The prison construction boom that reverberated across California from desert to redwood forest for the past 20 years is coming to an end.
When workers put the finishing touches on the new 4,900-bed, maximum-security institution near Delano sometime next year, it will mark the first time since the expansion got under way in 1984 that no new prison will be under construction or in the planning stages.
With the state's prison population projected to decline over the next four years, state corrections officials and other experts agree there is little prospect for more prison construction in the foreseeable future.
Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Rod Hickman said the end of the construction era gives prison policy-makers an opportunity to step back and look at what they're supposed to be doing - correcting inmates' bad behavior.
"It's now going to be a time of quality, to sever ourselves from the era of the past ... and get into a cycle of success," he said.
The boom, driven by years of increasingly tough anti-crime legislation, started with the construction of California State Prison, Solano, which opened in August 1984. When the new Delano prison opens in June, California will have 33 prisons housing its 163,500 inmates.
Over the past two decades, the building boom will have added 21 new prisons. California has spent roughly $4.4 billion to build the new prisons and an estimated $26.2 billion more to keep them running. Department of Corrections spending has exploded, meanwhile, from just under $300 million to the current $5.7 billion a year.
It was a boom that transformed distant and financially struggling towns into way stations in what anti-incarceration critics call the "prison industrial complex" and turned a tiny public employees union - the California Correctional Peace Officers Association - into a political behemoth that has contributed millions of dollars to Democratic and Republican governors and legislators.
During the same 20 years, the state added no new campuses to the University of California system and only three to the California State University system.
A coalition of anti-prison groups filed suit in 2000 to stop construction of the $335 million prison in northern Kern County. The effort failed, and the institution, which is now 95 percent finished, is scheduled for a June 2005 opening.
"We pretty much tried everything we could to stop it," said Caroline Farrell, the directing attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in Delano, which joined in the fight against the prison's construction. "But I'm glad there's not a need to build any other prisons and that other communities are not going to have to face this."
Whether California got its money's worth out of prison construction is a matter of debate. The state's crime rate grew through the 1980s, even though new prisons were added in Folsom, Avenal, Ione, San Diego, Corcoran, Stockton (since closed), Blythe and Crescent City.
Then it plummeted in the 1990s while prison growth blossomed in Chowchilla (twice), Wasco, Calipatria, Lancaster, Delano, Imperial, Blythe (again), Coalinga, Susanville, Soledad and, once more, in Corcoran.
Some law-and-order advocates such as Bill Jones, the former state legislator who sponsored the "three strikes and you're out" law that in 1994 dramatically stiffened sentences for repeat offenders, credit the near quintupling of the state's incarceration rate with driving crime down to half its 1979 rate.
"We would all rather build schools than prisons - human nature is just that way," said Jones, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. "But we also have to understand there is a universe out there that needs a deterrence message before them, or they will continue to commit crimes."
Jones claims the three-strikes law alone has resulted in 2 million fewer victims and a savings of nearly $28.5 billion to Californians in lower insurance and other auxiliary costs associated with crime - enough, he said, to just about pay for the added incarceration of the past 20 years.
Critics of the boom such as Dan Macallair of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice say crime was going down everywhere in the country in the 1990s, even in states where prison construction was static.
They say there is no evidence that incarceration was any more important than, say, the improving economy for the 1990s crime drop. They say the new prisons mostly housed drug addicts who could have been handled more cheaply in treatment programs.
"I think that what often happens is that policies get put into place, and then they play themselves out, and then over time people recognize their deficiencies, which is what I think we are seeing now," Macallair said. "It gives us a chance to say, 'Wait a minute, maybe we didn't do this right. Maybe we need to rethink some of this.' "
Prodded by bad publicity, critical federal court reports and blue-ribbon panels that have branded the corrections system as a failure, officials such as Secretary Hickman are rethinking their agencies' missions.
UC Berkeley law professor Franklin E. Zimring said it is no coincidence that the department's reassessment comes as prison building grinds to a stop.
"Growing the prison system was about the only thing the prison system management could focus on," Zimring said. "If that's your first priority, you never have time to worry about priority number two, whatever it is. Now, the question is, instead of building these suckers, can we find out what they are supposed to be doing and whether they are doing it or not?"
Bowing to the public's demand, the prison system, throughout the boom period, primarily had been focused on punishment. The passage of Proposition 36, which in 2000 mandated treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenders, signaled a shift in the public mood. Now, there is some evidence the public may want to continue its direction away from previous lock-'em-up policies.
A Field Poll conducted in May for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency showed that Californians, by 63 percent to 8 percent, want their correction money to rehabilitate inmates as opposed to only punishing them. The poll also found substantial concern about the role prisons play in reducing crime, with 34 percent of the respondents believing the inmates who go through the system are more likely to commit new crimes, as opposed to 14 percent who think prison system graduates are less likely to re offend.
"It looks like the public has shifted," NCCD Executive Director Barry Krisberg said. "Our poll is the first clear indication of this."
Polling conducted for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union that strongly championed the construction boom, also shows that public attitudes are changing. With crime down by 50 percent over the past 25 years, the fear of it hardly shows up on the radar screen anymore, polling shows.
Don Novey, the former CCPOA president who now works as a consultant to the union, said the end of the boom is a testament to its success, that the new prisons - and tough laws such as the three-strikes law that helped pack them - controlled crime.
Still, Novey said wide swaths of the public - mostly in suburban areas removed from the inner cities - have become "desensitized" to crime, to the point where focus groups are telling him, "it doesn't matter if they keep (convicts) in or not."
Novey offered a one-word answer to explain the new public mood: "Cost."
Department of Corrections projections show inmate numbers decreasing from today's 163,000 to 156,884 in 2008 and then rising slightly the next year, but still a good 3,000 below the current level. The projections are based on department policies that will cut time off inmates' sentences if they participate in educational and vocational programs from the time they hit prison.
New parole, mental health and drug treatment programs also should help keep prison populations down, according to the department's most recent population projections report.
Meanwhile, the department is planning to build 1,000 new beds at San Quentin's death row, and it is looking for ways to find more space for the most dangerous inmates in its custody.
But when the new Delano prison opens next year, as far new construction goes, that's it. "The era of building prisons," Secretary Hickman said, "is essentially over."
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