Analysis: LAO raises concerns over latest California prison ‘realignment’ blueprint

Severe overcrowding have forced prison officials to house inmates in gymnasiums using makeshift beds. (Above) California Institution for Men. SOURCE: California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

A report released by the Legislative Analyst’s Office this week raised concerns over the cost and legal uncertainties surrounding the latest prison ‘realignment’ plan submitted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

Severe overcrowding have forced prison officials to house inmates in gymnasiums using makeshift beds. (Above) California Institution for Men. SOURCE: California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

While the LAO’s report was generally supportive of the proposals outlined in CDCR’s April realignment blueprint, the analysts questioned the department’s plan to build 3 new prison expansions at a higher cost but would yield fewer beds than converting juvenile and women’s detention facilities to hold male inmates.

The expansions are part of the department’s efforts to comply with federal court orders to reduce its prison population and improve access to medical, dental, and mental health services for inmates.

In the blueprint, state prison officials proposed canceling constructions of all reentry facilities – including the Northern California Reentry Facility (NCRF) in San Joaquin County, Estrella Facility in Paso Robles, and the Stark Facility in Chino – as well as closing the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

“[Norco is] the least efficient, most expensive, one of our least safe, oldest prisons, and it’s appropriate at this time to begin to think about moving out of those facilities that are so expensive to run,” said CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate.

Cate said the canceled construction programs would reduce state borrowings by $4.1 billion (out of the $6 billion prison construction bond authorized under AB 900) and save another $2.2 billion in debt service and additional operational costs every year.

Instead, the department has proposed adding 3 low-security infill facilities at existing prisons (to be determined) and converting the Valley State Prison for Women to a male facility, and renovating the DeWitt Annex next to the New California Health Care Facility in Stockton. The new infill facilities would incorporate a “flexible design” that would allow the state to comply with federally-mandated American Disability Act, mental health, and substance abuse care requirements as well as house general population inmates in the future. CDCR is seeking $810 million to construct the infill projects.

But the LAO pointed out that the cost per bed for the infill facilities are considerably higher than the cancelled construction projects. For example, the construction cost per square foot at the infill facilities is estimated to be $1,000 whereas the cost per square foot at the cancelled Estrella, Northern Reentry, and Stark facilities range from $300 to under $700.

“There are some important advantages to constructing new facilities—such as ability to incorporate modern design standards and longer life of the facility—and that the proposed infill projects would have the operational benefit of including sufficient programming space to be used flexibly for different types of inmate programs. However, it is uncertain whether these advantages are worth the substantially higher construction costs,” the report concluded.

The LAO estimated that, if approved, the infill projects will add another $76 million in debt service costs to the state. At the same time, CDCR’s new proposal would actually result in 2,000 fewer beds than if the department had moved forward with the original construction plans. The LAO argued that CDCR’s infill projects would actually hamper the department’s efforts to reduce prison overcrowding ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld a three-judge panel’s decision to require California to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 – or 137.5 of design capacity – by June 2013. In addition, the courts ordered the state to improve inmate access to medical (Plata v. Brown), dental (Perez v. Brown), and mental health services (Coleman v. Brown) after decades of litigations.

The court orders were prompted by the dangerous and inhumane conditions that have caused “needless suffering” and deaths of inmates as a result of chronic and severe overcrowding. For example, the lack of mental health beds in California’s prisons have prompted prison officials to place suicidal inmates in “telephone-booth sized cages without toilets” for hours on end. In an instance cited by the Supreme Court, “a psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic. Prison officials explained they had ‘no place to put him.'”

Forced to finally address the severe prison overcrowding following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata, Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators passed AB 109 the “Public Safety Realignment” bill. The legislation shifted parole supervisions of low-level felons to counties and local governments. In addition, people convicted of non-violent and less serious crimes (i.e. drug offenses) after Oct. 1, 2011 will serve their sentences in county or local jails.

Read more: California attempts to fix broken prison system with ‘realignment’

The realignment would reduce the state prison populations and allow the state to focus resources on the incarceration and parole oversight of serious, violent, and sexual offenders. In exchange, local governments would receive additional state funding to carry out their new responsibilities. (Brown’s tax measure on November’s ballot would provide guaranteed realignment funding for local governments by temporarily increasing sales and income taxes.)

Read more: CA Gov. Jerry Brown files tax initiative to avoid deeper cuts to education & public safety

Cate pointed out that alternatives to realignment approach are mass release of prisoners or construction of 9 new prisons at a cost of $7.5 billion, $550 million in debt service, and $1.6 billion in operational costs.

Since the realignment took effect last October, the state has met or exceeded the court ordered benchmarks. Cate said the updated blueprint would build on the realignment’s success. In addition to the Dewitt and infill construction projects, CDCR has proposed other reform measures to address the overcrowding, prison safety, and cost concerns:

  • Modifying the inmate classification system to shift about 17,000 inmates from higher-level security facilities to down to moderate and low-level security facilities. “We’ve been over-classifying inmates and having them in higher security levels than were necessary. Now, that was because of overcrowding. It makes everything we do more difficult, including providing safety and security,” said Cate. Properly reclassifying prison inmates would result in “even crowding across the prison system” and safer operations, he said.
  • Establishing new standardized baselines for prison staffing. The staffing level would remain at the baseline unless there is a significant increase or decrease in prisoner population to justify adding more staff or closing down housing units.
  • Transferring inmates back to California from out-of-state prisons. “Currently, we have 9,500 inmates in prisons in Mississippi and Oklahoma and Arizona at a cost to Californian taxpayers of over $300 million,” Cate said. “Over the course of the next 4 years, we plan to bring those inmates back to California, creating jobs here, letting the inmates be closer to their families, which is important for rehabilitation and saving dollars.”
  • Increasing funding for rehabilitation programs to treat inmates for substance abuse and mental health problems and improving parolee access to aftercare to reduce recidivism. “I would tell you that rehabilitation has been my deepest disappointment as Secretary of Corrections for the last 4 years,” said Cate. “We have seen massive reductions in rehabilitation spending and massive reductions in programs. Currently, we have approximately only 1,500 substance abuse slots in all of California’s prisons. It’s unacceptable to the Governor; it’s unacceptable to me. And so, with this program, we will be able to make a small reinvestment for the first time in our rehabilitative programs.” While less than 15% of the current inmates receive rehabilitative services, Cate said the new realignment plan would increase the funding needed to give 70% of the inmates the necessary rehabilitative care based on their crimogenic needs.
  • Continuing to meet the requirements of the three-judge panel to provide the constitutionally-required medical, dental, and mental health care to inmates in order to end the federal oversight of California prison operations. “It’s our goal to get out of all of our health care-related court oversight by the end of 2013. Now those are big plans and there’s still much to do,” said Cate.

But even as Cate touted the progress achieved under realignment and improvements in the updated blueprint, he admitted that the state will still fall short of meeting the federal court’s 137.5% design capacity benchmark by June 2013. CDCR’s projection showed that the state will reach only 141% of design capacity even if all goes well. That will put the state over by about 2,900 inmates, averaging about 100 more inmates than the quota allowed in each of the 33 state prisons.

Cate said the state will ask the court to increase California’s prison population cap to 145% of design capacity, allowing the state to house about 5,900 more inmates above the 137.5% cap to accommodate future population growth and ensure a “stable prison system” over time.

“Our plan is to demonstrate…the state’s competence and commitment to handle our inmate population and our inmate patients with all due care and that we can meet constitutional standards at 145% of design capacity,” said Cate. “The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that time and experience may reveal that we can provide constitutional care at a higher density level and has suggested that we move the three-judge panel for modification if that is the case. We plan to do just that.”

Cate indicated that CDCR would file the cap request either late this year or by spring of 2013.

“We’re going to wait to file until we feel like we can make our best case, and so we want to get this plan through,” he said. “We have a lot of implementation work to do over the next 6 to 9 months.”

The LAO report criticized the department for not offering back-up plans in the event the court denies the cap increase.

“The administration’s plan is dependent on the federal court approving a requested increase in the population cap to 145 percent of design capacity. However, it is uncertain whether the court will approve the increased population cap,” the reported pointed out. “The administration is asking the Legislature to approve components of its plan without any indication of when it will seek the court’s approval of the increased population cap.”

Given the legal uncertainties in CDCR’s proposal, the LAO recommended legislators to reject the proposed DeWitt conversion and infill projects and transfer fewer prisoners held in out-of-state facilities back to California in the event that the court rejects CDCR’s cap increase.

 

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3 Comments on “Analysis: LAO raises concerns over latest California prison ‘realignment’ blueprint

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