Marty: A short stint in prison
By Marty Richman
I went to prison last week, but it was only for three and a half hours. And that was enough for me.
There is only one word for prison – depressing. When you take a short tour, it’s very easy to be distracted by the well-kept grass, ball fields, the chapel, the dispensary, the high degree of organization or the promise of education and substance abuse programs, along with other accouterments. But the underlying fact is prisons are primarily warehouses for human beings. Inmate movement is tightly controlled. There are the razor, wire-topped, chain-link fences and the active gun towers leave no doubt about where you are.
Steven Smith, experienced in law enforcement and a faculty member at Gavilan College where he teaches Administration of Justice, invited me to join him and 11 of his students on a tour of the state’s Correctional Training Facility at Soledad. The CTF provides housing, programs and services for medium-custody inmates. CTF is almost adjacent to, and often confused with, Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP), which primarily provides long-term housing and services for maximum-custody male inmates.
Both facilities are part of California’s largest general fund agency, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation with 66,000 employees and a $9.5 billion budget. The department is responsible for 33 adult institutions, six juvenile institutions, 46 adult firefighting conservation camps, and two juvenile camps with an in-state institutional population of 151,635 and more than 100,000 parole cases. Correction and rehabilitation is an expensive proposition – $38,000 a year per inmate-parolee.
The CTF is celebrating its 65th birthday, and there are places in the buildings where its age shows. However, it’s generally well maintained. It’s a strange combination of old structure and modern technology. They have energy-conserving lights but only a minimum of surveillance cameras, and all the cell locks and most of the internal control locks are manually operated with big keys – that’s very labor intensive. I was keenly aware of the constant clunk-clunk of locks, but I wonder if the inmates and staff ever get used to the sound.
It was designed to house 3,312 inmates, one per cell, but last week it had 6,562 on hand, about 200 percent of designed capacity. This is actually a court-ordered reduction from a time when there were more than 7,000 inmates, some occupying so-called “dirty beds” set up in any available space, such as the gym. California has sent 10,358 inmates out of state to Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma to reduce overcrowding, but the average adult male institution remains at 175 percent of designed capacity. The female facilities are not much better at 168 percent.
The staff is comprised of 1,119 custody and 524 support personnel. Custody personnel control and monitor the population until something out of the ordinary happens. Then they respond with calculated levels of intervention and force if necessary to restore order. Everyone understands that the inmates, who sometimes outnumber the unarmed officers hundreds-to-one in a small area, could take over those spaces whenever they want. But then what? The department’s “no hostage policy” means that they are not going anywhere.
Most inmates are housed in cells, and it’s only when you look into a standard cell that the crowded conditions really hit you. It’s tiny with two inmates, two bunks, a sink, a toilet and some personal gear all squeezed into a space of a medium-sized closet. The doors are solid, each with a reinforced glass panel. We visited one large communal housing area in a low-risk unit, and it was bursting at the seams with stacked bunks and inmates – all under the control of only two custodial personnel.
I never studied criminal justice or law but common sense tells me the official purpose of the system is to reduce harm from repeat offenders, bolster the citizens’ confidence in the ability of the government to keep them safe and deter potential criminals. Human psychology tells me that the public sees incarceration as some level of revenge – not an eye for an eye except for the death penalty – but certainly a kick in the butt.
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Marty Richman wrote this for Friday’s Pinnacle. He writes a column Tuesdays in the Free Lance.