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Understanding the fight over California prisons

Correctional officers keep watch on inmates on the recreation yard at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.
Correctional officers keep watch on inmates on the recreation yard at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Correctional officers keep watch on inmates on the recreation yard at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.
Beds are seen at one of the housing units of at the Folsom Correctional Facility in Folsom, California
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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Imagine for a moment a city the size of Simi Valley with a population of about 120,000 people. But instead of being spread across town, those same people were crammed into just 34 overflowing buildings across the state.

That's the reality for California's prison system. 

Facilities are at more than 130-percent capacity, thousands of prisoners have spent the last 52 days on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of solitary confinement. Courts have told Governor Brown to ease crowding ... or else.

Just yesterday, Brown proposed spending $315 million to lease space from county jails and private facilities, and move prisoners there. But fixing the state's prison system isn't just a matter of reducing overcrowding. It's looking at its whole history, and how it evolved to what it is today.

California's prison system has probably one of the most complicated histories in the country, and since the 1940s there have been several ideas of what counts as reform.

The birth of what we might consider California's modern prison system began in the mid-20th century when, in 1944, the state legislature passed the Prison Reformation Act.

"This is the period which we consider the Golden Age of California corrections," says Sharon Dolovich, a professor of law at UCLA who teaches about prisons and criminal justice. "This was a period when all kinds of things we now think of as very familiar parts of the system were actually developed."

For example, the concept of indeterminate sentencing was created where convicts would be sentence to a range of years and then be released when officials deemed them fit to reenter society. Programming was also designed to help rehabilitate prisoners so they would be judged safe to release.

"This was a period when people came from all over the world to study the forward thinking model of California corrections," says Dolovich.

But then starting in the 1960s, the state of crime and corrections began to dramatically change.

"There was a growing sense on the right and the left that the model of indeterminate sentencing and rehabilitation was open to abuse," says Dolovich.

Liberals and civil rights activists argued that the system was prone to racial bias, with black prisoners held in confinement for longer. Meanwhile conservatives declared a war on crime and pushed for stronger sentencing guidelines.

Then starting in the 1970s, the prisoner population started to dramatically change. Michael Montgomery from the Center for Investigative Reporting has extensively covered the state's corrections system.

"There was a great debate about what worked, what changed men. This led to this notion that nothing works," said Montgomery. 

Meanwhile from 1960 to 1980, crime rates in California shot up more than 250 percent.

"People like President Nixon and others had something to point to in terms of stoking the fears," said Montgomery.

Drug and racial violence also drove up prison populations, which in turn encouraged more criminal outfits within penitentiary walls.

"In a way it was a perfect storm. What you get is an exponential increase in the population to the point in 2006 where we have 175,000 in prison in California and out of state," said Montgomery. "It doesn't mean that that's what the Department of Corrections would want in an ideal world, but it's a situation we have."

Watching that shift from the inside was Boris Jimenez. In 1988, he was convicted of 2nd degree murder and was sentence for 17 to life. He served 25 years at nine different facilities before being released on parole on May 3rd, 2012. He currently lives in L.A. and works at Homeboy Industries.

"When I first walked in I think there was more respect between inmates and officers at that time," he said. "Maybe when the 1990s arrived, everything started to change. It started to get out of control, a lot."

He also described how, through the years, more and more rehabilitation programs were being taken away. 

"Being that we're there, it's part of our rehab and we have to work on ourselves," said Jimenez. "If we're going to get another opportunity as a free person, then I think it's always good to work on ourselves."

But there isn't an easy solution to the problems the correctional system current faces.

"Reducing the prison population is a key step," said Montgomery. "There are also a lot of alternatives to incarceration."

However without a broad look at issues like sentencing laws, too, California still has a long distance to go before any semblance of reform can take place.