Around 200 inmates were injured, 55 seriously, over the weekend in an 11-hour prison riot in California that appears to have had strong racial overtones. Officials are still investigating, but a major cause is already clear: 5,900 men were being held in a facility designed for 3,000. The violence should serve as a warning to officials across the country not to try to balance state budgets by holding inmates in inhumane conditions.
California has already ignored too many warnings. In 2007, a state oversight agency declared that “California’s correctional system is in a tailspin.” That same year, a prison expert warned that the California Institution for Men in Chino, the site of the recent riot, was “a serious disturbance waiting to happen.”
Last week, just days before the riot, a three-judge federal panel ordered the state to reduce its prison population of more than 150,000 by about 40,000 within the next two years. That was the only way, the panel ruled, to bring the prison health care system up to constitutional standards.
The 184-page order painted a grim and alarming picture — with some state prison facilities at nearly 300 percent of intended capacity and some prisoners forced to sleep in triple-bunk beds in gymnasiums. “In these overcrowded conditions,” the court said, “inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent.”California’s problem — like much of the nation’s — is a mismatch between its harsh sentencing policies and its willingness to pay to keep so many people locked up for so long. A few years ago, it went to the Supreme Court to defend its right, under the state’s three-strikes law, to sentence a shoplifter to 25 years to life.