Last week riots sent 16 California prisoners to the hospital. Next week, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will send layoff notices to guards.

Michael Montgomery/KQED

Now prison guards are concerned that a “perfect storm” may be brewing linked to staff reductions and a higher ratio of violent inmates within the system.

Officially, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is still investigating the cause of multiple incidents at California State Prison, Sacramento (also known as New Folsom). Riots there followed  similar brawls in recent years, creating at least the appearance of a trend.

The incidents come even though prisons have begun reducing their population under a court order. The department has moved the prisoners deemed least violent to county jails, resulting in a higher concentration of violent inmates.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm here,” Ryan Sherman, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, told KQED’s Tara Siler. “We’re losing staff, we’re getting more violent inmates on a percentage basis… We’re putting more dangerous inmates in lower-security facilities. It’s a potential there for it to be some kind of lethal combination.”

From an all-time high of 173,479 in 2006, the total prison population declined to 123,744 as of Sept. 19, 2012, according to figures on the department’s website. Despite that large reduction, the system is still not in compliance with the order The system was designed to house a total of 84,130 individuals, which means it’s at 147% of design capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered it to get to 137%. Note these figures apply to the total number of prisoners systemwide, so certain prisons remain much more crowded than others.  Mule Creek State Prison, for example, is at 175.4% of design capacity, while Valley State Prison is at 89.6%.

The Peace Officers Association’s Sherman acknowledges that a lower prison population required a smaller staff. But he says the prisons were understaffed before the reductions in the prison population, and that an even higher ratio of guards to prisoners is needed now. “Because we have got more violent and dangerous inmates in the prisons where we used to have more of a mix, [previous] staffing practices are not going to be adequate,” he said.

Corrections officials dispute that conclusion. “We’re reducing our workforce very carefully over a period of years,” a department spokesman, Jeffrey Callison, told me.

And he said there is no evidence that a larger staff could have prevented the recent violence. “I don’t think it’s possible to connect the two,” he said.

Attorney Rebekah Evenson, who has represented California prisoners, says that overcrowding is one reason for violence in the prisons. “It’s undisputed,” she says. “If the prisons are overcrowded then, yes, you want more staff.” Evenson also says more education and recreation programs could ease tension. And she blames the department for confining prisoners to their cells, after violence incidents, on the basis of race. This leads them to identify with violent gangs, she says.

Callison said there is no evidence that recent events indicate a statistical increase in violence, rather than a flare-up.

And he said no one in the department could say how much the staff will be reduced. In a previous wave of reductions that ended in February, the staff was cut “in the low three figures.”

Sherman said he had heard about 500 people will lose their jobs in the current reductions. But Callison said the numbers will not be known until October, because the department will offer transfers to most of the staff. How many will retire from the department remains to be seen.

Amid Riots, Prison Guards Concerned About Staff Reductions, More-Violent Inmates 26 September,2012Laird Harrison

  • Concerned for Staff Safety

    They fail to mention that its much more dangerous for the staff. Cutting staff definitely increases violence against staff. The numbers of staff is usually what prevents the inmates from attacking. The sad part is nobody seems to care about that fact. It’s always mentioned how its safer or better for the inmates but not about the situation for the staff. There has been attempted murder on staff at least 2 times on the last couple months at the prisons in Corcoran alone. As for the comment about the administration promoting violence by confining inmates to their cell by “race” following an incident. It has nothing to do with “race” it’s by gang affiliation and the inmates identify themselves with the gang as members, affiliates, etc so it has nothing to do with administration “forcing” the gang members to identify with violent gangs. They aren’t in prison for being choir boys, they are typically gang members hence they “chose” to affiliate with a “violent gang” way before ever getting to prison. Just goes to show how much these “criminal’s rights advocates” know about the very criminals they are fighting for.

    • I agree, 100%.

      Even for a minimum-medium facility like mine, the number of violent incidents has skyrocketed in proportion to the reduction in staff. We’ve also seen the number of inmates going out on drug overdoses explode, as there are no longer enough staff to keep the contrband from flowing inwards.

      The state’s policy is to house inmates according to their risk level, regardless of race or ethnicity in the most integrated fashion possible. It’s the inmates who complicate this process by refusing to house with other races and organizing themselves along racial lines into ethnic-based gangs. But, people still don’t seem to get that or have a clue.

  • Johnny Boy

    Let’s view the data before we surmise that staff ratios are not an underlying cause to the increase in riots and Mr. Callison contradicts himself in his own statement, ”
    Callison said there is no evidence that recent events indicate a statistical increase in violence, rather than a flare-up.” A “flare-up” is indicative of an increase, is it not?

    • 602me

      No kidding….by the way population is increasing already, but staffing continues to be cut.

  • amazedandconfused

    I am a California Correctional Officer. Just today we found information in a cell that dictates the rules of behavior for the southern Hispanic population. One of the rules states that if you see a fellow gang member in physical altercations with a Correctional Officer you are to assist the fellow gang member at all cost. That is a green light to assault the Correctional Officer. Reduced staff means that officer will have a longer period of response time when other correctional staff can responds. Reducing inmate populations doesn’t mean less crime, less violence, or less gang activity. It is amazing to me the level of ignorance that the Supreme Court has fostered with their decision. As an inmate in a California Prison, you can receive your GED, an AA Degree, and a trade of Wielding, Automotive Repair, and all aspects of construction, as well as learning to work on Wind Turbines. An inmate in the California Correctional System right now can get college courses my child can’t get. They can get medical procedures i can’t get, including hormone treatment for a sex change. If I knew I needed a heart transplant I would rob a liquor store tomorrow. It has really gotten that ridiculous. Why are we reducing staff when we could have generated jobs by building more prisons. They are not going to magically stop being criminals. You have to reach them when they are at risk kids. Once they have bought into the gang lie, they won’t stop, but they will be coming to a neighborhood near you. You are releasing inmates during the worst economy of our generation, do you really think they are going to go to work at McDonalds when they can make in a month what you and I make in a year. You are going to see more home envasions, more car jackings, and more innocent people killed becasue they were in the wrong place at the wrong time due to gang violence. Oh, and how about our current state gun laws that allow a law abiding citizen to protect themselves and their family. They are your elected officials. GOOD LUCK!

  • Foolish people do foolish things: layoff will jeopardize public safety and staff safety in those areas where prisons are located. Most critical incidents are spontaneous and likely to occur on weekends and holidays when staffing is low. Now with less staff on shifts, the formula for a disaster is in favor for the inmates and not the system that incarcerates them. This is the wrong time to cut back correctional officers when the prisons are rocking and rolling every week for reasons we all know since we have all been around to see these problems develop because of overcrowding, lack of treatment, lack of staffing (support included) and now lack of funding to support a mass incarceration agenda that was never practical to begin with but popular with the politicians and prosecutors who ran on this “tough on crime” slogan leaving the ultimate burden to keep these felons to the correctional officers who are now more short handed, more demoralized from lack of community support and challenged to do the impossible with less tools in the tool box.

  • healthypeers

    Frankly after having worked in the California State prison system I feel fortunate to have gotten out before being injured. No I was not an correctional officer I was a health care provider, trying to provide that care to inmates. In that role you generally do not know why the inmate is incarcerated and you provide medical attention to all regardless of race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or what they did on the outside. While I support many of the concerns the correctional officers have let me enlighten those of you who do not know what goes on. Correctional officers are not the only staff at risk in the prison. Many of the inmates I took care of threatened me on a weekly basis, they felt that they should get whatever narcotic they wanted. They attempted, sometimes successfully to distract or manipulate non custody staff and would just as soon stab you as the correctional officer. For me and others I worked with we felt like the prisoners, having to be subjected to verbal altercations on a daily basis. Then you have your inmates who scream “I am going to kill myself” so they can lounge around in safety vest in a private cell and flash medical staff because they can. What the prisons need is for these healthy, well fed inmates to get off their bunks and work to pay back restitution to those they assaulted, robbed etc. I bet you did not know they all don’t have to work, or go to school while they are in prison. Why do you think they have so much time on their hands to plan and plot uprisings? Those of you who defend them, disappoint me in your naivety that these are not very bright or educated persons and they are very poor. They may not have graduated from high school or college, but many are very bright and figured out how to use the system. Frankly I am all for Sheriff Joe in Arizona he has a good approach. When you reward people for bad behavior you get continued bad behavior. Take a look at the schools or better yet try seeing a movie with a bunch of teenagers whose parents have promoted no accountability. Don’t get me wrong no one should be beaten, tied down or tazed on a regular basis just because they are in prison. But do you want productive people to come out of the prison or just a criminal who will continue to rob and assault, etc because he or she can and they make good money at it. Another eye opener in working in the prison is the waste and the feeling that many of your coworkers are not trustworthy. Try working inside the wire for a few months and you may too feel degraded, undervalued and disrespected. Sad state of affairs our entire justice system, don’t you think??

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor