Federal Court to Consider Population Cap for California Prisons

Wednesday, a federal court will consider whether to take the first step towards capping California's prison population. The court must decide whether the state has done enough to ease overcrowding in the prison system. KPCC's state capital reporter Julie Small has the story.

Julie Small: State officials say California's prisons are filled up to 170% of capacity. Prisoner advocates say it's more like 200%. Either way, for inmates at San Quentin State Prison, it's intolerable. When a group of visitors passes by the break yard at San Quentin, some prisoners abandon a game of basketball to shout complaints through a chain link fence.

[Voices: Prisoners talking about overcrowding]

Small: They get more agitated when one visitor tells them he's here to make sure the prisoners get adequate medical care, despite the overcrowding.

Prisoner: Tell me this: Why we got to put in a medical docket to get seen by medical and it takes 'em almost five weeks for them to see us? By the time they see us our cold, our cough is gone already.

Robert Sillen: I tell you we're making great progress.

Small: That visitor is Robert Sillen. He's here at San Quentin because years ago, lawyers representing inmates sued the state for failing to provide a basic and acceptable level of health care. The federal judge on the case, Thelton Henderson, ordered the state to fix the problem... but it didn't, so Judge Henderson appointed Sillen to fix it. He's been on the job a little over a year, and today, he's opening a new trauma treatment center at San Quentin.

[Sound of Sillen cutting ribbon, medical staff applauding)

Small: That, says Robert Sillen, is progress.

Sillen: We can actually provide some legitimate medical care in this facility. And by the time that we get done at San Quentin and throughout the whole system, we will certainly upgrade the care to constitutional standards.

Small: But Sillen says the overcrowding in the prisons is so extreme it's thwarted his efforts. Attorneys for prisoners agree.

Donald Spector: Prisons are overcrowded, so you have to have a cap in order to make them not overcrowded.

Small: Donald Spector, with the Prison Law Office, wants the federal court to figure out how many inmates California's prison system can reasonably support, then order California to release enough prisoners to get down to that number.

Spector: Which you can do through sentencing changes or you can do by parole reform. Or you can increase the number of people going out, and you can do that by letting some people out a few months early.

Small: Spector says the state can cap the prison population without compromising public safety. But not long ago, Governor Schwarzenegger told a gathering of victims' rights groups that capping the prison population would make California's streets unsafe.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (in an earlier speech): We will not release criminals early. No one will get out of the prisons because we are running out of space. They only will get out of prison because they've served their term, they served their time and they're able to get out of the prison. (crowd applauds)

Small: The threat of a cap on the prison population compelled the Governor and the legislature to pass a $7.5 billion prison reform bill to add 53,000 beds. Assembly Bill 900 would also move inmates out of gyms and dayrooms, where thousands sleep now. That will open those spaces for rehabilitation and education programs. Secretary of Corrections James Tilton thinks the federal courts will agree that's the better way to go.

James Tilton: AB 900 is a great opportunity for us to reduce overcrowding in the prison system and finally get a safer environment, and provide programs so that these inmates have a better chance to reintegrate into society. That's my goal.

Small: Successful reintegration might reduce the 70% recidivism rate for California's ex-cons. But Prison Law Office attorney Donald Spector says that doesn't solve the problem with overcrowding.

Spector: If you just keep the gates open like they are now, you're just increasing capacity but you're not changing the numbers who are going into it.

Small: Spector says Corrections boss James Tilton ought to know better by now.

Spector: Mr. Tilton used to work for the Department of Corrections back in the '90s when they built 23 new prisons. And now here we are 15 years later and we're overcrowded again. So if they spend the $7.5 billion that the Governor wants to spend building these new prisons, if you look at the population projections in a few years, we'll be right back where we started.

Small: The prison bosses, the prisoner lawyers, and the politicians all agree overcrowding's reached a crisis. Now it'll be up to the federal court to shove them towards a solution.