Anatomy of a prison crisis

How Arnold Schwarzenegger tried (and failed) to fix California’s dysfunctional prison system

By Joe Domanick

Anatomy of a prison crisis

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) tours an area at the California Institution for Men with acting Warden Aref Fakhoury in Chino, California August 19, 2009.

This post originally appeared in the Crime Report.

Dressed in a navy-blue windbreaker emblazoned with the gold seal of the Great State of California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger leans out a watchtower window and, as cameras click furiously below, stares through a tangle of razor-sharp concertina wire onto the sprawling, pentagon-shaped grounds of Mule Creek State Prison.

It’s August 2004, and Schwarzenegger, fresh on the heels of his stunning victory in a raucous November 2003 recall election, is taking a choreographed tour of the 886-acre facility built in the tree-studded foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

Mule Creek is a maze of double-tiered, steel and concrete cellblocks that house 3,700 inmates — one of 33 mammoth prisons that dot California’s rural back country and make up the largest corrections system in the nation — and the third largest in the world, with 300,000 adult prisoners and parolees, a $6 billion annual budget and 54,000 employees.

It is also one of the most dysfunctional. With a population of 165,000 inmates, California’s prisons even then were operating at 170 percent over capacity.

As he ends his tour, Schwarzenegger delivers a powerfully unequivocal pledge.

“We are going to change the culture that allows the (prison) code of silence,” he tells the assembled reporters. “And we won’t stop until we tear down the whole wall and see it on the ground in a pile of rubble.”

Six years later, that pledge is a painful memory. As the governor departs from Sacramento, he is leaving California’s once-progressive prison system in some ways in as bad or worse shape than it was when he entered office.

A crisis foretold


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