Six months into a program of reforms designed to dramatically reduce the state's prison population, the Department of Corrections is scrambling to find bed space for thousands of inmates pouring into the system in record numbers.
To accommodate the rising tide, the agency last month laid out an emergency housing plan expected to jam 2,500 prisoners into day rooms, classrooms and vocational shops closed earlier this year because of budget cuts.
Prison officials call them "ugly beds," and the new emergency measures for July and August will increase their total in the system to 12,000.
The measures come as a reform panel headed by former Gov. George Deukmejian is calling for elimination of the severely overcrowded sleeping arrangements under which 9,500 prisoners already are living.
Top-level corrections managers are crossing their fingers and hoping the population increases will subside when new parole and pre-release programs they have launched in installments over the past nine months take hold.
Meanwhile, buses full of fresh convicts keep rolling into Department of Corrections reception centers.
"Sometimes, we get into situations where we have to kind of go into emergency mode, where we have to open a gym or a dorm," said Capt. Billy Mayfield, an administrative assistant in the institutions division, which is charged with finding beds for the inmates.
"In some cases, it's housing we'd prefer not to have. But it's still secure and safe, and it's our best answer to a difficult problem," Mayfield said. "Currently, our policy is that we don't decline to take inmates from the counties. When they transfer them to our jurisdiction, we accept them."
The department's population reduction effort - most of which it rolled out in March - is supposed to help cut costs in the $5.7 billion system by keeping inmates out of it.
The program includes newly launched education programs at reception centers so prisoners can begin accruing time credits from the day they arrive and get out of prison sooner.
It calls for pre-release mental health treatment for soon-to-be parolees, expanded pre-release programs for inmates about to exit the system and community-based sanction and treatment programs - in lieu of prison - for some drug-offending parolees who don't test clean for dope.
So far, the initiatives have not achieved their goals - and then some.
"The numbers are going in the opposite direction of what our original projections were like," Mayfield said. "We thought the population would be going down, but we're at all-time highs."
Corrections officials have attributed the rise to local decisions, particularly in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, to dump prisoners on the state almost as quickly as juries convict them. In San Diego, the county also negotiated a deal to foist off a higher percentage of its parole violators on the Department of Corrections.
"Cash-strapped counties aren't going to keep anybody longer than they have to unless they have negotiated deals with the state for reimbursement," said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
"That's why you're seeing the surge in population."
As of Aug. 14, the state prison population stood at an all-time high of 164,207. The figure already is higher than the department's projection of a December population of 160,000.
In hard numbers, new offenders are accounting for most of the increase - just more than 5,000 from July 2003 to July 2004.
The number of parolees back in prison on technical violations, or awaiting hearings, actually decreased by 3,500 as a result of new policies that seek to redirect offenders into drug treatment, electronic monitoring and community-based programs.
Parolees back in prison for new offenses, however, have increased by about 1,400.
At Mule Creek State Prison, there is no escaping the effects of the rising population.
Heat from the constantly running showers and the movement of scores of convicts in and out has turned the day rooms with the temporary beds into sweatboxes.
The Amador County prison added 108 inmates in July by installing bunk beds in the day rooms of three housing blocks.
A similar increase is slated for this month - reducing space in the day rooms where inmates, when not confined to their cells, unwind by watching one of two big-screen televisions, playing cards or just hanging out.
Inmates say the presence of the bunks has added to the tension at a prison that is already the fifth-most-crowded in the state, with a population running at 213 percent of designed capacity. According to the prison Web site, it was designed to hold 1,700 inmates but now has 3,614.
One inmate said the new layout has forced prison officials to lock down half the inmates assigned to cells at any given time to keep the population manageable.
Prisoners assigned to the bunks complained about lack of shower access, a 20-to-1 inmate-to-toilet ratio, the total absence of privacy and the increased friction that comes with too many people in too small a space.
"The feds need to come in and shut it down," David Davis, 32, a parole violator from Marysville initially convicted for felony evasion, said in an interview last week.
"All these bunks do is create animosity among people. You've got people stealing each other's shoes and stuff."
Joseph Nino, 28, a Stockton native who is doing time for being an ex-felon in possession of a gun, said he'd much rather be in a cell.
"There's more privacy," he said. "That's just the way it's supposed to be. You can't hang your clothes out here, and when (the floor officers) see them, they tear them down. We're victims of circumstances."
G. Mason, a 17-year correctional officer, said the floor plan seems to be working out "all right." He said he hasn't heard a lot of complaints, and that if there has been tension, it hasn't taken the form of any physical vio lence in his unit.
"Basically, the blind spots are the only bad thing, so we're making constant rounds in this building," Mason said. "At this time, there are no major problems, but I can't tell you what's going to happen later this afternoon."
Most of the 2,500 new emergency beds are going into day rooms. But at California State Prison, Los Angeles, authorities are converting a vacant work center into a bunkhouse.
The building once offered programs for inmates to learn plumbing, auto mechanics, carpentry and other vocational skills that could have returned them to the economic mainstream.
And at San Quentin, officials have removed three classrooms from the prison's lauded university program and converted them into bunk rooms, according to college project director Jody Lewen.
The program is slated to be evaluated by the Department of Corrections, in conjunction with the officers union, to see if it can reduce recidivism. Its fall class schedule now will be cut in half, Lewen said.
"When I hear stories like that, it just confirms in my mind the system's preoccupation with custody and control, to the exclusion of rehabilitation and programming," said Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a corrections reform group based in Oakland.
"That is contrary to anything having to do with good correctional management."
The Bee's Andy Furillo can be reached at (916) 321-1141 or email@example.com.
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