Despite realignment efforts, numbers are still high in California’s women’s prisons

January 31, 2013

The state of California is nearing a court-imposed deadline to reduce overcrowding in its prisons, which the US Supreme Court said amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.” Nearly 133,000 adults are currently incarcerated in 33 state prisons – down from 160,000 seven years ago. But some women’s prisons remain overcrowded, and some experts say that it will take changes at the sentencing level and dedicated funding for alternatives to incarceration to break the state’s longstanding imprisonment habit. From Oakland, FSRN’s Puck Lo reports.



It’s been more than a year and a half since the US Supreme Court mandated that California shrink its prison population by a fifth and improve its prison health care system in order to end “needless suffering and death.” The state responded to the ruling by implementing what’s called “realignment,” or sending low level offenders to prosecution at the county jail level instead.

Harris: So now if somebody is sentenced to a non-serious, nonviolent crime at the county level they aren’t going to be sent to state prison. So they will be either sent to county jail or put onto some type of community supervision at the county level.

That’s Emily Harris from Californians United for a Responsible Budget – or CURB. She says the effects of realignment are mixed. On one hand, there are about 30,000 fewer people in the state prisons. But the prisons are still over capacity and need to reduce the population by 20,000 people to meet court orders. Health care is improving inside the prison system. But it’s still not up to constitutional standards, Harris said.

Harris: Yes, things have changed in California – but we still have a long way to go.

The state also authorized more than $350 million to be shared over a one year period amongst local judges, district attorneys, sheriffs, probation officers and rehabilitation service providers. But there are 58 counties in California… and with no rules for how to use realignment funds, Harris says the money isn’t making it to community-based services.

Harris: Really what realignment has resulted in is a money grab at the county level for sheriffs. So sheriffs are padding their pocket books so they can keep the resources, they can hire more deputies, they can build more jail beds. 

UC Berkeley law professor, Barry Krisberg, says it’s the first time in 40 years that he’s seen a criminal justice program implemented without any oversight.

Krisberg: The governor and legislature by design created no accountability. So there is a body that meets and, I guess, talks. But has no authority either to monitor and assess the spending of the money, or in fact evaluate how the counties are – what kind of programs they’re using.

Under realignment, counties have flexibility to create alternatives to incarceration. That could range from home detention using GPS bracelets, to addiction treatment programs and community service. But the ACLU’S Allen Hopper found at least 32 counties plan to use realignment funds or other tax dollars to expand jail capacity.

Hopper: Realignment is certainly a step in the right direction. But it didn’t address at all this underlying question of the length of people’s sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenses. And until we tackle that problem and approach it with an open mind and until our political leaders are willing to stand up to law enforcement who lobby against these changes, we’re not going to solve the overcrowding problem, and in fact we’re simply going to replicate it at the county level.

Realignment also hasn’t helped reduce overcrowding at all state prisons. At Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, the prison’s capacity was 187 percent last week. But Dana Simas, spokesperson for California’s Department of Corrections, said that facility is not overcrowded.

Simas: The population reduction order was meant for us to get to a level where the court felt we could provide adequate health care to inmates. Well, with the improvements that we’ve made, and the hiring that we’ve done in our medical, mental health and dental units, we feel that with those improvements, along with the population reduction that we’ve had, we can meet that constitutional level of health care at the capacity that we’re operating now.

ambient from rally

At a recent rally in Chowchilla, hundreds of former prisoners, family members and activists gathered to demand the state improve conditions and fund alternatives to incarceration. They said that medical care inside the prisons was still far from adequate.

Krys: The people who had medical problems there – a lot of them are just neglected. They have cancer, or something serious and they don’t get their meds…

Krys, who only goes by one name, spoke to a cheering crowd outside the women’s prison.

Krys: You have those doctors or those nurses who look out for you, but then you have the ones who come on the next shift and then you don’t receive what you need.

After serving 12 years for stealing a car and illegally carrying a gun, Krys was released in May.

Krys: They take youth out of the streets and put them in these walls to do nothing. Yes, you can get an education if you take this class, if you stay write-up free, if you do this, if you do that… but in the meantime, they’re not dealing with the problem. The problem is that most of the people who are in there are in some type of pain. Their family has been hurt in some type of way. They have been hurt in some type of way. They felt like they had to hurt because somebody hurt them in some type of way. It’s a lot of pain that just ventures around this place. And that’s what people fail to realize.

Advocates want the state to release some 4,500 women the department had initially said would qualify for an early release program back in September 2011. Although the corrections department says they can’t move any faster and still maintain public safety, policy analyst Krisberg disagrees.

Krisberg: The Department of Corrections have created all kinds of innovative barriers to actually moving women into these programs. For example, they were excluding women who had restraining orders out – which seems to me makes no sense. We’re penalizing someone who’s a victim. They were excluding women who had health problems. There’s again a series of rules they’re made up that bear no relationship to good correctional policy.

In early January California governor Jerry Brown asked federal judges to lift the population ban on state prisons. On Tuesday, federal judges granted a six-month extension, giving the state until December 31 to bring its prison population down. But Governor Brown and California’s Department of Corrections want the state to lift the cap permanently – a request experts say is unlikely to be granted.

Puck Lo, FSRN, Oakland.