Minimum Space, Maximum Limitations
Thursday, July 23, 1998
There are two very different prisons in Soledad--one minimum security, one maximum; one old, one new--but they share the challenge presented to all prisons these days: trying to accommodate more inmates than their designs anticipated.
The Correctional Training Facility opened in 1946 as medium security "Soledad State Prison," renamed in the ''70s during a time when we tried to rehabilitate prisoners, instead of just punishing them, our explicitly stated goal of today.
Touring the 7,000-inmate prison, that change in priorities becomes apparent. Today, CTF is an inmate warehouse with double its intended capacity, as bunk beds fill the day-rooms and gymnasiums, and even showers have been converted into cells.
Most of CTF houses Level II inmates, those that have proven they are cooperative and can be handled in dorm settings with a minimum of problems, which has allowed the day-rooms on each cell block to be filled with 20 bunk beds each. It''s the same story at minimum- and medium-security facilities throughout the system.
With inmate populations constantly in flux, the gymnasium at CTF is sometimes empty, like it was last month, although that never lasts long. "It''ll stay this way for a month or so, then we''ll be back in business," says prison spokesman Mike Collier, surveying the gym of empty bunk beds.
Although the crowded conditions sometimes cause friction and problems, Collier said, "inmates, by and large, want to do their time and get out."
The dynamics are different at adjacent Salinas Valley State Prison, a maximum-security, state-of-the-art prison opened in 1996 to house Level IV inmates, where all the "Three Strikes" cases and other serious offenders start before working their status down by being good inmates.
The prison was supposed to open one unit at a time over a period of years, but with incarceration rates peaking in 1996, the prison went from empty to full to overcrowded within seven months. "By the time we opened [Unit] D, we were already overcrowded in A, with double-celling," said spokesman Rick Hager. "It was really quick."
Double-celling has become the norm through the system. And here, with inmates facing very long sentences and having little to lose, filling every available space with bunk beds isn''t an option. "When you''re looking at maximum security, they have to be in their cells," says Hager. Even so, CDC converted the gym here to a Level III dorm during nine peak months last year.
"As overcrowded as we are, it''s sometimes tough to match inmates up with cells," says Hager.
Inmates, guards and others in the system all agree that the crowded conditions present problems and breed violence, especially by those new to the prison system: both young inmates hit with long sentences and young guards still learning the ropes.
"With younger people on both sides, there are more clashes...It''s a more violent place to be these days, and that violence is not always perpetrated by the inmates," said inmate Terry Parker through the steel door of his SVSP cell, where he is serving a 20-year sentence for burglary. This sentence started in 1994, and he was also in prison in the 1980s.
Recent reports of guards at Corcoran State Prison promoting a climate of violence among inmates, then killing problem prisoners who take the bait, is perhaps the most startling example of the problem. But prison officials say the more common problem is inmates who have nothing to lose causing trouble.
"The long prison sentences generate a real feeling of hopelessness," SVSP Chaplain Doug Moon observes in the growing number of inmates he counsels.
"With the young population, it''s more violent," says Lt. Tom Alexander, a prison guard since 1973. "These young kids don''t care. They''re looking at 2025 before they can even possibly get paroled."
While CTC has expanded vocational education programs to give inmates the skills that all the studies show reduce recidivism rates, there still aren''t enough full-time jobs to go around, even to those that want them in this burgeoning system.
"We don''t have as many jobs as we have inmates," Hager said. "There''s only so many guys you can have mowing the lawn."
--Steven T. Jones