Corrections chief hails the end of triple bunks at California prisons, symbols of overcrowding

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For the last decade, the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy was so overcrowded that officials had to jam 650 inmates into a makeshift dormitory inside the prison gymnasium.

Deuel Quad Sgt. Corey Johnson said having so many bunks in the gym made it difficult to see when inmates engaged in illegal activities, "Whether it be drug use, tattooing, assaults on other inmates, assaults on staff, batteries, murders, attempted murders--all those kind of things that would happen and did happen in here."

After a riot erupted in the gym in 2003, prison officials rearranged the bunks to improve the sightlines for guards. Sgt. Johnson said it was only a partial fix. Even if a correctional officer spotted an inmate breaking the law, "it was easy for him to evade you because they could dive through bunks. And with the other inmates in the area, for officers to be safe and get to them, it was impossible."

But today, the gym at Deuel is empty. It's the result of an ongoing decline in California’s prison population prompted by a federal court order.

At a Friday news conference at the lockup 10 miles southwest of Stockton, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate said he visited the prison gym when he was California's Inspector General.

Cate recalled seeing rows and rows of cluttered triple bunks, with inmates’ clothing hanging from posts--a scene he said that became the image of California’s jam-packed prison system- splashed on TV screens, and newspapers.

"It symbolized a system that was so crowded that it could not work effectively or efficiently." Cate said.

In 2007, when the state’s prison population reached a peak of 174,000 inmates, prisons statewide were packed at or near double capacity.

Then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a “state of emergency” in the prisons and urged the legislature to reduce the inmate population through parole reform and other means. In his “State of the State” speech that year, Schwarzenegger lamented, "We have thousands of prisoners housed in gymnasiums TV rooms, dining rooms, hallways- anywhere there is space." Schwarzenegger said, “that is a danger and that is a disgrace.”

But it took a federal court order - upheld by the US Supreme Court last year – to push California to radically reduce overcrowding in its 33 prisons. The order resulted from a decade-old federal legal case on the quality of medical care for prison inmates. A trio of federal judges determined that overcrowding was the main reason inmates in California were dying from a lack of basic medical and mental health care.

Last year, lawmakers in Sacramento enacted a law that shifted custody responsibility for new low-level, non-violent, non-sexual felons to California’s 58 counties. The process – called “realignment” - began last October. Since then, the state’s prison population has dropped by 17,000 inmates.

In total, corrections officials installed 19,000 temporary beds at facilities across the state. Last week, they dismantled the last of them.

Secretary Cate said the removal of the so-called "bad beds" sends a powerful signal that California's prison system is "going in the right direction"

He said fewer inmates will make the prisons “safer, less expensive and more effective.”

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