Overcrowded: The Messy Politics of California's Prison Crisis


"Overcrowded: The Messy Politics of California's Prison Crisis" was originally released on October 24, 2014. The original write-up is below:

"A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority in a Supreme Court ruling against Governor Jerry Brown and the state of California in the 2011 case Brown v. Plata.

The Supreme Court had just affirmed what lower courts had been telling California for decades: The prisons are too crowded. It's time to fix the problem.

Three years later, after several extensions asked for and granted, California's government has managed to reduce the prison population, but not by enough to meet the 137.5 percent of occupational capacity target set by the courts. But they are close enough, at 140 percent, to give Gov. Brown the confidence to declare victory.

"The prison emergency is over in California," Brown said at a press conference in 2013. "It is now time to return the control of our prison system to California."

Brown's strategy to combat overcrowding has been twofold: Send inmates to out-of-state and/or private prisons, and shift low-level offenders down to county jails. Predictably, this latter strategy, called "realignment," has led to an increase in the county jail populations. 

"Rather dramatically, overnight, [realignment] changed the makeup of our jails," says Orange County assistant sheriff Steve Kea.

But Brown has been particularly resistant to one type of change: sentencing reform. While California's voters amended the state's Three Strikes law in 2012, without the governor's endorsement, Brown has taken public stances against further reforms, such as SB 649, which would have given prosecutors the flexibility to prosecute nonviolent drug crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

"California is, traditionally, seen as a liberal state," says Lauren Galik, Director of Criminal Justice Reform at Reason Foundation. "But not when it comes to their sentencing laws and prison population."

For years, the California Correctional Peace Officer's Association (CCPOA), the prison guard union, has been one of the most powerful political forces in the state. It was a key player in the campaign to implement Three Strikes, and against the later failed campaign to repeal it. In 2010, the union poured more than $2 million in independent expenditures into Jerry Brown's gubernatorial campaign. Lynne Lyman, state director of the California Drug Policy Alliance, says that the enormous lobbying power of the law enforcement unions has hampered serious reform in the state.

"It really doesn't matter which party an elected official is with," says Lyman. "The contributions that are coming in from the law enforcement associations and the private prison lobby… they're tremendous."

Watch the video above for a deeper dive into the politics of California's prisons, featuring interviews with state prison officials, local sheriffs, and former inmates.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Tracy Oppenheimer, Alexis Garcia, William Neff, and Weissmueller. Photography by Todd Krainin. Music by Chris Zabriskie. Approximately 9 minutes.

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  1. “It really doesn’t matter which party an elected official is with,” says Lyman. “The contributions that are coming in from the law enforcement associations and the private prison lobby… they’re tremendous.”

    but money doesnt influence politics

    1. Your extra chromosome is showing.

      1. Brand new imbecilic lefty troll, same tired bullshit.

      2. Uh, no you, Epi…

  2. In the California utopia, 1/3 of the population will be working to put people in jail, 1/3 will be employed guarding the jails, and 1/3 will be incarcerated.

    Thus, California will have 0% unemployment, and everyone will either have a good union job or a safety net of three hots and a cot.

  3. I gots a idea.

    Hows bouts legalizing all drugz and releasing all nonviolent drug “offenders?” That would reduce the prison population by, what, 50%?

    1. Up here in Canada there’s a lot of complaints about overcrowding in prisons as well. Does the government even look into pardoning non-violent drug offenders and legalizing substances? Nope, steeper sentences for youths, greater RCMP focus on drug busts and building more prisons. Brilliant.

    2. And then we could fire 50% of the cops, 50% of the guards, 100% of the publicly funded drug rehab centers, 50% of the courts, and with the glut in lawyers, the prices for legal services would be slashed.


      No down-side.

      1. Except that organized cops, guards, rehab centers and lawyers all have the ear of the politicians, while we do not.

        1. To a point. That point being when they can get moar voatz by legalizing than can be made up for by the special interests. Then they will readily throw them under the bus. (God, I’m getting sick of that phrase.)

          1. In California I believe they would prefer to be thrown under the high speed rail.

            1. That sounds expensive.

              1. Union jobs ARE expensive! And that doesn’t include the retirement benes…

          2. That point being when they can get moar voatz by legalizing than can be made up for by the special interests.

            Most people put other issues ahead of legalization, and will make their decisions based upon those issues, not legalization. I doubt it alone will ever get more than ten percent, which isn’t enough for any politician to care.

      2. That would never happen, as Hillary Clinton has said: “there is just too much money in it.”

    3. You don’t understand! People who use drugs and commit other nonviolent crimes are just warming up! They’re all murderers! They just haven’t killed anyone yet! Putting them in prison prevents crime! It prevents so much crime that there isn’t any reason to investigate actual crimes with victims! An ounce of locking up nonviolent offenders is worth a pound of investigating violent crimes!

      1. Investigating actual crimes with victims means running into actual criminals! That’s dangerous. Don’t you want our heroes to come home safely at night?

        1. There is no money in investigating violent crime. Why risk getting your ass whipped for nothing when you can rope some pot smoking dufus into the system where, after you take all his stuff, he pays and pays and pays.

        2. I don’t think it’s that. People who seek out a job that allows them to initiate violence when they don’t get their way, and do it without consequence, I’m sure have a long history of using intimidation and violence to get their way.

          They’re not afraid of a fight, especially because they always have more backup than anyone they encounter. They simply have no incentive. I mean, what’s in it for them?

          If they catch a thief they don’t get to steal his loot. They’ve got to give it back to its rightful owner. But if they catch someone who made money without paying taxes on it, like a drug dealer, they can claim everything he owns was purchased with money obtained without paying taxes! It’s not his! It can be all taken away, before he even goes to trial! Now he can’t afford to hire a lawyer! He’s doomed! It’s awesome!

          Help victims of crimes, or rob people of everything they own?

          Human nature encourages the latter.

  4. “California is, traditionally, seen as a liberal state,”

    Traditionally, liberal meant liberty. Today it mean’s the opposite so overcrowded prisons is not a contradiction. Just because communists and socialists hijacked the moniker (when progressive fell out of favor) , doesn’t mean they kept any of the liberty aspects of traditional liberalism.

  5. I just signed a proclamation stating that the problem is no longer a problem thereby eliminating the problem.

  6. If there were only something Governor Brown could do to release nonviolent, first-time offenders from prison, simultaneously addressing prison overcrowding and unjust sentences!

    1. Something to do with high-speed rail?

      1. If only the people would delegate to him the power to reduce the sentences of first-time offenders! But as it is, his hands are tied.

    1. Kevin J Cunningham 1 hour ago

      @ferndale So screw all those liberal ideas that equality, equal justice for all, yeah, let’s be just like Bull Connor.

      You support racism. You would make it legal for some one to operate a segregated store. That is reprehensible.

      If I had the energy to create an account, I’d tell that idiot that I would totally support allowing someone to operate such a business. That way, by him identifying himself as a racist jerk, I along with the idiot who made the post and most people I know, would go spend our money somewhere else. Allowing a racist to open a segregated store is not supporting racism. Walking out of a segregated store with a bag full of goodies is.

      1. I wonder how he’d respond if he was accused of supporting [name of procedure omitted] because he wants it to be legal.

        1. When you equate legality with morality…

        2. Or if he supports adultery because he wants it to be legal. Does he support people saying things he disagrees with because he wants it to be legal?

          You support everything you want to be legal, then we’re all guilty of supporting all manner of things we find abhorrent.

          1. Then again, it’s a Salon reader. He probably does support making it illegal for people to disagree with him.

            1. Well, yeah. Disagreement is intolerant, and it is the duty of tolerant people to report intolerance to the nearest authority so the intolerant person can be questioned and reeducated, and euthanized should that prove unsuccessful. In the name of tolerance.

    2. Leftists are generally not worth talking to,or engaging with on any issue.

      There may well be an very rare exception here or there, but overall why bother?

      1. Well, the only way there will ever be libertopia is to convince those assholes there is a better way. So, either engage or resign yourself to statism and a miserable existence.

        1. Most can’t be convinced. They are unbelievably stupid.

          I’m hoping for some tech to come along that allows for low-risk massive tax evasion. That will take a lot of the resources that the state uses away. At that point the leftists’ opinions cease to matter.

          It’s my view that a person’s stated beliefs don’t matter so much against the ability to save money. So regardless of what someone says they value in society if this tech becomes reality and people can save money (and be paid money, and keep it hidden from the authorities) they will do it. Macro effects be damned.

    3. Is that you over there defending the article? If so, cheers!

  7. Abraham Lincoln pardons a woman who was prosecuted for larceny after getting knocked up by her employer and seeking child support.…..b88c2.html

    1. +1 Maury Povich the early years.

      1. I just noticed that he signed this pardon three days before the 1864 election –…..-reelected

    1. He seems to be kind of sarcastic.

      1. Sure, but the line is hilarious.

        ‘If you see strange mucus or feces on the subway or the street or wherever, don’t eat it!’

    2. Did he say anything about semen?

      1. Just don’t eat it if it’s less than 7 weeks old and you’ll be fine.

      2. No, that’s just be cruel. It’s the hobos’ main source of protein.

    3. Irish|10.26.14 @ 8:39PM|#
      “New York TV anchor warns New Yorkers…”

      UC Prof tells people to eat dried dog pee:
      “My response is always, why not eat dog pee?” he said, noting that dog urine is sterile, nontoxic and easily washed off. “The pesticides on greens you buy at the store are far worse for you than dog pee.”…..846111.php

  8. Former NSA cryptographer deciphers coded passages in Confederate officer’s diary…..d=26205158

    1. “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” What a waste of time.

  9. Tunisia holds what appear to be free and fair democratic elections.

    Gee…it’s kind of odd that the Arab Spring nation that America was least involved in ended up having the most successful transition. I feel like there might be a lesson here.

    1. That Tunisia could have had an even more successful transition if we’d intervened?

  10. Amanda Marcotte vs. the New Atheists! Get your tickets now!…..s_partner/

    1. Major feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir argued that belief in God exists in part to “repress any impulse toward revolt in the downtrodden female.”

      Okay…then what about matriarchal religions like the Minoan religion which is mostly based around goddesses?

      It’s almost like Simone de Beauvoir didn’t actually consider many of her arguments because she was a hack whose works are only kept alive by un-scientific feminists who mindlessly believe anything which upholds their worldview.

      I personally love that Marcotte claims to care about science, despite the fact that feminist thinkers are the least scientific of all social scientists. I still remember reading a peer reviewed feminist article where they claimed Romulus of Rome ‘invented patriarchy’ by allowing wife beating…despite the fact that Romulus of Rome is a mythological figure who probably did not exist and even if he did exist patriarchal societies would have pre-dated him.

      These are the ‘pro-science’ people to whom Marcotte deigns to hitch her wagon.

      1. . I still remember reading a peer reviewed feminist article where they claimed Romulus of Rome

        Well, there’s your problem right there.

      2. How’d patriarchy get all the way to China then? Did Marco Polo carry it with him? Does it spread the same way syphilis does?

  11. As states slowly legalize marijuana, hopefully we’ll start to see some drop in prison populations. I suspect this will several years in those states to being to shop up in statistics.

    1. I share your hope, and agree that it will take time. It will take time because the number crunchers will require time to come up with statistics that show how legalization is causing a jump in this, that, or the other thing, and should be immediately repealed.

      For example the cops, not burdened with hunting down druggies, start going after crime with actual victims. Prosecution of violent crimes and property crimes goes up, which means the crime rate went up thanks to legalization! It’s the dopers’ fault! We need to shift our efforts from crimes with victims to victimless crime because it prevents crime!

      1. Keep that up and the DEA, and several sherif’s will throwing consulting money at you for their Anti-legalization campaigns.

    2. If pot were totally legal everywhere I also think it would have a very positive impact on the economy. The reason for this is because a large number of non-violent drug offenders are currently being imprisoned or having their lives ruined due to weed. It costs money to keep them locked up and I’m sure a shitload of people arrested for weed end up on the dole because other options are precluded because of their pot arrests.

      Not arresting such people would A) cause a drop in spending due to no longer having such people on welfare or in prison and B) would cause them to engage in the work force thus increasing productivity.

      Of course, this is all assuming the government doesn’t decide to start arresting people for some other victimless crime, and I know better than to make such assumptions.

      1. They’ll probably focus on some periphery aspect of drug sales… Then just short cut right to asset forfeiture

      2. How many people are locked up for personal possession? That ended years ago and now these people are in prison for multiple instances of distribution. Many are dealing other drugs at the same time. I doubt because of that you would see the reduction you think you would. The Mexican cartels will still be bringing it in to undercut the legal stuff just like moonshine still exists.

        Drug distribution by extremely violent people isn’t victimless.

        1. Clearly something is broken when a Missouri man named Jeff Mizanskey can be sentenced to die in prison for purchasing seven pounds of marijuana. With two nonviolent marijuana convictions already on his record, Jeff received life without parole under Missouri’s three strikes law.

          And Mizanskey is hardly the only one.

          Just as he fell into the abyss of our nation’s failed drug policies and excessive sentencing laws, millions more have sat in jails and prisons, often for years, even decades on end, for low-level drug and property offenses.

          Care to retract your statement?

          Also, drug distribution would be a victimless crime were it not for the violence created in the drug distribution system by forcing it into a black market. There is a reason why alcohol distribution was incredibly violent during prohibition and isn’t today.

          Again, would you like to reconsider your argument?

        2. MarkinLA-

          Drug distribution by extremely violent people isn’t victimless.

          So, maybe you could arrest them for their violent acts…

          I’ve sold a ton* of pot in my life without ever resorting to violence. At some points, I’ve also sold LSD, mescaline, methaqualone, and various benzodiazepines.

          No violence needed.

          *In 1995, I literally sold more than 2000 lbs of pot. The closest I ever got to “violence” was the cop that pulled me over with 50 lbs in the trunk- because my “temp tag” had blown loose of my back window.

        3. So should car dealers who sell SUVs be prosecuted for their contribution to oil-related violence in the middle east? Narcotics may well be an inherently violent industry, but then wouldn’t it make sense to after the ones actually causing the violence, murderers and such? If anything, long sentences for sellers incentivizes violence: if you’re going away for life for getting caught anyway just for dealing, then why not kill off all your competition and not care if a few civilians get caught in the crossfire?

    3. Cops will just switch their focus to other drugs.

      Arresting the generally non-violent will always be easier than protecting people from actual violent people.

      1. ^ Yup. Mark Steyn often talks about the fact that the government spends more time attacking ‘soft targets’ than actual dangers specifically because the soft targets pay just as well and allow just as much exercise of authority without actually placing the government agent in any danger.

        Cops would always rather deal with a pothead than a serial killer.

  12. Jerry Brown is a special kind of awful ‘the law and order liberal’

    Jello had this mofo pegged decades ago!

    Fortunately here in a libertarian leaning Washington state we’ve had citizen initiative to overcome statist liberals and legalize marijuana

    The anticop idiot bigorati a la Sloopy (iirc? Might have been sarcasm android) have been completely wrong in the predictive ability proclaiming that the Feds would interfere when in fact I was right and they have been Mostlyly hands off

    Booya Liberty!

    1. Booya to those who have credibility and don’t post as someone they aren’t.

      1. I really enjoyed your speech on money.

  13. Call me naive, but I’m not understanding why the prison guard unions would want prisons to be overcrowded. Doesn’t that make their jobs harder?

    1. Complaining about how hard your job is is a basic negotiating ploy to raise your wage.

    2. Merrill Hess|10.26.14 @ 10:35PM|#
      “Call me naive, but I’m not understanding why the prison guard unions would want prisons to be overcrowded. Doesn’t that make their jobs harder?”

      Not once you get 10 more union members hired.

    3. It increases and guarantees full employment, dues paying members etc.

    1. Except he left out Lenin’s attempt to systematize industrial labor much as Taylor did.

  14. my co-worker’s mother makes $71 /hr on the laptop . She has been unemployed for 9 months but last month her payment was $17334 just working on the laptop for a few hours. published here

  15. Oh this is hilarious!!!

    Giant shitshow is more like it, the SJWs are all over it. This will get ugly.

  16. Why do they play the droning monotonal music in the background while people are talking? Will someone tell me?

  17. Can you have some spare time to sit back in your chair having your laptop with you and making some money online for some interesting online work said Jenny Francis in the party last nightsee more what is for you there to increase your pocket money??.

  18. I’m continually disappointed that journalists do not point out that the overcrowding statistics are based on a single cell incarceration plan, while it has become the norm virtually everywhere to double cell. Single cell versus double cell can be argued, but the point is that the 140% overcrowding number implies that prisons are stuffing 40% more bodies into the cells. Most cells are actually designed for double cell use, so the numbers are actually saying that a large number of inmates now have a room to themselves. Not a happy situation any way you look at it, but not the sardine like picture that “140% overcrowding” suggests.

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