Source: The Atlantic Monthly
Copyright: 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company 
Pubdate: Dec 1998
Volume: 282, No. 6; pages 51 - 77 
Website: Author: Eric Schlosser



ABOUT 200 inmates were in the A yard at New Folsom when I visited not long
ago. They were playing soft-ball and handball, sitting on rocks, standing
in small groups, smoking, laughing, jogging around the perimeter. Three
unarmed correctional officers casually kept an eye on things, like
elementary school teachers during recess. The yard was about 300 feet long
and 250 feet wide, with more dirt than grass, and it was hot, baking hot.
The heat of the sun bounced off the gray concrete walls enclosing the yard.
"These are the sensitive guys," a correctional officer told me, describing
the men in Facility A. Most of them had killed, raped, committed armed
robberies, or misbehaved at other prisons, but now they were trying to stay
out of trouble. Some were former gang members; some were lifers because of
a third strike; some were getting too old for prison violence; some were in
protective custody because of their celebrity, their snitching, or their
previous occupation. A few of the inmates on the yard were former police
officers. As word spread that I was a journalist, groups of inmates
followed me and politely approached, eager to talk. Lieutenant Billy
Mayfield, New Folsom's press officer, graciously kept his distance,
allowing the prisoners to speak freely.

"I shouldn't be here" was a phrase I heard often, followed by an
impassioned story about the unfairness of the system. I asked each inmate
how many of the other men in the yard deserved to be locked up in this
prison, and the usual response was "These guys? Man, you wouldn't believe
some of these guys; at least two thirds of them should be here." Behind the
need to blame others for their predicament and the refusal to accept
responsibility, behind all the denial, lay an enormous anger, one that
seemed far more intense than the typical inmate complaints about the food
or the behavior of certain officers. Shirtless, sweating, unshaven, covered
in tattoos, one inmate after another described the rage that was growing
inside New Folsom. The weights had been taken away; no more conjugal visits
for inmates who lacked a parole date; not enough help for the inmates who
were crazy, really crazy; not enough drug treatment, when the place was
full of junkies; not enough to do -- a list of grievances magnified by the
overcrowding into something that felt volatile, ready to go off with the
slightest spark. As I stood in the yard hearing the anger of the sensitive
guys, the inmates in Facility C were locked in their cells, because of a
gang-related stabbing the previous week, and the inmates in Facility B were
being shot with pepper spray to break up a fight.

The acting warden at New Folsom when I visited, a woman named Suzan
Hubbard, began her career as a correctional officer at San Quentin nineteen
years ago. Although she has a degree in social work from the University of
California at Berkeley, Hubbard says that her real education took place at
the "college of San Quentin." She spent a decade at the prison during one
of its most violent and turbulent periods. In her years on the job two
fellow staff members were murdered. Hubbard learned how to develop a firm
but fair relationship with inmates, some of whom were on death row. She
found that contrary to some expectations, women were well suited for work
in a maximum-security prison. Communication skills were extremely important
in such a charged environment; inmates often felt less threatened by women,
less likely to engage in a clash of egos. Hubbard was the deputy warden at
New Folsom on September 27, 1996, when fights broke out in the B yard. At
nine o'clock in the morning she was standing beside her car in the prison
parking lot, and she heard three shots being fired somewhere inside New
Folsom. Everyone in the parking lot froze, waiting for the sound of more
gunfire. After more shots were fired, Hubbard hurried into the prison, made
her way to the B yard, and found it in chaos.

A group of Latino gang members had launched an attack on a group of
African-American gang members, catching them by surprise and stabbing them
with homemade weapons. The fighting soon spread to the other inmates in the
exercise yard, who divided along racial lines. As many as 200 inmates were
involved in the riot. Correctional officers instructed everyone in the yard
to get down; they fired warning shots, rubber bullets, and then live
rounds. When Hubbard arrived at the yard, about a hundred inmates had
dropped to the ground and another hundred were still fighting. The captain
in charge of the unit stood among a group of inmates, telling them, "Sit
down, get down, we'll take care of this." Hubbard and the other officers
circulated in the yard, calling prisoners by name, telling them to get
down. It took thirty minutes to quell the riot. Twelve correctional
officers were injured while trying to separate combatants. Six inmates were
stabbed, and five were shot. Victor Hugo Flores, an inmate serving an
eighteen-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder, was
killed by gunfire.

Hubbard finds working in the California penal system to be stressful but
highly rewarding. She tries to defuse tensions by talking and listening to
the inmates on the yards. She and her officers routinely place themselves
at great risk. Last year 2,583 staff members were assaulted by inmates in
California. Thousands of the inmates are HIV-positive; thousands more carry
hepatitis C. Officers have lately become the target of a new form of
assault by inmates, known as gassing. Being "gassed" means being struck by
a cup or bag containing feces and urine. The California prison system,
especially its Level 4 facilities, is full of warring gangs -- members of
the Crips, the Bloods, the Fresno Bulldogs, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi
Lowriders, the Mexican Mafia, and the Black Guerrilla Family, to name a
few. In addition to the organized violence, there are random acts of
violence. On June 15 of last year a correctional officer was attacked by an
inmate in the infirmary at New Folsom. The officer, Linda Lowery, was
savagely beaten and kicked, receiving severe head wounds. Her attacker was
serving a four-year sentence for assaulting an officer.

California's correctional officers are not always the victims when violence
occurs behind bars; in recent months they have been linked to several
widely publicized acts of brutality. At Pelican Bay State Prison at least
one officer conspired with inmates to arrange assaults on convicted child
molesters. At Corcoran State Prison officers allegedly staged "gladiator
days," in which rival gang members were encouraged to fight, staff members
placed bets on the outcome, and matches often ended with inmates being
shot. As the FBI investigates alleged abuses at Corcoran and allegations of
an official cover-up, correctional officers are feeling misrepresented and
unfairly maligned by the media -- only adding to the tension in
California's prisons.

The level of violence in the California penal system is actually lower
today than it was a decade ago. But the rate of assaults among inmates has
gradually climbed since its low point, in 1991. Studies have linked
double-bunking and prison overcrowding with higher rates of stress-induced
mental disorders, higher rates of aggression, and higher rates of violence.
In the state's Level 4 prisons almost every cell is now double-bunked. The
fact that more bloodshed has not occurred is a testament to the high-tech
design of the new prisons and the skills of their officers. Nevertheless,
Cal Terhune, the director of the California Department of Corrections,
worries about how much more stress the system can bear, and about how long
it can go without another riot. "We're sitting on a very volatile
situation," Terhune says. "Every time the phone rings here, I wonder ..."

THIRTY years ago California was renowned for the liberalism of its
criminal-justice system. In 1968 an inmate bill of rights was signed into
law by Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California. More than any other
state, California was dedicated to the rehabilitative ideal, to the belief
that a prison could take a criminal and "cure" him, set him on the right
path. California's prisons were notable for their many educational and
vocational programs and their group-therapy sessions. In those days every
state in the country had a system of indeterminate prison sentences. The
legislature set the maximum sentence for a crime, and judges and parole
boards tried to make the punishment fit the individual. California's system
was the most indeterminate: the sentence for a given offense might be
anything from probation to life. The broad range of potential sentences
gave enormous power to the parole board, known as the Adult Authority; a
prisoner's release depended on its evaluation of how well his "treatment"
was proceeding. One person might serve ten months and another person ten
years for the same crime.

Although indeterminate sentencing had many flaws, one of its virtues was
that it gave the state a means of controlling the size of the prison
population. If prisons grew too full, the parole board could release
inmates who no longer seemed to pose a threat to public safety. Governor
Reagan used the Adult Authority to reduce the size of California's inmate
population, giving thousands of prisoners an early release and closing one
of the state's prisons. By the mid-1970s, however, the Adult Authority had
come under attack from an unusual coalition of liberals, prisoners, and
conservative advocates of law and order. Liberals thought that the Adult
Authority discriminated against minorities, making them serve longer
sentences. Prisoners thought that it was unfair; after all, they were still
in prison. Conservatives thought that it was too soft, allowing too many
criminals back on the street too soon. And no one put much faith in the
rehabilitative effects of prison. In 1971 seventeen inmates and seven staff
members were killed in California prisons. The following year thirty-five
inmates and one staff member were killed.

California was one of the first states in the nation to get rid of
indeterminate sentencing. The state's new law required inmates to serve the
sentence handed down by the judge, with an allowance for "good time," which
might reduce a prison term by half. The law also amended the section of the
state's penal code that declared the ultimate goals of imprisonment: the
word "rehabilitation" was replaced by the word "punishment." In 1976 the
bill was endorsed and signed into law by a liberal Democrat, Governor Jerry

As liberalism gave way to demands for law and order, California judges
began to send a larger proportion of convicted felons to prison and to give
longer sentences. The inmate population started to grow. Sentencing
decisions made at the county level, by local prosecutors and judges, soon
had a major impact on the state budget, which covered the costs of
incarceration. Tax cuts mandated by Proposition 13 meant that county
governments were strapped for funds and could not maintain local jails
properly or pay for community-based programs that administered alternative
sentences. Offenders who might once have been sent to a local jail or a
halfway house were now sent to a state prison. California's
criminal-justice system slowly but surely spun out of control. The state
legislature passed hundreds of bills that required tough new sentences, but
did not adequately provide for their funding. Judges sent people to prison
without giving any thought to where the state would house them. And the
Department of Corrections was left to handle the flood of new inmates,
unable to choose how many it would accept or how many it would let go.

In 1977 the inmate population of California was 19,600. Today it is
159,000. After spending $5.2 billion on prison construction over the past
fifteen years, California now has not only the largest but also the most
overcrowded prison system in the United States. The state Department of
Corrections estimates that it will need to spend an additional $6.1 billion
on prisons over the next decade just to maintain the current level of
overcrowding. And the state's jails are even more overcrowded than its
prisons. In 1996 more than 325,000 inmates were released early from
California jails in order to make room for offenders arrested for
more-serious crimes. According to a report this year by the state's Little
Hoover Commission, in many counties offenders who are convicted of a crime
and given sentences of less than ninety days will not even be sent to jail.
The state's backlog of arrest warrants now stands at about 2.6 million --
the number of arrests that have not been made, the report says, largely
because there's no room in the jails. According to one official estimate,
counties will need to spend $2.4 billion over the next ten years to build
more jails -- again, simply to maintain the current level of overcrowding.

The extraordinary demand for new prison and jail cells in California has
diverted funds from other segments of the criminal-justice system, creating
a vicious circle. The failure to spend enough on relatively inexpensive
sanctions, such as drug treatment and probation, has forced the state to
increase spending on prisons. Only a fifth of the felony convictions in
California now lead to a prison sentence. The remaining four fifths are
usually punished with a jail sentence, a term of probation, or both. But
the jails have no room, and the huge caseloads maintained by most probation
officers often render probation meaningless. An ideal caseload is about
twenty-five to fifty offenders; some probation officers in California today
have a caseload of 3,000 offenders. More than half the state's offenders on
probation will most likely serve their entire term without ever meeting or
even speaking with a probation officer. Indeed, the only obligation many
offenders on probation must now fulfill is mailing a postcard that gives
their home address.

California parole officers, too, are overwhelmed by their caseloads. The
state's inmate population is not only enormous but constantly changing.
Last year California sent about 140,000 people to prison -- and released
about 132,000. On average, inmates spend two and a half years behind bars,
and then serve a term of one to three years on parole. During the 1970s
each parole agent handled about forty-five parolees; today each agent
handles about twice that number. The money that the state has saved by not
hiring enough new parole agents is insignificant compared with the expense
of sending parole violators back to prison.

About half the California prisoners released on parole are illiterate.
About 85 percent are substance abusers. Under the terms of their parole,
they are subjected to periodic drug tests. But they are rarely offered any
opportunity to get drug treatment. Of the approximately 130,000 substance
abusers in California's prisons, only 3,000 are receiving treatment behind
bars. Only 8,000 are enrolled in any kind of pre-release program to help
them cope with life on the outside. Violent offenders, who need such
programs most of all, are usually ineligible for them. Roughly 124,000
inmates are simply released from prison each year in California, given
nothing more than $200 and a bus ticket back to the county where they were
convicted. At least 1,200 inmates every year go from a secure housing unit
at a Level 4 prison -- an isolation unit, designed to hold the most violent
and dangerous inmates in the system -- right onto the street. One day these
predatory inmates are locked in their cells for twenty-three hours at a
time and fed all their meals through a slot in the door, and the next day
they're out of prison, riding a bus home.

Almost two thirds of the people sent to prison in California last year were
parole violators. Of the roughly 80,000 parole violators returned to
prison, about 60,000 had committed a technical violation, such as failing a
drug test; about 15,000 had committed a property or a drug crime; and about
3,000 had committed a violent crime, frequently a robbery to buy drugs. The
gigantic prison system that California has built at such great expense has
essentially become a revolving door for poor, highly dysfunctional, and
often illiterate drug abusers. They go in, they get out, they get sent
back, and every year there are more. The typical offender being sent to
prison in California today has five prior felony convictions.

THE California legislature has not authorized a new bond issue for prison
construction since 1992, deadlocked over the cost. Meanwhile, the state's
"Three Strikes, You're Out" law has been steadily filling prison cells with
long-term inmates. Don Novey, the head of the California Correctional Peace
Officers Association (CCPOA), helped to gain passage of the law. He now
worries that if California's prison system becomes much more overcrowded, a
federal judge may order a large-scale release of inmates. Novey has
proposed keeping some nonviolent offenders out of prison, allowing judges
to give them suspended sentences and a term of probation instead. He has
also advocated a way to save money while expanding the penal system:build
"mega-prisons." California already builds and operates the biggest prisons
in the United States. A number of California prisons now hold more than
6,000 inmates -- about sixtimes the nationwide average. The mega-prisons
proposed by the CCPOA would house up to 20,000 inmates. A few new
mega-prisons, Novey says, could satisfy California's demand for new cells
into the next century.

Correctional officials see prison overcrowding as grounds for worry about
potential riots, bloodshed, and court orders; others see opportunity. "It
has become clear over the past several months," Doctor R. Crants said
earlier this year, "that California is one of the most promising markets
CCA has, with a burgeoning need for secure, cost-effective prison beds at
all levels of government." In order to get a foothold in that market, CCA
announced it would build three prisons in California entirely on spec --
that is, without any contract to fill them. "If you build it in the right
place," a CCA executive told The Wall Street Journal, "the prisoners will
come." Crants boasted to the Tennessean that California's private-prison
industry will be dominated by "CCA alone." Executives at Wackenhut
Corrections think otherwise. Wackenhut already houses almost 2,000 of
California's minimum-security inmates at facilities in the state. The
legislature has recently adopted plans to house an additional 2,000
minimum-security inmates in private prisons. Wackenhut and CCA have opened
offices in Sacramento and hired expensive lobbyists. The CCPOA vows to
fight hard against the private-prison companies and their anti-union
tactics. "They can build whatever prisons they want," Don Novey says. "But
the hell if they're going to run them." One of the new CCA prisons is
rising in the Mojave Desert outside California City, at a cost of about
$100 million. The company is gambling that cheap, empty prison beds will
prove irresistible to California lawmakers. The new CCA facility promises
to be a boon to California City once the inmates start arriving. The town
has been hit hard by layoffs at Edwards Air Force Base, which is nearby.
Mayor Larry Adams, asked why he wanted a prison, said, "We're a desperate


ALEXIS de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is one of the most famous
books ever written about the politics and culture of the United States. The
original purpose of Tocqueville's 1831 journey to this country is less well
known. He came to tour its prisons on behalf of the French government. The
United States at the time was renowned in Europe for having created a whole
new social institution: the penitentiary. In New York and Pennsylvania
prisons were being designed not to punish inmates but to reform them.
Solitary confinement, silence, and hard work were imposed in order to
encourage spiritual and moral change. At some penitentiaries officials
placed hoods over the heads of newcomers to isolate them from other
inmates. After visiting American prisons Tocqueville and his traveling
companion, Gustave de Beaumont, wrote that social reformers in the United
States had been swept up in "the monomania of the penitentiary system,"
convinced that prisons were "a remedy for all the evils of society."

The historian David J. Rothman, author of The Discovery of the Asylum
(1971), has noted one of the ironies of America's early-nineteenth-century
fondness for prisons. The idea of the penitentiary took hold at the height
of Jacksonian democracy, when freedom and the spirit of the common man were
being widely celebrated. "At the very moment that Americans began to pride
themselves on the openness of their society, when the boundless frontier
became the symbol of opportunity and equality," Rothman observes, "notions
of total isolation, unquestioned obedience, and severe discipline became
the hallmarks of the captive society." More than a century and a half later
political rhetoric about small government and the virtues of the free
market is being accompanied by an eagerness to deny others their freedom.
The hoods now placed on inmates in the isolation units at maximum-security
prisons are not intended to rehabilitate. They are designed to protect
correctional officers from being bitten or spat upon.

The standard justification for today's prisons is that they prevent crime.
The rate of violent crime in the United States has indeed been declining
since 1991. The political scientist James Q. Wilson, among many others,
believes that the recent rise in the nation's incarceration rate has been
directly responsible for the decrease in violent crime. Although the
validity of the theory seems obvious (murderers and rapists who are behind
bars can no longer kill and rape ordinary citizens), it is difficult to
prove. Michael Tonry, a professor of law and public policy at the
University of Minnesota, is an expert on international sentencing policies
and an advocate of alternative punishments for nonviolent offenders. He
acknowledges that the imprisonment of almost two million Americans has
prevented some crimes from being committed. "You could choose another two
million Americans at random and lock them up," Tonry says, "and that would
reduce the number of crimes too." But demographics and larger cultural
trends may be responsible for most of the decline in violent crime. Over
the past decade Canada's incarceration rate has risen only slightly.
Nevertheless, the rate of violent crime in Canada has been falling since
1991. Last year the homicide rate fell by nine percent. The Canadian murder
rate has now reached its lowest level since 1969.

Christopher Stone, the head of New York's Vera Institute of Justice,
believes that prisons can be "factories for crime." The average inmate in
the United States spends only two years in prison. What happens during that
time behind bars may affect how he or she will behave upon release. The
lesson being taught in most American prisons -- where violence, extortion,
and rape have long been routine -- is that the strong will always rule the
weak. Inmates who display the slightest hint of vulnerability quickly
become prey. During the 1950s and 1960s prison gangs were formed in
California and Illinois as a means of self-protection. Those gangs have now
spread nationwide. The Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood have gained
power in Texas prisons. The Gangsta Killer Bloods and the Sex Money Murder
Bloods have emerged in New York prisons. America's prisons now serve as
networking and recruiting centers for gang members. The differences between
street gangs and prison gangs have become less distinct. The leaders of
prison gangs increasingly direct illegal activity both inside and outside.
A 1996 investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that gangs had gained
extraordinary control over the state prisons in Illinois: formal classes at
the Stateville prison law library had taught the history and rules of the
Maniac Latin Disciples; a leader of the Gangster Disciples had at various
times kept cellular phones, a color television, a stereo, a Nintendo Game
Boy, a portable washing machine, and up to a hundred pounds of marijuana in
his cell. Many of the customs, slang, and tattoos long associated with
prison gangs have become fashionable among young people. In cities
throughout America, the culture of the prisons is rapidly becoming the
culture of the streets.

The spirit of every age is manifest in its public works, in the great
construction projects that leave an enduring mark on the landscape. During
the early years of this century the Panama Canal became President Theodore
Roosevelt's legacy, a physical expression of his imperial yearnings. The
New Deal faith in government activism left behind huge dams and bridges,
post offices decorated with murals, power lines that finally brought
electricity to rural America. The interstate highway system fulfilled
dreams of the Eisenhower era, spreading suburbia far and wide; urban
housing projects for the poor were later built in the hopes of creating a
Great Society.

"The era of big government is over," President Bill Clinton declared in
1996 -- an assertion that has proved false in at least one respect. A
recent issue of "Construction Report," a monthly newsletter published by
Correctional Building News, provides details of the nation's latest public
works: a 3,100-bed jail in Harris County, Texas; a 500-bed medium-security
prison in Redgranite, Wisconsin; a 130-bed minimum-security facility in
Oakland County, Michigan; two 200-bed housing pods at the Fort Dodge
Correctional Facility, in Iowa; a 350-bed juvenile correctional facility in
Pendleton, Indiana; and dozens more. The newsletter includes the telephone
numbers of project managers, so that prison-supply companies can call and
make bids. All across the country new cellblocks rise. And every one of
them, every brand-new prison, becomes another lasting monument, concrete
and ringed with deadly razor wire, to the fear and greed and political
cowardice that now pervade American society. 
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Checked-by: Richard Lake