It’s Not Just Federal Prisons: State Prisons Are a Mess, Too

California Correctional Health Care Facility in Stockton, Calif., Tuesday, June 25, 2013. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Aug. 21, 2013, 4:46 a.m.

In Arkan­sas, there aren’t enough pris­on beds for all the in­mates. Tasked with hous­ing 14,753 people, the state’s pris­ons have fallen around 280 beds short, with 1,400 state in­mates be­ing held in county jails as of Monday. Arkan­sas’s state pris­on dir­ect­or told the cor­rec­tions board that there are 300 beds ready for use, but it would cost $8 mil­lion to hire new em­ploy­ees and run the new fa­cil­it­ies. 

Arkan­sas isn’t the only state with a bed prob­lem: Ari­zona has been re­ly­ing on tem­por­ary beds to make up for only hav­ing 37,000 beds for 41,000 in­mates.

When U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er spoke to the Amer­ic­an Bar As­so­ci­ation about the eco­nom­ic and mor­al costs of the U.S. crim­in­al justice sys­tem last week, he was mainly talk­ing about fed­er­al pris­ons. But pris­ons at the state and loc­al level aren’t in any bet­ter shape. While the over­all state pris­on pop­u­la­tion de­clined in 2012 by just over 2 per­cent, there were still more than 1.3 mil­lion in­mates in the sys­tem. That’s great­er than the pop­u­la­tion of Maine — or about Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Alaska com­bined. In oth­er words, if the state pris­on pop­u­la­tion were its own state, it would be the 41st-most pop­u­lated one in the na­tion.

If you need more proof of how bleak things are, just look at some of what’s happened in the last few weeks.

On Ju­ly 8, a hun­ger strike broke out in Cali­for­nia pris­ons over a policy that al­lowed in­mates as­so­ci­ated with gangs to live in isol­a­tion for long peri­ods of time. State of­fi­cials say the policy is ne­ces­sary to curb the in­flu­ence of pris­on gangs. Am­nesty In­ter­na­tion­al calls the policy “an af­front to hu­man rights” and says that it “must end.”

When the strike began, it in­cluded al­most 30,000 of the state’s 133,000 in­mates. That num­ber is down to around 130. On Monday, a fed­er­al judge ruled that Cali­for­nia will be able to force-feed the re­main­ing strikers.

Cali­for­nia’s pris­on prob­lem is also fun­da­ment­ally eco­nom­ic. In May, a judge ordered Cali­for­nia to re­duce its in­mate pop­u­la­tion by 9,600 to pre­vent over­crowding. Cali­for­nia un­suc­cess­fully ap­pealed the rul­ing to the Su­preme Court. Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday said that Cali­for­nia wouldn’t “do a mass re­lease” and a spokes­man said the ad­min­is­tra­tion is “work­ing with the Le­gis­lature to avoid the pro­spect of in­mate re­leases.” That could mean spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to stem over­crowding. But even just re­leas­ing pris­on­ers can come at a huge cost. Ac­cord­ing to the LAPD, it costs about $18 mil­lion to keep track of felons who are re­leased from state pris­ons to the counties, and more than half of the thou­sands who are already re­leased an­nu­ally are even­tu­ally sent back to pris­on.

Then there’s the vi­ol­ence. Five pris­ons have been placed on lock­down in Illinois in the last week for un­re­lated in­cid­ents after a wave of vi­ol­ence. That in­cludes vi­ol­ence against pris­on guards. Then there’s the rise in sui­cides. In Wash­ing­ton, D.C., there have been four sui­cides at the Cent­ral De­ten­tion Fa­cil­ity in less than a year. In the last dec­ade, there have only been eight sui­cides total at that fa­cil­ity. A Bur­eau of Justice Stat­ist­ics re­port re­leased this month shows a re­cent up­tick in sui­cides at loc­al pris­ons.

Re­new­ing fo­cus on fed­er­al pris­ons is a start, but it doesn’t totally ad­dress all of the prob­lems in the U.S. crim­in­al justice sys­tem.

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