons, Novey says, could satisfy California's demand for new cells into the next century.
Correctional officials see prison overcrowding as grounds for worry about potential riots, bloodshed, and court orders; others see opportunity. "It has become clear over the past several months," Doctor R. Crants said earlier this year, "that California is one of the most promising markets CCA has, with a burgeoning need for secure, cost-effective prison beds at all levels of government." In order to get a foothold in that market, CCA announced it would build three prisons in California entirely on spec — that is, without any contract to fill them. "If you build it in the right place," a CCA executive told The Wall Street Journal, "the prisoners will come." Crants boasted to the Tennessean that California's private-prison industry will be dominated by "CCA alone." Executives at Wackenhut Corrections think otherwise. Wackenhut already houses almost 2,000 of California's minimum-security inmates at facilities in the state. The legislature has recently adopted plans to house an additional 2,000 minimum-security inmates in private prisons. Wackenhut and CCA have opened offices in Sacramento and hired expensive lobbyists. The CCPOA vows to fight hard against the private-prison companies and their anti-union tactics. "They can build whatever prisons they want," Don Novey says. "But the hell if they're going to run them." One of the new CCA prisons is rising in the Mojave Desert outside California City, at a cost of about $100 million. The company is gambling that cheap, empty prison beds will prove irresistible to California lawmakers. The new CCA facility promises to be a boon to California City once the inmates start arriving. The town has been hit hard by layoffs at Edwards Air Force Base, which is nearby. Mayor Larry Adams, asked why he wanted a prison, said, "We're a desperate city."
Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is one of the most famous books ever written about the politics and culture of the United States. The original purpose of Tocqueville's 1831 journey to this country is less well known. He came to tour its prisons on behalf of the French government. The United States at the time was renowned in Europe for having created a whole new social institution: the penitentiary. In New York and Pennsylvania prisons were being designed not to punish inmates but to reform them. Solitary confinement, silence, and hard work were imposed in order to encourage spiritual and moral change. At some penitentiaries officials placed hoods over the heads of newcomers to isolate them from other inmates. After visiting American prisons Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, wrote that social reformers in the United States had been swept up in "the monomania of the penitentiary system," convinced that prisons were "a remedy for all the evils of society."
The historian David J. Rothman, author of The Discovery of the Asylum (1971), has noted one of the ironies of America's early-nineteenth-century fondness for prisons. The idea of the penitentiary took hold at the height of Jacksonian democracy, when freedom and the spirit of the common man were being widely celebrated. "At the very moment that Americans began to pride themselves on the openness of their society, when the boundless frontier became the symbol of opportunity and equality," Rothman observes, "notions of total isolation, unquestioned obedience, and severe discipline became the hallmarks of the captive society." More than a century and a half later political rhetoric about small government and the virtues of the free market is being accompanied by an eagerness to deny others their freedom. The hoods now placed on inmates in the isolation units at maximum-security prisons are not intended to rehabilitate. They are designed to protect correctional officers from being bitten or spat upon.
The standard justification for today's prisons is that they prevent crime. The rate of violent crime in the United States has indeed been declining since 1991. The political scientist James Q. Wilson, among many others, believes that the recent rise in the nation's incarceration rate has been directly responsible for the decrease in violent crime. Although the validity of the theory seems obvious (murderers and rapists who are behind bars can no longer kill and rape ordinary citizens), it is difficult to prove. Michael Tonry, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota, is an expert on international sentencing policies and an advocate of alternative punishments for nonviolent offenders. He acknowledges that the imprisonment of almost two million Americans has prevented some crimes from being committed. "You could choose another two million Americans at random and lock them up," Tonry says, "and that would reduce the number of crimes too." But demographics and larger cultural trends may be responsible for most of the decline in violent crime. Over the past decade Canada's incarceration rate has risen only slightly. Nevertheless, the rate of violent crime in Canada has been falling since 1991. Last year the homicide rate fell by nine percent. The Canadian murder rate has now reached its lowest level since 1969.
Christopher Stone, the head of New York's Vera Institute of Justice, believes that prisons can be "factories for crime." The average inmate in the United States spends only two years in prison. What happens during that time behind bars may affect how he or she will behave upon release. The lesson being taught in most American prisons—where violence, extortion, and rape have long been routine—is that the strong will always rule the weak. Inmates who display the slightest hint of vulnerability quickly become prey. During the 1950s and 1960s prison gangs were formed in California and Illinois as a means of self-protection. Those gangs have now spread nationwide. The Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood have gained power in Texas prisons. The Gangsta Killer Bloods and the Sex Money Murder Bloods have emerged in New York prisons. America's prisons now serve as networking and recruiting centers for gang members. The differences between street gangs and prison gangs have become less distinct. The leaders of prison gangs increasingly direct illegal activity both inside and outside. A 1996 investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that gangs had gained extraordinary control over the state prisons in Illinois: formal classes at the Stateville prison law library had taught the history and rules of the Maniac Latin Disciples; a leader of the Gangster Disciples had at various times kept cellular phones, a color television, a stereo, a Nintendo Game Boy, a portable washing machine, and up to a hundred pounds of marijuana in his cell. Many of the customs, slang, and tattoos long associated with prison gangs have become fashionable among young people. In cities throughout America, the culture of the prisons is rapidly becoming the culture of the streets.
The spirit of every age is manifest in its public works, in the great construction projects that leave an enduring mark on the landscape. During the early years of this century the Panama Canal became President Theodore Roosevelt's legacy, a physical expression of his imperial yearnings. The New Deal faith in government activism left behind huge dams and bridges, post offices decorated with murals, power lines that finally brought electricity to rural America. The interstate highway system fulfilled dreams of the Eisenhower era, spreading suburbia far and wide; urban housing projects for the poor were later built in the hopes of creating a Great Society.
"The era of big government is over," President Bill Clinton declared in 1996—an assertion that has proved false in at least one respect. A recent issue of "Construction Report," a monthly newsletter published by Correctional Building News, provides details of the nation's latest public works: a 3,100-bed jail in Harris County, Texas; a 500-bed medium-security prison in Redgranite, Wisconsin; a 130-bed minimum-security facility in Oakland County, Michigan; two 200-bed housing pods at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, in Iowa; a 350-bed juvenile correctional facility in Pendleton, Indiana; and dozens more. The newsletter includes the telephone numbers of project managers, so that prison-supply companies can call and make bids. All across the country new cellblocks rise. And every one of them, every brand-new prison, becomes another lasting monument, concrete and ringed with deadly razor wire, to the fear and greed and political cowardice that now pervade American society.