SANTA BARBARA, CA - As she navigates the labyrinthine corridors of the jail where she has worked for 18 years, corrections officer Nancy Tracy pauses at each cell block to ask inmates a question that rarely brings a happy response: How many beds are crowded into their confined space?
"Twenty," one prisoner barks in response, "and they're all full."
Ms. Tracy just nods and continues her daily rounds.
Set back in the sun-seared hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Barbara County Jail has the scrubbed look of a place where prisoners might be able to do easy time -- but the picture-postcard exterior belies a much tougher reality inside.
Every night at this 1970s-era facility, as many as a dozen inmates sleep on the floor for lack of space. Some prisoners, lucky enough to have a bed, lie on bunks stacked three high.
And every morning, by court order, guards unlock the jail's gates to release prisoners into the community because there is simply no room for them behind bars.
"When I got hired, I understood my job was to take people who committed crimes and keep them in jail," says Ms. Tracy, the custody operations manager. "Now, a lot of my time is spent trying to figure out how to get them out."
The overcrowding problems here at Santa Barbara's 1,000-bed jail reflect a statewide crisis that has cemented California's reputation as having the worst, most dangerous prison system in the U.S.
Every day in California, more than 170,000 inmates are crammed into state prisons designed to hold 110,000. An estimated 16,000 prisoners sleep on cots in hallways and gymnasiums.
Another 82,000 inmates are housed in county jails like the one in
Santa Barbara, which have been bursting at the seams for more than a decade.
"I don't think there is a state prison that has a gymnasium or a hallway or a classroom that is being used for its intended purpose," says Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. "You have bunk beds jammed in, and you have thousands of inmates systemwide that are living in areas that were not designed as living areas."
By 2005, the conditions had grown so appalling that a federal judge, bemoaning the "outright depravity" that has been linked to dozens of preventable deaths in state prisons, ordered a receiver to take over California's $1-billion-a-year prison health care system.
But the situation remains dire. Last year, overcrowding forced black and Latino gang members into close quarters at the Los Angeles county jail, sparking two weeks of riots.
Facing a possible federal takeover of the entire system, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last October declared a state of emergency in prisons.
In April, the California legislature passed a sweeping, $8.3-billion bill aimed at easing overcrowding by adding 53,000 new beds to existing correctional institutions.
And two weeks ago, a state judge gave Mr. Schwarzenegger the go-ahead to resume a controversial plan to ship 8,000 prisoners out of state to serve their time elsewhere while new construction is completed.
Mr. Schwarzenegger calls the plan a "critical component" of his prison policy, and says it will help California "avoid a court-ordered release of dangerous felons."
But criminologists say California's plan will do little to solve the underlying problems in the corrections system.
The seeds of the crisis were sown over decades as lawmakers passed strict "two strikes" and "three strikes" legislation that dramatically increased the length of sentences for repeat offenders.
Within the United States, California also has one of the highest incarceration rates for parole violators, sending 70,000 convicts back to jail each year.
The state's recidivism rate is also the nation's highest, with 70 per cent of convicts re-offending within three years of their release.
At the same time, experts say, prisoners are being held longer than in the past because the state's mandatory sentencing regime is focused less on rehabilitation and alternate sentencing than on warehousing prisoners.
"And in many cases," says Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera
Center of Justice in New York, and a former New York City corrections
commissioner, "they are keeping them well past their crime-committing ages."
Critics say the absurdity of California's sentencing policies came into sharp focus last month when hotel heiress Paris Hilton was ordered to serve 45 days in L.A.'s already crowded county jail for violating conditions of a drunk driving conviction.
"It is a big, complicated, sprawling, expensive, chaotic prison system, and you are not going to make it better by making it bigger," Mr. Jacobson says.
"The state will never be able to build out of this problem."
Moreover, he says, Mr. Schwarzenegger's plan to send inmates to other states "is terrible corrections practice," because it takes convicts away from family who could help them stay out of trouble upon release.
In Santa Barbara County, the sheriff was elected last year on promises to help resolve the overcrowding issue -- but it's proving to be a difficult task.
"Even though our crime rate is substantially down from where it was in the early 1990s, our population is way up," Sheriff Brown says. "The result is that, just in terms of raw numbers, there are more people in need of incarceration than we have space available."
Santa Barbara's jail was built to serve a community of about 250,000 people, but the county's population has soared past 420,000 in recent years.
Some maximum-security cells built for 24 inmates at times house as many as 42. In the medium-security wing, 90 inmates are squeezed into cell blocks designed for 60 people.
Since taking office, Sheriff Brown says there has only been one day when no inmates were forced to sleep on the floor. The sheriff's department is under a standing court order to release low-risk offenders once the population in the main jail exceeds 605 men and 110 women. Another 270 are allowed in the adjacent medium-security jail.
Sheriff Brown is also looking for ways to keep people out of jail, like expanding an electronic monitoring system and re-establishing work-furlough programs.
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