San Quentin and Prison Overcrowding

The crowded gym
Laura Sullivan/NPR

NPR's All Things Considered aired a feature today about the crowding and segregation issues at San Quentin State Prison in California, listen to or read it here.

Reporter Laura Sullivan visited the crowded gymnasium shared by over 360 inmates and found the conditions abominable, due of course to the overcrowding problem in California's prison system. The prisoners occupy the gym 24 hours a day, the overhead lights stay on from 5 AM to midnight and simple amenities such as tube socks have been cut back because of funding issues. Combined with limited space this causes unwanted but necessary self-segregation to keep tensions down. The conditions sound like factory farms:
Metcalf arrives at a Spartan bunk draped with white towels. His broad shoulders nearly reach from his bunk to the next. "Man, we don't have a foot and a half between bunks," he laments, his voice rising. "Look at this. You're supposed to have so many cubic feet, but this is not it. We have barely a foot and half on each side of the bunk — where you can breathe in another person's mouth."

Just as Metcalf is about to show me his locker, a deafening alarm blares. Inmates drop to their knees. In the entire gym, I am the only person still standing. The alarm means there's a problem somewhere in this prison, but it's not here in the gym. Each officer carries a personal alarm that sounds systemwide. Somewhere, one of them has felt threatened enough to trigger it. The rule is hands and knees on the floor. If you don't obey, it's up to the tower guard to decide whether or not to shoot you.

An inmate huddled by his bed makes a motion toward my microphone.

"Would you want to live here?" he asks.

Most prisoners there are in for probation violations, many if not most drug related. Why they don't get those people on some sort of drug rehab program instead of rotating them through the system endlessly I don't understand. Ted Koppel covered this grim situation as well last fall on his program Koppel On Discovery in the episode "Breaking Point".