California prison overcrowding, in photos

Mmechanic sends us Mother Jones's "slideshow of some of the photos that convinced the Supreme Court to order the corrections department to unload some 30,000 of its prisoners."
Writing on behalf of the court's five-vote majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that this unprecedented measure had become the only way to remedy the "serious" and "uncorrected" constiutional violations against inmates in the state's correctional facilities, particularly the sick and mentally ill. "For years the medical and mental health care provided by California's prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners' basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result," he wrote. "Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding." His decision included vivid examples of the problem, from open dorms so packed they can't be effectively monitored, to suicidal inmates "held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets."
California's Jam-Packed Prisons (Thanks, Mmechanic!)


  1. In the very old days punishment for many crimes was a period of slavery to the victim for restitution. This was messy having a known criminal employed in your service so people rented them to work houses or similar.

    Today prison is a business, corporations have made a prison complex that rivals the military and makes legalizing drugs and other forms of decriminalization nearly impossible due to their lobbying power and campaign contributions.

    1. i agree completely rebdav. looking at those pictures one wonders how many of those people were in for smoking the flowers and eating the mushrooms.

      There’s just not enough folks that really want to do bad enough things so that they need to be kept in cages. The government/ruling class/prison industry keep inventing more laws and more criminals.

  2. Absolutely despicable that we treat humans like animals we feed on. In before, “but their criminals and they deserve it”.

  3. I love the people who still say CA is too soft on crime (from reading comments on news sites). WOW. Really, you don’t have enough prisoners already? The idiotic 3 strikes law isn’t draconian enough? You have people going in for life for shoplifting because of it.

    If you are wealthy you can always pay your “lawyer fee” and not have to serve time. The rest of us fewer choices.

    1. It’s called the industrial prison machine. The more prisoners the US has (and we have more than ANY country in the world and that includes More than Russia and China!) the more cheap labor imdusties have. Seriously, it’s the only reason the US can compete on ANY level in manufacturing.

  4. They wouldn’t have to release anyone if the court stopped unconstitutionally upholding the conviction/incarceration of people possessing a PLANT!

  5. I’m not going to get into whether or not those people should be in the prison or not, but what’s really wrong with the accommodations? Do you want them to have king size beds and private suites? Maybe that’s going a bit far, but if the jail had each person in a private cell that was 15×15, people would complain that criminals have it too easy. Those accommodations are no worse than what Cool Hand Luke had when he was working on the chain gang for vandalizing a parking meter. Sure there may be too many people in prisons, and that might be brought upon by privatized jails, but there’s nothing wrong with putting people up in barracks style rooms. If it’s OK for the Army, it should be ok for prisoners.

    1. In the Army they don’t have to worry about being shanked by their fellow soldiers. The private prison system has turned into a way for companies to milk tax dollars. It takes welfare recipients and turns them into an article of trade.

    2. Isn’t prison also supposed to rehabilitate people? Do you think the people with mental disorders are getting any better by standing up in a phone booth cage while they wait for 12 months for an appointment with a counselor?

      What does this say about us as humans? To treat each other worse than zoo animals? And do they all “deserve” the same harsh treatment? Does someone serving time for California’s 3-strikes drug offenses deserve to be in pillbox with hardened murderers and rapists?

      I think it’s real important not to check humanity at the door when viewing these images and reading what the conditions are really like.

      Prison isn’t supposed to be fun–but neither should it be a circle of Dante’s inferno.

      1. Isn’t prison also supposed to rehabilitate people?

        Whether or not one believes that it ought to varies from person to person (and offender to offender, some are better candidates for rehab than others).

        Regardless of how we think it ought to work though, the actuality is that prisons function mostly as something to fear.

        The system is such that if I expected to go into it, I think I’d seriously consider becoming a homeless drifter on the run from the law for whatever remained of my life than spend time in a US prison.

    3. If it’s OK for the Army, it should be ok for prisoners.

      In the army you sleep in barracks filled with people to whom you would entrust your life. Prison, not so much.

  6. To most Boing Boing readers that probably looks horrific. To me it looks like the kind of environment I’m used to living in fairly regularly. And voluntarily, I might add. I’m a U.S. Navy reservist, and about twice a year I participate in exercises in which these kinds of living conditions are the norm even for mid-grade officers. The particular place I normally live is very much like the ones in the slide show, full of about 160 Lieutenant Commanders/Majors and Commanders/Lieutenant Colonels with less room between bunks than you see in the picture above. Plus the lights are off for 18 hours a day.

    It’s also pretty standard fare for anyone who has ever been to sea on a Navy ship. In that case, there are dividing walls and curtains, but the beds are narrower, stacked 3 high, and much closer together. Some sailors live that way for several years straight.

    I understand where Cory is coming from, but if it’s good enough for a volunteer military, it ought to be good enough for criminals. Putting people in bunk beds in a big open room doesn’t rise to the level of a human rights violation, at least not to me as I’ve willingly lived that way for about a year cumulative out of the last five.

    That said, you’ll get no argument from me that many many people are in prison who don’t need to be. And the cages look pretty unpardonable, though I don’t think they’re a symptom of overcrowding; there’s a deeper, darker issue at work there.

    1. I’m a U.S. Navy reservist, and about twice a year I participate in exercises in which these kinds of living conditions are the norm even for mid-grade officers. The particular place I normally live is very much like the ones in the slide show, full of about 160 Lieutenant Commanders/Majors and Commanders/Lieutenant Colonels with less room between bunks than you see in the picture above.

      Are you seriously comparing something that you do voluntarily and sporadically with being in prison? Think about being stuck there for five years. And instead of Lt. Cdrs, etc., you’re surrounded by criminals. And, yeah, you’re a criminal, too, but you’re in for pot possession and your bunk mate is in for multiple assaults. There’s no comparison whatsoever.

      1. Are you seriously

        You always hope against all odds that they aren’t, but they usually are…

    2. and kibbee too, Jesus, SERIOUSLY?!?!?! I think this is some very artfully veiled trolling.

      Hearing about the conditions and the case was horrid enough for me to turn off NPR, let alone even try to look at the photos.

      And when is Scalia going to fall over clutching his chest and give humanity the gift of his last fat, greasy breath? And on his way down to hell it would be nice if Roberts, Scalito, and that other guy got wound up in his voluminous robe. F_ckin’, “I’m a federalist” when I wanna be dick.

  7. California tax payers pay on average something around $40,000 per year to house prisoners. Whereas Texas tax payers pay on average $17,000 per year to house prisoners.

    There’s nothing here that mentions the recently passed sweet deal that California prison guards now I have. Prison guards get paid walking to a and fro the prison parking lot and now they can bank UNLIMITED sick days and cash them in later. The CA prison union is among the top two most powerful in the state (the other being the CA teacher’s Association)

    New prisons should have been built beginning in the mid-1990s. I for one am not looking forward to 34,000 prisoners being dropped back into society. I know this is a staggered process (5000 dropped released at a time) but it’s absolutley ridiculous at a time when crime statistics (especially homicide) are down. As far as the conditions shown in the photos – this is how most prisons are run and this is how most prisoners in America are treated.

  8. If we were to regulate and tax marijuana like we do wine and vacate the prison sentences of those imprisoned for violations of marijuana cultivation, harvesting, processing , distribution and retail sales the prison population would decline in significant numbers and there would be no significant uptick in crime. Additionally, farmers would prosper, hundreds of jobs would be created, millions in taxes for education would flow into state and local treasuries, law enforcement resources would be liberated for real police work and pot would be a great deal more difficult for our children to get their hands on; not to mention that over 50 percent of cartel and street gang profits would dry up. Why is it that this obvious harm reduction solution is not even being discussed in Sacramento?

    Stephen Downing
    Deputy Chief, LAPD (ret.)

  9. Wow, the cages are the scariest part. Sure the bunkbeds in a gym are like Summer Camp From Hell, but they aren’t crammed into a place where they can’t roam freely. They would need more toilets though.

    I know human populations in general are climbing so that would seem to make sense that the number of prisoners would also climb… but this seems ridiculous. Levels of security should be re-evaluated for each crime. A murderer shouldn’t be bunked with someone who just broke into someone’s car and got caught. Yes both are illegal, but they aren’t the same level of crime.

    On really depressing days I contemplate the difference between a person in prison and myself. I spend 9 hours a day in the same 8’x8′ cubicle with people I hate all around me. Who steal my lunch and shit on the toilet seats. I get paid for it sure, but I don’t get free cable, lunch, room, board, & education at my job.

    1. The differences are: in your cube you can, at any point, leave. You can take a break, lunch, go home for the day or quit.

      At no time are you raped (gang or otherwise) and there is very little real fear of being beaten half to death or stabbed to death. You also don’t have to worry about getting a variety of diseases from the general conditions, the beatings and/or the rapes that never happen at your job.

      You know that you can spend the money you earn from your job on anything you want. Sure, you may feel obliged to spend it on rent, internet access, electricity and other things but – ultimately – you have the choice.

      You don’t have to worry that the security guard(s), if there is even one, at your company, won’t either beat you for looking at them or moving too slowly or won’t stand by while you are beaten because you somehow pissed them off – they’re there to surf the internet and act as receptionists with funny uniforms.

      You don’t have to smuggle stuff up your asshole for people you owe favors to or fear reprisals from at your job.

      The food you eat is healthy. It isn’t deep-fried crap designed to give you calories and fat and very little else.

      You actually have cable – and can watch whatever you want on it – and internet access. Contrary to popular belief, the latter is not always very accessible or available (period) and the former is often tuned to the least offensive (most boring) channel in existence.

      So, those are the differences and here’s a bonus: quit your crappy job and get a different one or learn to like it… and keep your lunch in a bag in a drawer in your desk. Stuff doesn’t go off as fast as everyone thinks, especially in an office that is at a constant 70 degrees fahrenheit. The shit on the toilet seat is a different problem but I bet you can figure out how best to deal with that.

  10. Perhaps I am mean-spirited; but I do not want violent criminals (mentally ill or not) released onto the streets to loiter around day-cares and ATMs, nor do I want my taxes doubled to build more facilities. It makes more sense to allow prisoners to choose to be euthanized to deal with the problem of overcrowding in short term; and to put more resources into early intervention programs for young offenders and rehabilitation resources for first time offenders to reduce the number of prisoners in the long term.

    1. “It makes more sense to allow prisoners to choose to be euthanized to deal with the problem of overcrowding in short term”

      Yeah, that makes total sense!
      Are you effing serious?

    2. So lets start with euthanizing you.

      Seriously, we have people gettting LIFE in prison for shoplifting in CA. That is BEYOND retarded. Not to mention most of the “offenders” are probably in for victimless crimes like smoking pot. The prison system in the US is absurd, and a lot of the obsolete laws we have on the books doesn’t help it. Did you know we have over 20% of the WORLD’S prisoner population? As a single country we hold more prisoners than any other country.

  11. The crazy thing is most of the “lawbreakers” I know were living in the streets. A couple got together and smashed a parked police car out side the sheriffs department just so they could live a couple of weeks in a warm building on a bed. The society that we live in almost forces most of the lower class to be homeless or in prison. Yes they ultimately make the decision, nobody looked them directly in the eye and say. “Go break the law.” But isn’t society accountable at all here????
    Everybody makes a big stink about how much they do for impoverished, but when it comes to building a new shelter. “I’m not gonna have MY property value go down for a bunch of bums.”

  12. Some of the comments here are, by no means, surprising, but speak to both the deep lack of understanding and, dare! I say, sympathy for those caught up in a world directly involving systemic incarceration and, more often than not, disparities so incomprehensibly vast to the all-knowing, keep-that-shit-over-*there* completely foolish commentary.

    Until people finally realize that “rehabilitative measures” of said Prison Industrial Complex don’t, in fact, work as they stand, nor the Three Strikes joke, more and more harm is done (+ more money totally and absolutely completely wasted) as the vicious cycle continues and grows. Cliche sounding, no?

    I will venture to guess the entire 30,000 (30,000!) released will comprise of $2 sock stealers, dimebag possessers and other non-violent offenders/boogey(wo)men. Not to fear, law abiding do-gooders who can’t seem to even imagine walking in any shoes other than your pristine own.

    Get a grip on the REAL problems of the PIC and communities exploited by it instead of the see-no-evil, not in my neighborhood, euthanize ’em all (seriously, wtf kind of moron….) bullshit. Cuz, whether you know it or not, you ARE part of the problem. Yes, yes you are.

    So there.

  13. The reason why there’s no room for violent offenders is because the prisons have been stuffed with people who download music or smoke pot.

    Over half of everyone in US prisons are there on non-violent charges.

    1/3 of convicted violent offenders are not US citizens. Their costs should be billed to the country of origin.

    1. #30

      You do realize that if other countries followed and started to bill the countries where the condemned criminals come from, USA would go bankrupt. You export a hell of a lot more criminals then you import, not even counting all the crimes committed by the US army men abroad, that usually go unpunished.

      Oh, and the arguments on boingboing for legalizing marijuana is exactly the same as the ones used by Evo Morales for legalizing coca and he usually get very criticized by boingboing hypocrites. Problem is, there is a lot of drugs that might be less unhealthy then the addictional, recreational drugs that are now legal to use in Western societies (caffeine, nicotine, theobromine, alcohol, sugar et.c.), if you allowed them all, it would create a mess. Legal and health systems world over would collapse. It is true that most of them, in some regards, are less harmful then drugs already legal to use, but if all of them would be legal to use, the mass effect of a lot of new recreational drugs would be catastrophic. Better stick with those that are already in use and not allow any else. You could argue that pot is already an socially accepted recreational drug in parts of USA and Netherlands, but so is coca in Peru, PCCDs and PCBs(*) in Sweden, Iceland and Norway, betel in parts of Asia and Africa (betel is used as a recreational drug by more people then alcohol), opium in parts of Asia et.c. When one of those drugs get legalised in one country, they are more likely to spread to the rest of the world. And we don’t know the net reaction when several different drugs, that are not traditionally used together, is used by someone, or one drug used by a person that is from a different genetic pool then the one that have traditionally used it.

      (*) As a Swede, I feel obliged to comment on our traditional Scandinavian drugs. Surströmming is legal to consume in Sweden, rakfisk in Norway and hákarl in Iceland, but because of their very mild, if any, intoxicating effect, vile taste and strong poison effect when used in larger quantities, their use is not likely to spread anywhere else ;-). Unless a temporary national exception within EU is renegotiated, Sweden will ban surströmming in 2012. The temporary Swedish exception for Swedish snuff is also near an end and Swedish snuff have been illegal in Finland since the country joined EU (but still, about 40% of the Swedish speaking minority of Finns (5% of the Finnish population), use Swedish snuff).

  14. The last bout of Prison overcrowding, caused by the “War on (Some) Drugs” “mandatory minimum” policy got a flood of the worst of the worst “Molesters” on the streets. They literally had to let go people who of course were later used to toughen to insanity (S-x offender registries) other laws and pack prisons worse.

    I predict this push will create mostly “Gangbangers” getting released some of them mere years into life sentences, who’ll then get revenge on people who “Ratted” them and militarize so when da fuzz try to arrest them again they’ll face something out of “Demolition Man”.

  15. k Scalia is officially douchetastic. When it’s tee-ball easy, and you still make the wrong choice, you’re probably making it for the wrong reasons.

  16. cinemajay:
    “Absolutely despicable that we treat humans like animals we feed on”

    “What does this say about us as humans? To treat each other worse than zoo animals?”

    What does it say about human treatment of animals if being treated like an animal is the worst thing you can do to a human?

    Confinement, suffering and risk of death are great harms, to the animals in meat industry and to the humans in the prison industry.

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