Southern California breaking news and trends

State prison relaxes restrictions on Muslim inmates

North Kern State Prison

CDCR

North Kern State Prison is in Delano, CA.

North Kern State Prison is relaxing its restrictions on activites for Muslim prisoners. About a dozen prisoners there had contacted the ACLU of Southern California, complaining they weren't allowed to pray in the yard, only in the chapel, which is not always open. They therefore couldn't pray five times a day, as required by their religion. Additionally, inmates said they were not generally allowed to wear their kufis—small, brimless head coverings—and weren't receiving their orders of prayer oil.

ACLU attorney Jessica Price says state prisons are required to make accommodations for inmates with sincere religious beliefs. At first, she thought the kufi restrictions might be a wider safety issue with headgear in general.

"But it turned out, when we further investigated, that the inmates were allowed to wear baseball caps, but they weren't allowed to wear the kufi," she said. "So I think that undercut any potential response that inmates might be hiding something under their headgear. 

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Prison system looking to reinvest in rehabilitation

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What happens in prison doesn't stay in prison. The vast majority of California's prison inmates return to their home counties once released.

When the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decided it was time to start beefing up rehabilitation programs behind bars, the agency sent administrators to L.A. That's because half of state prisoners come from Los Angeles and its surrounding counties. 

"Our goal is to give them the skills so they think differently, behave differently, so when they go back to Los Angeles County, or any of the surrounding areas where they came from, they'll lead more constructive lives and the recidivism rate will be reduced," said CDCR Spokesman Bill Sessa. 

The department plans on taking proposals in the next year or so, and with that in mind, met with local providers in L.A. on Thursday. They'll also be in Oakland next week. The move reflects a shift in direction for the department, where rehabilitation programs have been cut significantly for the past few years. This year, by contrast, they've been given $190 million to go towards starting new programs. Sessa explained the opportunity for change arose from prison realigment, shifting lower level offenders to county supervision. Realignment, started in fall of 2011, has helped the system reduce the population by about 30,000 inmates so far.

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LA County is sending drastically fewer people to prison post-realignment

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California's prison population has declined drastically in the last eight months.

According to new stats, Los Angeles is sending 41 percent fewer people to prison now than the county did before prison realignment. Overall, the state's prison population has dropped to about 136,000, the lowest in 17 years. Around the state, 18 counties showed drops larger than 50 percent. 

The numbers, compiled by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, show LA still sends more people to prison than any other county in the state — considering the county's population, however, LA's incarceration rate is pretty average. 

The big drops for California, CJCJ found, have been in drug offenders (down 60 percent), property offenders (down 60 percent), and parole violators (down 47 percent) going to prison. These are the offenders covered under the state's prison realignment plan, which re-routes low-level offenders and parole violators from prison to county-level supervision. Counties around the state have variously embraced and complained about the new system, which puts thousands of new offenders in their care. 

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California's prison population drops dramatically

Solano Prison

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / EPA

In 2006 prisoners at Solano Prison in Vacaville had to sleep in common areas due to overcrowding issues.

For years California's prison population has been notoriously large: some say the biggest in the world (with the sometimes exception of the U.S.'s federal prison system, which currently stands at 217,859). Reaching a peak of170,794 in 2006, California's prison population has reached a 17-year low of 135,519.

Which means that Texas, with 154,000 inmates, is now on top. 

California's inmate decline is primarily the result of changes to the state's parole system and prison realignment, which have both reduced the influx of inmates to state prison.

In 2011, the US Supreme Court upheld an order demanding California drastically reduce its prison population or else build more prisons to relieve overcrowding. 

 

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For the third time this month, a sex offender is apparently murdered in prison

California State Prison—Los Angeles County

CDCR

California State Prison—Los Angeles County in Lancaster.

An inmate was found dead in his cell Tuesday at California State Prison-Los Angeles County. The death is being treated as a homicide and the inmate's cellmate, Aaron Alvarez, 42, is a suspect. Alvarez, serving a life sentence for first degree murder, was placed in administrative segregation while the case is investigated by prison officials and the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department. 

The victim's name has not been released, as his family has not yet been notified of his death. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the deceased inmate had been in prison since November 30, 1999 for aggravated sexual assault of a child in San Diego County. 

Sex offenders are known targets of other inmates in prison. And this death is at least the third such apparent homicide of a sex offender in a California prison this month and at least the sixth this year.

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