Packing the House: The Back Story on California’s Prison Boom

California’s prisons are old, crumbling, and packed to the gills with inmates. The inmate population  exploded in the late 1980s and 90s. It rose almost 900 percent over three decades and reached an all-time high in 2006, with more than 172,000 inmates behind bars. During that same period, the state almost tripled the number of prison facilities:

in 1984 there were just 12 state prisons; by 2005, there were 33. (Check out the interactive feature on the statewide prison buildup)

Prisoners at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego

Since its 2006 peak, when the inmate population was more than double the system’s intended capacity, the ranks have dropped considerably. But prisons throughout the state are still woefully overcrowded, with stuffed cells and spillover inmates housed in make-shift bunk rooms.

But it wasn’t always like this

The graph on the right –  looks like a scary ski slope – shows the increase in California’s inmate population since 1960. Note the relatively steady levels until 1980 (even though California’s general population more than doubled during that period). And then all of a sudden … BOOM! Things explode.

Between 1977 and 2007 the crime rate fell and the general didn’t even double, but California built almost 20 prisons, just about tripling the number of its facilities. Meanwhile, the prison population increased by more than 800 percent.

And it’s not cheap
Until recently, the state spent about $10 billion a year on prison, or roughly 11 percent of its total budget. That’s than what goes to the University of California and California State University systems combined. In 2009–10, the average cost to incarcerate a prisoner in California was nearly $47,000 (security and inmate health care accounted for about three–quarters of that). To put that in perspective: California spends, on average, less than $9,000 per-student on k-12 public education. California can now claim the country’s most expensive prison system with the highest rate recidivism (inmates who return to prison after release).

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