Solving California’s Prison Crisis Requires Smarter Approach

New America Media, Commentary, Heidi Strupp Posted: Mar 27, 2009

Editor’s Note: A court ruling that finds overcrowding is the primary cause of California’s unconstitutional prison conditions could prompt some reforms in the state’s bloated but not very effective correctional system. But it would require Californians to step back and look at the big picture of the legacy of three decades of “tough on crime” policies says Heidi Strupp. Strupp is Advocacy Coordinator at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. She co-authored Dignity Denied: The Price of Imprisoning Older Women in California, a report that summarizes the unique challenges faced by people as they age in prison.

On Feb. 9, a panel of three federal judges issued a tentative ruling that may force the California state correctional system to reduce its over-crowded prisons by as many as 57,000 prisoners over a two to three-year period. Currently, nearly 172,000 people live in a system designed for 84,000. California’s 70 percent recidivism rate means that seven out of ten prisoners already cycle through the revolving prison gates at an annual cost of $900 million. The judges’ order asserts that extreme crowding represents the primary cause of unconstitutional prison conditions, including the state’s failure to provide adequate health care. As the Schwarzenegger administration and state legislators gear up for the next round in their stand-off against the courts in this notorious battle, it might prove instructive to step back and take a long look at the bigger picture. With 1 in 31 Americans now under some form of correctional control according to a report released this month by the Pew Center on the States, averting our eyes from this “big picture” is no longer a wise option.

California prisons
As California looks towards solving this correctional crisis, we could choose to paint a very different picture. We could begin to erase some costly and often ineffective “tough on crime” policies and move towards making smart choices regarding our limited public safety dollars. Solving the crisis of our expensive overcrowded prisons could begin by releasing some of the state’s aging prisoners. This group of prisoners – over 10,500 – currently cost taxpayers the most to incarcerate (as much as three times that of younger prisoners, or upwards of $138,000) yet pose the least threat to public safety. Recidivism rates for people over 55 range from 2% - 10%. Spending the most amount to incarcerate the least dangerous prisoners is a very skewed picture.

But a long-term vision of how California addresses crime and safety requires a much bigger vision for a whole new picture. It begins with a critical look at our 30-year history of “tough on crime” policies that have driven up incarceration rates and resulted in unparalleled prison spending both in California and across the nation. Schools of higher learning have been erased while prisons have been sketched in their place. Fading into the background is the $5.2 billion in spending cuts to K-12 education and $1.1 billion in cuts to in-home support services for low income seniors and people with disabilities. Vanishing too are the 1.3 million low-income Californians who will lose well over a billion dollars in SSI benefits; the 230,000 children who will no longer qualify for CalWorks cash assistance and the 14,000 teachers now clutching pink slips. California’s big picture looks very similar to many other states. The Pew Center report reveals that, nationwide, corrections spending outpaces funding for education, transportation and public assistance.

No squinting is required to clearly see that the big picture for the California state prison system is one of massive spending, deep dysfunction, and profound suffering. Despite significant and ongoing cuts to public education and social services, California’s legislature last year passed AB 900, a bill that represents the largest prison building initiative in state history. California’s correctional system costs tax payers over $9 billion annually, almost triple that of Texas, the next biggest spender whose annual prison budget is $3.3 billion. Keep in mind this $9 billion buys an unconstitutional system where nearly every major component - including its youth facilities, medical, mental health, dental care systems, and programs for disabled prisoners – faces costly legal challenges. California’s parole apparatus, dubbed a “billion dollar failure,” boasts the nation’s highest recidivism rate at 70%. Of the $46,000 spent per year on each prisoner, more than two-thirds pays for administrative and security costs, including the salaries of the state’s strongest union – the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Union. Despite increases in corrections spending, studies show that crime rates remain relatively unchanged. This challenges the idea that a bloated prison budget brings us more safety.

Looking beyond the frame of California’s big picture, there are a series of portraits and group photos. One of them shows the wrinkled and bruised wrists of Ethel D., a 67-year-old Lifer serving time for killing her abusive husband, who endures painful shackles whenever she is sent to an outside hospital. Another image reveals the tens of thousands of people cycled through revolving prison doors due to minor technical parole violations like getting married without permission from one’s parole officer or being late to an appointment with a parole officer. Yet one more picture shows the faces of thousands of Lifers, many of whom have served decades in prison and may actually pose little threat to public safety, especially as they grow old and become increasingly frail.

One last picture: a bookshelf crowded with the dusty and often ignored reports written by some of the state’s most trusted correctional experts, the Little Hoover Commission, the Governor’s Corrections Independent Review Panel, and the Legislative Analyst’s Office. These reports contain hundreds of safe and smart strategies for reducing California’s overcrowded prisons: ending technical parole violations, paroling low-risk expensive older prisoners, increasing funding for drug diversion programs like Prop 36, repealing harsh and ineffective sentencing policies like the “Three Strikes” law, and paroling Lifers found suitable for release by the state Board of Parole Hearings.

Addressing California’s prison crisis means we must courageously question whether mass imprisonment - at the expense of our schools, health clinics, seniors centers, and homeless shelters - makes us safer. To really solve this crisis, we need to paint a whole new picture.

Related Articles:

Golden Girls Behind Bars

Prison Overcrowding Crisis Unhealthy for All Californians

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User Comments

octavia savage on Apr 13, 2009 at 23:51:56 said:


delang on Mar 30, 2009 at 11:07:25 said:

this has been going on way to long !! there is a lot ...a lot of inmate that could go home to there familyss ...that would help them ..
for to long it is about the money share in your big wheels hand are you rich now ..on the back of dieing inmatesss and the tax payer pays the billss payerss are broke and you big wheels are rich ...what a shame you are

delang on Mar 29, 2009 at 16:51:21 said:

oh ! bull more lies

John Pecchio on Mar 28, 2009 at 04:44:10 said:

This letter will inform the mind and startle the soul of how our prisons have become contaminated with flaws imbedded with unthinking unknowing or corrupted officials and political Bureaucrats.

Federal and State Prisons are overcrowded and costly to taxpayers. In California for example, they have an average of 33 prisons that are filled with about 153,000 inmates living off the taxpayers. Lawmakers and their legal system have pressed the courts for decades to put these criminals behind bars at taxpayers’ expense. Now that the California prisons are overcrowding and becoming too much to support, the legal system and California government officials are considering a new law that will reduce the prison population in three-years to a staggering 55,000 prisoners.
We now have a prison recidivism rate of seventy-to-ninety-percent in one to three-years. That means those ninety-eight thousand criminals will walk out of prisons free to commit more crimes putting law-enforcement officers in danger again, trying to re-arrest the same criminals and put them through their penal system at taxpayers’ expense. Gang wars are taking over our society like butter melting over a hot stove. Our prisons are infested with gangs that come from ghettos of our society. Prisons Officials and Lawmakers cannot stop these gangs from continuing their crimes in prisons.
How can anyone in the Judicial System favor releasing so many repeat felons knowing that the criminal mind never sleeps in prisons? Prison officials know that repeat felons get more violent and evil minded from dealing with so much corruption in our prison systems that’s disaster-prone and can not be repaired.
Preparing prisoners to reform in today’s prisons without re-socializing them is hypocritical and life-threatening. But it keeps the taxpayer’s money flowing into the system and this does not seem to bother the fathers of our justice system and lawmakers, who keep pushing for more laws to protect criminal rights.
In Mexico, the crime rates are high and that breeds a lot of corruption in their society and in law-enforcement officials. They now have the highest kidnapping rate in the world. When these Mexicans and millions of other illegal immigrants keep pouring over the boarders in our county crime rates keep increasing. Phoenix Arizona now has the second highest kidnapping rate in the world.
The federal panel of justice decision makers within our government is trying to sell the American taxpayers a stimulus package that will get the economy going again. I see that the Governors of each state are helping to reduce the deficit in this country by closing prisons and trying to reduce prison populations and prison staff.
You do not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that our society is filled with more violence than in the history of the United States. So how can prison officials that have turned into political followers be allowed to make decisions to keep society and prisons safe?
Here is how I see the past and future of prisons. As a society we cannot afford to release dangerous prisoners frivolously. Our criminal justice system was developed by lawmakers to pass laws to put these criminals behind bars. The recidivism rate is approximately seventy-percent in one to three-years. Sex offenders, have a recidivism rate that’s pushing ninety-percent in one to three-years.
Prison officials and lawmakers are now releasing criminals from prison that are not fully rehabilitated or disciplined. That’s why repeat felons along with illegal immigrants commit most of the crimes in the United States.
I worked in an “All Male Maximum-Security Prison” for almost three decades and I say with experience and sound mind that behind those prison walls is a failing prison system that’s contaminated with flaws and embedded with unthinking, unknowing, or corrupt officials and political bureaucrats.
My books “Hell Behind Prison Walls” and “The Devil’s Den Of Prison And Justice” are true compelling and gripping stories taken from my personal thoughts and prison experiences that will inform the mind and startle the soul.
Our prisons are filled with approximately eighty-percent of thugs and gangsters that are career criminals hooking up with old gang members from the streets of our society and without remorse continue their crime sprees in prisons.
Now that correctional officers have been downgraded from being the backbone of the prison system to glorified babysitters, living in fear of violating criminal’s rights and the use of force when trying to protect them-selves is not what prisons were intended for.
These violent criminals not only control our prison compounds, but have turned our correctional facilities and courtrooms into their personal playgrounds hiding behind their civil rights, while they continue to violate the civil rights of others. This is so appalling and degrading to taxpayers’ that pay over “one-hundred-billion-dollars” a year to keep the ”Criminal Justice System” going to fight crimes in this country...
“A Nightmare from Hell” is how I describe working in one of the most dangerous prisons in the country, The Elmira Correctional Facility.
I invite you to review my website that will introduce my books, which has generated great interest in readers around the country and are regional best-sellers.
I survived working in this prison system in New York State as a vocational instructor, dealing with murderers, rapist, and pedophiles, drug pushers, mentally disturbed and non-violent inmates of all ages.
Prison staff lives in constant fear of moving daily between freedom and captivity, while walking a delicate line between administrative politics and the threat of inmate violence.
I offer unique insight into the inner-workings of “America’s prisons”. In addition, I give readers a definitive look into the causes behind their major problems, which were shockingly created by lawmakers and prison officials.
You can now read how federal and state prisons have deteriorated to their worst condition in the history of these institutions. They have changed from being run with dignity and strong security into a hellish nightmare where corruption is the norm.
With the loss of positive leadership in our prisons came the increase of prisoner’s power, primarily caused by their ability to hide behind highly-defended “Civil Rights”, which has now taken precedence above all else. These rights allowed them to live without fear of strong retribution for their actions, thereby leading to a breakdown in inmate behavior and resulting in riots, fights, and physical and verbal abuse of prison workers.
I have personally suffered the negative effects of this volatile environment when I was brutally attacked by a prisoner who was serving two life sentences for multiple murders. This attack, which I describe in devastating detail, was induced by the ongoing failing prison systems along with the lack of prisoner and administrative discipline.
The truth can be found from letters and personal remarks I received from many readers, which can be reviewed on my website guest-book. You can also see a video commercial and read along with newspaper interviews.
Contact for (Prison Presentation) (Book Signings) and (Interviews) visit my Website -

John J. Pecchio

Malik Al-Arkam on Mar 27, 2009 at 09:51:05 said:

As the USA falls economically, politically and spiritually, the corrupt ruling elite bleeds the middle class and crushes the underclass, especially the long-suffering slave descendants who continue to deteriorate under U.S. government imposed ethnocide and forced assimilation. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad (may peace be upon Him) correctly identified America's prisons as concentration camps. Today in 2009 all inner cities have devolved into "killing fields" as a direct ramification of malevolent policies designed by the ruling class. We the awakened slave descendants must rapdily accelerate our legal battle inside the United Nations to establish Human Rights and secure Reparations for all 250 million Afrodescendants in the western hemisphere.
Peace Be Unto The Righteous,
Senator Malik Al-Arkam




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