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Did the CDCR just catch a break?

The governor of the formerly great state of California, Jerry Brown, won a big reprieve recently in federal court


AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

The governor of the formerly great state of California, Jerry Brown, won a big reprieve recently in federal court. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave the state an additional two years to bring the system into compliance with the population cap of 137.5 percent of design capacity. In exchange, the state agreed to stop all further appeals of the cap.

As of this writing, the state is about 4,500 over the population cap with about 9,000 inmates housed in out-of-state contract beds. A recently completed, very large 1,722-bed prison hospital, the California Health Care Facility (CHCF), is being brought slowly on line, with significant teething problems.

The federal receiver, J. Clark Kelso, recently order the state to stop intake at that hospital and has further ordered that an adjacent large hospital of 1,524 beds not be opened until problems can be addressed. The CHCF has been plagued by short staffing on both the medical and custody side, and by major supply line problems. I admit I find this somewhat surprising as the state already has several quasi-prison hospitals operated by the Dept. of Mental Health. One would think that the logistics and procurement operations would be very much the same. Nevertheless, the state seems unable to keep basic supplies like soap, towels and incontinence supplies in stock where needed.

The state has also been moving to ramp up two leased facilities, staffed by the former private operator employees who have been run through a quickie academy and turned into instant civil service sworn correctional officers.

In addition, the old Community Correctional Center at Taft has reopened as of early March and will soon house up to 512 inmates. There is at least one other former CCF that is supposed to be being prepared to reopen.

There are, as ever, competing forces at work here. Darrell Steinberg, the President Pro Temp of the California Senate, wants very badly to divert more funding to the rehabilitation program of the day (whatever that may be at the time). He seems utterly convinced that “new and improved” rehab programs will somehow produce significant drops in recidivism and thereby lessen the prison population significantly by attrition. The fact that it has never worked in the past is no impediment to the true believers. They believe that if they have the “right” program run by the “right” people with adequate (i.e., massive) funding that they can magically cure criminality.

It seems the final die has been cast. Maybe. The federal courts want, and apparently will get, their population cap. The state is attempting to add beds and at the same time improve medical care and mental health treatment for inmates.

However, forecasts say that prison population will continue to rise, even with a very recent federal court decision. One of them states that a portion of Proposition 9, passed by the voters in 2008, is unconstitutional. This proposition increased the amount of time for rehearing for some prisoners seeking parole to six years. The court found that this changed the rules after the game began for many players, and was therefore unconstitutional. That ruling will require the state to move back to their older, more frequent parole hearing schedule. Additionally, the same court had a problem with a portion of Proposition 89 passed in 1988, which gave the governor the ability to overrule the parole board and stop the parole of life-sentenced prisoners. Unless these rulings are successfully appealed, they will result in some drop in the number of life-sentenced prisoners in actual custody.

One thing I have learned from years of watching and making the occasional prediction: it really isn’t over until it is really over.

Bob Walsh worked for 24 years with the California Department of Corrections at Deuel Vocational Institution located near Tracy, California. He retired in early 2005. Since then he has been taking classes, exercising his obsolete camera equipment, rusticating and writing for the PacoVilla web site which focuses on issues within what is now called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr) and within the union representing CDCr employees, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA).