California prisons remove symbol of overcrowding

By Don Thompson

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 2 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

At one point, more than 1,000 inmates were shoehorned into makeshift areas at the prison, crowding that officials said helped spark a riot in 2003 that injured nine inmates and one employee.

The institution once offered 13 vocational education programs, including painting, welding, office machine repair, shoe repair and electronics, which disappeared.

Now that there is more space for classrooms, officials said the prison is expected to offer classes in welding, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and auto body repair.

"There were no vocational programs," Cate said, "and they are on their way back."

Cate said space that once contained as many as 800 overflow beds statewide has been renovated into permanent housing, prompting criticism from the union representing most prison guards.

"They're just changing the names so they can say they got rid" of the beds, said Ryan Sherman, a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Still, prisons are safer with fewer inmates — as long as the state doesn't lay off too many guards, Sherman said.

"We're still doing the overcrowding, but not as much, and we'll still be understaffed, but not as badly," he said.

Specter and other attorneys representing inmates calculate that at its current downsizing rate, California will still have 6,000 more inmates in its 33 adult prisons by June 2013 than allowed by the federal court order. The nonpartisan state legislative analyst says the state will meet the goal eventually, but not in time to meet the court deadline.

Both sides said the state may need to consider even more steps to reduce the inmate population. Cate, however, said their fears are premature and the state could ask for more time if crowding doesn't ease fast enough.

Of California's nearly 142,000 inmates, roughly 9,500 are in private prisons in other states. Another 5,000 are in firefighting camps or private prisons in California.

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