A very bad idea: Overpopulation and 'MegaDorms'

Rather than losing bed space when the California Rehabilitation Center closes down, the DOC is looking to build several 800 bed dorms

By Bob Walsh

It’s no secret the formerly great state of California has had a lot of trouble in the last several years with their prison system. Right now they are operating under a federally imposed population cap.

The state is getting ready to shut down the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) at Norco. This is an old 1920s era resort hotel that was taken over by the military as a hospital during WW II, and then given to the state. It has been used primarily to house civil addicts.

Due to the fact it is fairly old and was not designed as a prison, the operating cost per bed is high. The Department wants to get rid of it, but doesn’t want to lose bed space. So they are going with the notion of building several 800 bed dormitories. 

One of these dorms is to be built on the grounds of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility at Otay Mesa, outside of San Diego. Two of them will be built near the Mule Creek Prison alone, and may or may not be administratively separate from the existing prison. These units are expected to be open in mid-2016, which is significantly after the currently scheduled closing date of Norco. 

I am in the position where I can comment on this proposal with some authority. When I worked at DVI, there were two large medium-custody dorms there: Z-dorm had a capacity of 660, and Y-dorm had a capacity of about 250. I worked in both of them as a Sgt. and a Lieutenant. (There was also a 225-man minimum custody support facility outside the fence, but that is a different critter completely.)

Many of our readers will be familiar with an experiment often done in college psych and sociology classes. You take an environment and throw in some rats. Rats are fairly social creatures, and mostly they get along. Then you put in more rats, along with more food and water. Then you do it again. Then you do it again.

At some point the society breaks down. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep and they don’t make baby rats: they just fight. Now I grant you that a large part of this is probably simply population density, but I believe a large part of it is population numbers. 

I found that the smaller dorm was a much more hospitable environment because, in my honest opinion, the residents had some feeling of ownership. It was their home; it’s where they lived. In the larger dorm, it was just a place they were in.

The dorms, which used to be the field house, were sort of ugly and stinky. The area was not originally designed as housing: the toilet and shower facilities were stretched to the limit. There was gun coverage, which was unusual at DVI, and it came in very handy on more than one occasion.

I have not seen the plans of these new dorms, and I have no idea if they include the potential for gun coverage inside or not. I can assure you that having a set of eyes up high is very handy, and having the ability to reach out and touch someone is very comforting to the staff on the ground. 

It is also necessary to point out that the realignment program has dumped virtually all of the level I and many of the level II prisoners into county custody. These were traditional dorm inmates.

The department will be placing many level III and even former so-called soft level IV prisoners in the dorms, just because there isn’t anybody else to put in them. I fully expect there to be serious management problems with these facilities.

I realize that there are efficiencies in scale. Nevertheless, I believe these dorms will be a horrendous management problem at their stated capacity. If, as many believe will happen, they are increased by a factor of 50 percent  or even 100 percent, they will become virtually impossible to even count let along administer.

The California Department of Corrections (and rehabilitation) is run by a lawyer. All members of his inner circle are lawyers. They have collectively zero line experience, and are dismissive of the opinions of anybody but lawyers.

I fully expect this plan, if enacted as presented thus far, will be an unmitigated disaster, due simply to it being a very bad idea.

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