Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men

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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part IV: Conditions and Treatment

This is the fourth and final post in my series of articles concerning the grave and disturbing issue of overcrowded prisons. As I’ve mentioned before and you’ve likely heard it elsewhere, is that the U.S. Supreme Court deemed that the current California prison population violates the 8th Amendment, falling under “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Operating at a 200% capacity, the California penal system, one of the largest prison systems in country, is struggling to deal with the enormity of their predicament: How will they release 40,000 prisoners in two years? In the meantime, they’re facing a number of problems due to overcrowding with no relief in sight.

According to this article, California inmates are experiencing year-long waits for medical care and a suicide rate that is nearly twice the national average for prisoners. In fact, every 7-8 days, a prisoner commits suicide in California. Also disturbing is that there are fifty sick inmates at a time held in 12 by 20 foot cages for up to five hours as they await medical treatment.

Gymnasiums and other areas designated for exercise and rehabilitation are now used to house 3-tiered bunk beds to accommodate the staggering numbers of inmates. Without the facilities to rehabilitate and educate prisoners, California prisons are creating a revolving door for which prisoners use to constantly reenter. They are not given the skills to become productive citizens once released. In fact, the National Center For Education Statistics, found that 7 out of 10 prisoners were either illiterate or functionally illiterate in 1992.

With the vast number of inmates, the waiting list for prison jobs is a mile long. Many of these jobs are considered “facility support services” that include kitchen duties, maintenance, and laundry jobs. With the recession hitting labor workers the hardest, it’s highly unlikely that these prisoners will find viable work outside of prison. The lack of work, coupled with the frustrations of living like a sardine, there has been a huge rise in prison violence toward one another and prison staff. Fights, riots, and rapes are reported daily.

With the emotional and psychological toll these conditions place on the average inmate, it’s no wonder they exhibit ignorance and apathy toward their situation. They experience violence, sickness (both mental and physical), abuse, and death everyday. And I’m not just talking about hardened criminals—even those serving their first time for relatively small infractions are subjected to these situations as well.

Any increase in funding has not kept up with increase in population. Basic needs are being ignored such as personal hygiene items, medical care, clean sheets and clothing, and bathing facilities. When items such as these become a hot commodity, you can bet there are those who take advantage of that by setting their own “prices” for them, oftentimes, in the form of sex.

While the U.S. “got tough” with crime and waged a war on drugs, little to no thought was designated to the consequences of these so-called good intentions. We wanted drugs and crime off of our streets, but prisons have become these efficient factories of those very things. And the solution is to release 40,000 inmates and hope that they learned enough to not come back to prison? I think what needs to change are what created the problem to begin with: mandatory sentencing, structured sentencing, 3 strikes law, and the war on drugs.

“I was in San Quentin and Soladad prisons. It’s no joke. the world passes you by. guy’s have never seen cell phones. I seen people who where in for violent acts in the 70’s with 5 to life that will never see day light except when they hit the yard because the state of California will not let violent inmates go even after serving 15 to 20 years with good time there’s so many inmates jobs are hard to get so you have to do your full sentence or go to school for your second GED and there’s always the violence just around the corner, the other side of the yard, two tables away in the dining hall. guards fucking with you. Trying to fuck your day up looking for you to make a mistake, even when your trying hard as you can not to do nothing wrong. Drama, Drama, Drama all day all night long day after day same shit different bowl.

–From a prisoner via

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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part I

Over the course of my research, I have stumbled upon a topic that we hear about all the time: Prison overpopulation. There are a number of contributing factors to this growing problem and so I thought I’d address them in a four-part series. In today’s post, I’d like to share some staggering facts about current prison population and how the “war on drugs” campaign has packed our prisons with inmates.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Russia holds the number two spot. In 1980, there were less than 500,000 Americans in prison. Today, there are 1,404,503 people in state prisons, 208,118 in federal prison, and nearly 6 million on probation or parole. Today’s parole rate is a 59% increase since 1990.

Even with these numbers, crime is down 0.3%—the first drop since 1972. California has reported a 2.5% drop with 169,413 inmates. What’s behind the decrease? The state of California decided to cut the number of low-risk parolees who would return to prison because of technical parole violations. This move can be attributed to the state being ordered in 2009 to reduce its prison population by 30%. That’s 40,000 inmates. The state is struggling to meet such a demand.

Some facts:

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that approximately 1/3 of all black males will experience state prison in their lifetime.

Young black women is the fastest growing prison population.

National spending on corrections in 1980: $9 billion. Today: $60 billion

Much of the increase of prison population can be blamed the on good intentions of the “War on Drugs.”  Forty years ago on June 17th, Nixon was the first to use that term. In 1980, 6% of the prison population consisted of drug offenders—about 19,000. In 1998, there were 237,000—21%. In 2008, there were over half a million people incarcerated for drug offenses, the result of 1.5 million drug-related arrests.

When  a politician decides to get “tough on crime,” it too, contributes to the overcrowding of prisons. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about punishing those who commit crime, but those with no prior records are given mandatory sentences, or others who made a small infraction became victims of the “three strikes, you’re out,” law, thus, causing a swell in the already crowded prisons. This tough on crime has quickly become tough on prisons, as well as state and federal budgets. 

Other factors in the overcrowding of prisons consists of, “truth in sentencing” (abolishing parole—inmates serve their entire given sentence) and longer sentences for sex offenders.

In May 2011, The U.S. Supreme Court declared that the overcrowding in California state prisons is cruel and unusual punishment. As mentioned earlier, the state is struggling to figure out how to release 30,000 prisoners in the next 2 years. How will this happen? Governor Jerry Brown is suggesting moving non-violent and low-risk inmates to county jails, or even possibly out-of-state. Prison officials are practically on their hand and knees, asking for more funding to not only build more prisons, but to create educational programs that will reduce recidivism.

There are more factors involved in this ever-growing problem and in the coming days, I will talk about:

Women in prison—the fastest growing prison population

Conditions of prisons and its prisoners

Minorities in prison

Sources: National Policy Committee The Pew Center on the States The U.S. Dept of Justice