Last week riots sent 16 California prisoners to the hospital. Next week, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will send layoff notices to guards.
Now prison guards are concerned that a “perfect storm” may be brewing linked to staff reductions and a higher ratio of violent inmates within the system.
Officially, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is still investigating the cause of multiple incidents at California State Prison, Sacramento (also known as New Folsom). Riots there followed similar brawls in recent years, creating at least the appearance of a trend.
The incidents come even though prisons have begun reducing their population under a court order. The department has moved the prisoners deemed least violent to county jails, resulting in a higher concentration of violent inmates.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm here,” Ryan Sherman, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, told KQED’s Tara Siler. “We’re losing staff, we’re getting more violent inmates on a percentage basis... We’re putting more dangerous inmates in lower-security facilities. It’s a potential there for it to be some kind of lethal combination.”
From an all-time high of 173,479 in 2006, the total prison population declined to 123,744 as of Sept. 19, 2012, according to figures on the department’s website. Despite that large reduction, the system is still not in compliance with the order The system was designed to house a total of 84,130 individuals, which means it's at 147% of design capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered it to get to 137%. Note these figures apply to the total number of prisoners systemwide, so certain prisons remain much more crowded than others. Mule Creek State Prison, for example, is at 175.4% of design capacity, while Valley State Prison is at 89.6%.
The Peace Officers Association's Sherman acknowledges that a lower prison population required a smaller staff. But he says the prisons were understaffed before the reductions in the prison population, and that an even higher ratio of guards to prisoners is needed now. “Because we have got more violent and dangerous inmates in the prisons where we used to have more of a mix, [previous] staffing practices are not going to be adequate,” he said.
Corrections officials dispute that conclusion. “We’re reducing our workforce very carefully over a period of years,” a department spokesman, Jeffrey Callison, told me.
And he said there is no evidence that a larger staff could have prevented the recent violence. “I don’t think it’s possible to connect the two,” he said.
Attorney Rebekah Evenson, who has represented California prisoners, says that overcrowding is one reason for violence in the prisons. “It’s undisputed," she says. “If the prisons are overcrowded then, yes, you want more staff." Evenson also says more education and recreation programs could ease tension. And she blames the department for confining prisoners to their cells, after violence incidents, on the basis of race. This leads them to identify with violent gangs, she says.
Callison said there is no evidence that recent events indicate a statistical increase in violence, rather than a flare-up.
And he said no one in the department could say how much the staff will be reduced. In a previous wave of reductions that ended in February, the staff was cut “in the low three figures.”
Sherman said he had heard about 500 people will lose their jobs in the current reductions. But Callison said the numbers will not be known until October, because the department will offer transfers to most of the staff. How many will retire from the department remains to be seen.