Thursday, March 10, 2011

Folsom Prison Blues

I previously alluded to some threats to California's spectacular university system. The most ominous one is a product, believe it or not, of an alliance between two Republican governors and a public sector union.

NPR did a brilliant job laying out the whole tragic story:
In January 1968, Johnny Cash set up his band on a makeshift stage in the cafeteria at Folsom State Prison in California.

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," he said in his deep baritone to thunderous applause. Song after song, the inmates thumped their fists and cheered from the same steel benches now bolted to the floor.

The morning that Cash played may have been the high-water mark for Folsom — and for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The men in the cafeteria lived alone in their own prison cells. Almost every one of them was in school or learning a professional trade. The cost of housing them barely registered on the state budget. And when these men walked out of Folsom free, the majority of them never returned to prison.

It was a record no other state could match.

Things have changed. California's prisons are all in a state of crisis. And nowhere is this more visible than at Folsom today.

Folsom was built to hold 1,800 inmates. It now houses 4,427.

It's once-vaunted education and work programs have been cut to just a few classes, with waiting lists more than 1,000 inmates long.

Officers are on furlough. Its medical facility is under federal receivership. And like every other prison in the state, 75 percent of the inmates who are released from Folsom today will be back behind bars within three years.

California's prison system costs $10 billion a year. Its crumbling, overcrowded facilities are home to the highest recidivism rate in the country. And the state that was once was the national model in corrections has become the model every state is now trying to avoid.


Experts agree that the problem started when Californians voted for a series of get-tough-on-crime laws in the 1980s. The state's prison population exploded immediately. It jumped from 20,000 inmates, where it had held steady throughout the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Today there are 167,000 inmates in the system.

Jeanne Woodford was warden of San Quentin during the prison population boom.

"The violence just went out of control," she remembers. "And then the programs started going away. I was there during an 18-month lockdown. It was just unbelievably horrific."

California wasn't the only state to toughen laws in the throes of the 1980s crack wars. But Californians took it to a new level.

Voters increased parole sanctions and gave prison time to nonviolent drug offenders. They eliminated indeterminate sentencing, removing any leeway to let inmates out early for good behavior. Then came the "Three Strikes You're Out" law in 1994. Offenders who had committed even a minor third felony — like shoplifting — got life sentences.

Voters at the time were inundated with television ads, pamphlets and press conferences from Gov. Pete Wilson. "Three strikes is the most important victory yet in the fight to take back our streets," Wilson told crowds.

But behind these efforts to get voters to approve these laws was one major player: the correctional officers union.

In three decades, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. The union has contributed millions of dollars to support "three strikes" and other laws that lengthen sentences and increase parole sanctions. It donated $1 million to Wilson after he backed the three strikes law.

We currently spend as much on prisons as we do on higher education. One of these two has to give.


  1. You nailed this essay. This problem is so big it's impossible to get my head around a solution... but you nailed the problem California faces.

  2. I wonder if experimenting with older generations of legal penalties might be a possible step forward.

  3. Great article, and it doesn't even really discuss the nitty gritty of incarceration. This fiscal and political disaster has created a truly brutal state of nature for inmates. When I toured San Quentin last year, the correctional official told me that all inmates have to join a gang for their own safety. As in "we can't keep you safe so just obey them." If you hang out with someone of another race, its likely that someone will slash your face with a knife as a permanent mark that you're a race traitor. More recently I spoke with an acquaintance (who I went to high school with) who had been released from San Quentin. In addition to confirming that gangs control the inmates, he estimated that 80% of guards will smuggle in drugs, phones, etc. The CDCR is a fiscal and humanitarian travesty.