Anatomy of a Prison

California State Prison, Los Angeles County, is underfunded and overcrowded, packed with more than twice the inmates it was intended to hold. It’s also typical of corrections facilities throughout the state. What went wrong?


It’s 100 degrees in the desert city of Lancaster, but it feels more like 150 when the winds swoop down off the Tehachapi Mountains. Jutting up from a flat plain of baked earth, California State Prison, Los Angeles County, is ringed with heat waves. Beyond the wood-paneled visitors’ waiting area lies the entrance to the 262-acre prison. In the control booth by the gate, a guard stares from my face to my driver’s license half a dozen times before telling me that he can’t let me in: My white-and-blue-striped shirt too closely resembles the blue denim uniforms worn by some of the inmates.


“You need to recheck your regulations,” replies Lieutenant Ken Lewis, the correctional officer who is my guide. Lewis, a middle-aged African American man with a friendly smile, looks down and runs a hand over his shaved head. “He’s fine, and the shirt’s good,” he says. “It’s all been approved.” The guard shrugs and pushes a button, activating a chain-link gate that slowly slides open.

Jails run by county sheriff’s departments dot the region, and they’re filled with people awaiting trial or serving short sentences for relatively minor crimes. Prisons hold those serving longer-term sentences for more serious crimes. The Lancaster facility—the only state prison in L.A. County—has its lifers, but its other function is as a reception center. More than 30 percent of California’s prisoners come from L.A., and many of them are initially held here for up to four months before being officially assigned to this or one of California’s 29 other penal institutions for men. But with prisoners being added to the system faster than the state can construct cells for them, the reception center has become more of a warehouse than a way station. Built in 1993 with a capacity of 2,200 inmates, the facility holds more than 4,500 today. Because of the backlog of bodies, the prison—like every other in California—has had to set up makeshift dorms in gymnasiums and dayrooms, filling them with bunk beds.

Walking through the gate, Lewis and I trudge across the barren prison yard past five low-slung buildings with slit windows. Chain-link fencing divides the grounds, and encircling the whole facility is a double perimeter of chain-link that has been capped with concertina and razor wire and juiced with a lethal dose of electricity. Guards with high-powered rifles watch us from towers that rise up between the barriers. Suddenly a high-pitched wail pierces the wind—an alarm coming from the building in front of us that sends  half a dozen correctional officers in olive green jumpsuits scrambling toward it. Moments later Debra White, a heavyset guard with a blond ponytail, flings open the door.

“How you doin’?” someone asks.

“I’d be doin’ a lot better,” answers White, waving her arms in exasperation, “if I hadn’t accidentally hit my alarm button on my way down the stairs.” Then she ushers Lewis and me inside the gym.


Humid, loud, and fetid, the three gyms serve as the prison’s largest makeshift “dorms.” They’re each packed with 120 inmates who are assigned to triple-bunk beds that have been arranged in narrow rows across the floor. Some men are waiting to be given a security status—minimum, say, or maximum—before being transferred elsewhere. Others are doing time for relatively minor parole violations. There’s also a gym filled with “special needs” prisoners—openly gay inmates, men trying to get out of gangs, child molesters—who would be beaten or killed if left among the general prison population. The evaporative coolers that are supposed to suck hot air out of the gym I’m touring have broken down, and the fans lazily rotating on the walls barely generate enough breeze to dilute the stench of clogged toilets and sweat. To keep cool, men are stripped down to their boxers. Shaved heads are omnipresent, as are tattoos—grim reapers, winged angels, lightning bolts, Gothic-lettered gang affiliations. Inmates sit or lie on their bunks in varying degrees of stupor or coiled tension, as they have for 23 hours a day for the past several weeks while their dorm—along with the rest of the prison—has been on lockdown.


Men watch The Jerry Springer Show blaring from a 19-inch TV on the wall, and high up on a platform enclosed in chain-link, a correctional officer wearing impenetrable black sunglasses watches them, a semiautomatic rifle gripped against his chest. On another wall a sign states: WARNING: NO WARNING SHOTS FIRED IN THIS BUILDING. It is a reminder to inmates that fighting can get them shot dead. The official policy is that guards may fire only when one prisoner is endangering the life of another, but during the 1990s, officers indiscriminately used rifles to break up fights, fights they’d sometimes provoked. From 1989 to 1998, there were 39 inmates killed and 200 seriously wounded by guards in California prisons.

Presented with those and other instances of severe inmate abuse and neglect by guards at Pelican Bay State Prison, federal judge Thelton Henderson ruled that conditions were so cruel and unusual that they could not “be squared with evolving standards of humanity or decency.” He issued an injunction against the prison in 1995, requiring Pelican Bay to submit to rigorous monitoring and binding reforms.

The son of a janitor, Henderson grew up on the streets of South Los Angeles before being named the first black assistant U.S. attorney in the Jim Crow South during the days of the civil rights movement. Now 75, Henderson would come to take a dim view of the operations of the entire corrections system. The people in charge of the prisons have a “no-can-do attitude,” he told me. “I tried working collaboratively with them for over a year before realizing we weren’t making any progress because they were so caught up in why something couldn’t be done.”


Whether by building facilities to hold inmates or by reducing the prison population, Henderson, above all, wants to ease overcrowding, which he regards as the root of the system’s problems. He has joined two federal judges to consider seizing the system and in August ordered the state to thin its ranks of prisoners by 43,000 within two years.

“I’ve seen the increase in incarceration in California rise from 24,000 in 1980 to [168,000 in 2009],” Henderson told me before the first of my three trips to the facility. “I’ve seen increased sentencing with no abatement as the prisons fill with my boyhood friends—old black men and Latinos. There are now more black men in prison than college. This is all a huge issue for the minority community.”

Walking through the stifling gym with Lewis and me, White is trying hard to appear relaxed. One moment she’s talking about the heat. The next she’s hiking up her black service belt festooned with a baton, handcuffs, keys, pepper spray, a gas mask, and an alarm device. “Make a hole!” she bellows at the men before us, who scurry away. At the back of the gym, inmates stand around reading scattered pages from an old newspaper. A lanky young Latino is giving a trim to a tiny African American, using a piece broken off from an electric hair clipper as a comb. Inmates walk in and out of the dank, dirty bathroom, where only about 5 of the 15 toilets appear to be working.


The current lockdown, Lewis tells me, is the 22nd in Lancaster during the past six months. “We had a situation between blacks and Hispanics,” says White. “It’s hard for them staying in here, lying on their bunks all the time. If we have a full-scale riot, everybody’s life could be in danger. We’ve got rival gang members living together in here.” The slightest provocation—a vato loco stepping on a Blood’s foot—could set off an explosion. In fact, riots, many of them race related, have become endemic in the state’s overcapacity prisons, with 315 in 2005 alone.


The scene is less claustrophobic, less volatile, in the seven official reception center cell blocks. A correctional officer hoisting a Mini-14 paces inside a black-tinted Plexiglas booth on a platform above the entrance. Along the walls are two tiers of six-by-ten-foot cells. Though the tiny spaces were intended for single prisoners, a pair has been packed into each. Whether you wind up in a cell or a gym at the reception center depends somewhat on the luck of the draw. The rest of the cells in Lancaster are occupied by “general population” inmates serving out their sentences. Interspersed between the cells are a few musty voids where prisoners wash. According to inmates, some showers don’t work, don’t have hot water, or only have water so hot they have to leap in and out to avoid being scalded. Until last month about 40 additional bunk beds had been crammed into each cell block’s dayroom around islands of metal tables and wooden benches.

Excited about anything that breaks the bone-crushing monotony, the inmates in the cells shout for me to come over and talk. The old joke about prisons is that everybody inside claims he’s innocent, but not here. Some of the men are, as one later puts it, “gangsters with fucked-up childhoods who grew up in terrible places and did rotten, evil shit.” But more are petty thieves and small-time drug dealers, con men, car thieves, and young guys with impulse-control issues, a large number of whom have been diagnosed with a mental illness and drug or alcohol addiction. Many are illiterate and unemployable—men with zero prospects who remain perpetually tangled in their own bad choices and a corrections system that for decades has offered no way out. A pink-skinned kid tells me that he was arrested for stealing Jägermeister from a 7-Eleven while on probation. Another inmate, who has saucer eyes and looks like he’s 14, was an unarmed accessory in an armed robbery. A pudgy Scotsman recalls how he was caught with six keys of coke after crossing the border into the United States from Canada.


There’s little help on the outside for ex-convicts in Los Angeles. Housing, jobs, money, substance-abuse treatment, food stamps, welfare benefits, a driver’s license—all are hard to come by, while violating parole by getting high and testing dirty is easy. Ninety-eight percent of prisoners released in California are placed on parole, no matter their crime, as opposed to about 40 percent in other states. Then they’re repeatedly drug tested. “Since two-thirds of parolees have substance-abuse histories, and since the majority of them will not receive substance-abuse treatment while in prison,” says Stanford law professor Joan Petersilia, “testing them means they invariably fail, and the return to prison is almost guaranteed.”

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor in 2003, it was a golden opportunity for reform. He promised to cut the inmate population by nearly 20,000 and to challenge the powerful guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. “I see a system,” he rhapsodized to reporters during a press conference at Mule Creek State Prison in Northern California, “committed to rehabilitating our prisoners so they can be successful when they are released and a system managed with the highest degree of professionalism. We are going to change the culture that allows the code of silence [among guards]. We won’t stop until we tear down the whole wall and see it on the ground in a pile of rubble.”

In 2005, Schwarzenegger decided to take on not only the correctional officers’ union but all of California’s state employee unions. He called a special election and placed several initiatives on the ballot that were designed to break the unions’ political power. The counterattack was swift, and the public face of it was not the guards but nurses and firefighters. The unions spent more than $100 million to defeat the measures. Politically weakened, Schwarzenegger lost his focus on prison reform and edged away from his war with the correctional officers’ union. Two years later, before the financial crisis, the governor and the legislature passed a bill authorizing $7.4 billion in bonds for the construction of prison cells but did nothing to relieve overcrowding in the short term. The legislature also authorized new rehabilitation and reentry programs but earmarked only $50 million to fund them. Now that fiscal Armageddon has arrived, Schwarzenegger has to do more than try to appease Judge Henderson. He’s proposing to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the corrections budget, and though he raised the issue of downsizing the prison population by up to 37,000 shortly before the judges ruled in August, the reduction wouldn’t be through calibrated early releases into community programs, as reformers would have hoped. Instead the governor and legislature have recommended stopgap measures: passing some illegal immigrant inmates to federal authorities, scaling back parole supervision of low-level offenders, and permitting certain prisoners to complete their sentences at home.



When the L.A. County facility opened, there was no reception center; it was solely maximum security. At the time, Lancaster was a desert outpost with plenty of cheap land and relatively few jobs. To politicians and state officials, it was an ideal place for housing prisoners. The nation was in the midst of a massive building boom that would put 22 new prisons in California. Urban areas didn’t want prisons, and state lawmakers from rural districts with high unemployment did. Of the 1,800 employees at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, more than 1,100 live in Lancaster and the surrounding valley, earning an average salary of $66,000 a year—significantly higher than the area’s median income. In addition, though inmates can’t vote, they are counted as district residents when tax dollars and political representation are being apportioned—another incentive for politicians to keep their prisons filled and functioning.

However, the same plentiful land that helped make Lancaster a good candidate for a prison also helped fuel unprecedented growth. The town went from being the sticks to a sprawl of more than 145,000 people. Housing tracts now sit within view of the guard towers, and that’s a problem for corrections officials: Home owners don’t like living next to prisons. The state only converted the facility to a reception center in 2006. Senator George Runner, along with his wife, then-Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, were “instrumental” in getting the conversion, Lieutenant Lewis tells me, “because those inmates’ families started moving into the area, and they associated the families with crime.” Now that the state is increasing the ranks of maximum-security prisoners here again, it’s hearing loud opposition from local politicians.


Not far from the gym is the Correctional Treatment Center. Inside, 14 black men are sitting on wooden benches in two small Plexiglas holding booths, waiting to see a doctor. Beyond them, about a dozen correctional officers are milling around a high reception desk, doing paperwork and goofing off. They’ve just returned from their daily rounds of bringing inmates from cell blocks to the clinic. Every day they process between 100 and 250 people for illness and routine appointments. With the exception of the locked steel doors and the bars on the shower stalls, this part of the clinic is a dead ringer for any tired public hospital serving the urban poor.


In the back are 18 cells, each equipped with a camera to view inmates. There’s a rubber room whose only feature is a hole in the floor for a toilet (to prevent disturbed prisoners from ripping out the plumbing). There are cells for ailing patients. In one of the two isolation rooms, a rail-thin man diagnosed with “seizures and possible TB” wears a helmet and reclines on—if the look on his face is any indication—what could be his deathbed.

For decades federal courts have ruled that under the U.S. Constitution, states must provide adequate medical care to prisoners. But by 2006, California’s prison health care system was contributing to at least one preventable death a week through sheer neglect. Prisons were operating primitive, filthy infirmaries—some with no running water—that shackled pregnant inmates to beds as they delivered their babies, routinely misdiagnosed symptoms, and dispensed the wrong medications. At Solano State Prison an inmate had a wisdom tooth removed, only to have his jaw and neck later swell so grotesquely that it became impossible for him to breathe or swallow. He went without eating for six days before he was finally taken to a hospital, where he died two hours after being admitted.

“I would tell politicians all the time,” Henderson recalls, “‘Don’t you understand there are people dying in prison every day because of diseases like asthma that are easily treatable?’ And they’d say that they understood but they had to be careful, because they couldn’t be seen ‘to hug a thug.’?”

Many of the prison health care system’s problems stem from mandatory-minimum statutes like 1994’s three-strikes law, which has filled clinics and hospitals with thousands of older inmates who have required costly treatments for cardiovascular disease, hepatitis, HIV, and other afflictions. The need for medical care is acute for inmates. They age 10 to 15 years faster than people on the outside, partly because of the criminal lifestyle but also because of the inactivity and added stress caused by the enormous amount of time spent in their cells. They die, on average, at 54. The situation had been exacerbated by a vacancy rate that had reached as high as 39 percent among nurses and 42 percent for pharmacy staff.

In 2006, Henderson seized the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s health care system, placing it under the supervision of a receiver. “A receiver in an institutional setting like a prison is based on a business model designed to get things done,” he says. After the first receiver was fired in 2008, Henderson hired J. Clark Kelso, a round-faced law professor with a salt-and-pepper beard. “We’ve begun saving tens of millions of dollars through improvements we’ve already made,” says Kelso, who had been California’s chief information officer. “We’ve been filling vacant medical positions and establishing health care custody teams at all the prisons, staffed by 1,500 newly hired corrections officers”—like those I saw at the clinic—“whose sole job is to ensure that sick inmates get transported to medical appointments. That simple act of transporting prisoners,” Kelso explains, “has saved huge amounts of money. When we started out, about 50 percent of appointments with doctors and clinicians were missed because the guards simply didn’t get them there. Now those missed appointments are down below 1 percent.”

The biggest factor in Kelso’s success has been his ability to cut through bureaucratic red tape because of the sweeping mandate given to him by Henderson to “control, oversee, supervise, and direct all administrative, personnel, financial, accounting, contractual, legal, and other operational [medical care] functions.” “We haven’t had problems firing people,” says Kelso, “because we don’t have to follow rules that govern the CDCR. We’ve fired 65 doctors for incompetence in the last 18 months—about 20 percent of the number of authorized physicians. And we’ve had a 73 percent reduction in the number of prisoners who defiantly died as a result of a lack of care, while the overall prisoner death rate per 100,000 from 2006 through 2008 has dropped about 13 percent.”

In the clinic at the Los Angeles County prison, there are signs of improvement. “We’ve gone from a staff of 7 to 41 and gotten all new dental equipment. Before, it was impossible to do anything but get inmates out of immediate pain,” says Renee Ballard, a dental assistant. “We only had four dentists and three assistants for over 4,000 inmates. Guys waited three months for a toothache. Now we see them within three days.”


Since being taken over, the prison medical system has seen its budget more than double, from $900 million to $2 billion. Kelso had been demanding an additional $8 billion to build seven long-term medical facilities for 10,000 chronically ill prisoners, where they could be treated more cost effectively, but that was before California entered its severest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. Last May Kelso was ready to settle for a $1.9 billion down payment to build health care facilities for 3,400 inmates. As California’s fiscal meltdown deepened, however, Governor Schwarzenegger torpedoed the deal, declaring that the state couldn’t spend “$2 billion on state-of-the-art medical facilities for prisoners while we are cutting billions…from schools and health care programs for children and seniors.” It will now be up to the courts to force a solution. The issue could wind up before the United States Supreme Court. 



Located on the western flank of the L.A. County prison is a nine-year experiment that had until July been known as the Honor Yard. That’s when it was given its new, vaguely Orwellian name, the Positive Programming Facility. Enclosed in cyclone fencing and comprising five buildings, it is a prison within a prison and the only program of its kind in the state. The majority of the 600 men here are serving 25 years to life, often without the possibility of parole. Pairs of them sleep in cells designed for one person, but the usual problems associated with incarceration—drugs, violence, gangs—are less pronounced than elsewhere. Prisoners assigned to the program have to agree to abide by a strict set of rules and have to submit to random drug testing. In exchange, they have more freedom—to take a shower or go to the canteen when they want, to attend shop and educational classes, or to sign up for substance-abuse treatment. They have a bit more control over their lives—and  therefore a bit more self-respect.

Lewis leads me through the gate, past a loose knot of prisoners in the exercise area, into a cramped room filled with colorful paintings hanging on the walls and leaning on easels—abstracts, portraits, landscapes, sketches of wild animals. They’re the work of inmates in the “Arts in Corrections” program, something that is uncommon among California prisons. At one of the room’s small tables sits 38-year-old Cole Bienek, who wears horn-rimmed glasses and has pulled his sandy brown hair into a ponytail. The son of a golf pro and a real estate agent, Bienek was 17 when he received a sentence of 16 years to life for killing a man. “He was cruising for young boys and picked me up. I needed money for drugs,” Bienek says. “It was premeditated murder, and I was pretty lucky to get second-degree murder out of it.” When the Honor Yard was initiated in 2000, Bienek was one of the 600 or so inmates from around the state who applied to join. “Some amazing things went on,” he recalls. “We’re level four—maximum security—yet there were no fights, no stabbings, no drugs or racial tensions. The focus was rehabilitative.”

“The key is to create an incentive system,” says Kenneth E. Hartman, who’s serving life without parole for murdering a man in a brawl when he was a teen. Twenty-eight years into his sentence, Hartman says he’s received a $10,000 advance to write a book about his experience in prison. “Just living in a safe environment and having an opportunity to live somewhat like a human being is a big thing,” he says.


The effect on inmates has been profound. Within three years of the Honor Yard’s inception, violence and threats had decreased by 85 percent, weapons violations by 88 percent, and drug violations by more than 40 percent. But the program is in jeopardy. Because of overcrowding, prisoners who don’t subscribe to the facility’s rules are being moved into it. Gang members have been an especially daunting problem. “The Southern Hispanics, a large prison gang,” says Bienek, “have a standing order that if a member is transferred here, he has to assault someone so he’ll be kicked out. And if he doesn’t, he’ll be targeted for assault by the gang.” When state senator Gloria Romero sponsored legislation that would have authorized Honor Yards throughout the system, the correctional officers’ union and most wardens opposed it. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.

“Clearly for the union and a lot of the bureaucracy, the Honor Yard was intolerable because it gave the inmates some control over their surroundings,” says a staff member who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “Their attitude is ‘you’re not going to tell us how to make you behave and conform—we’re going to tell you.’ It’s a power thing in a business which, as currently constituted, is about nothing but power and control.”

The 33,000-member union is so powerful that in 2004, the former California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s inspector general described it as the biggest ball on the pool table, “beating the other balls all over the felt.” The union has been behind many of the toughest sentencing laws passed during the last two decades, doling out support for politicians who work with it and funding opposition to legislators who don’t agree with its views. Even the prison’s warden, Brian Haws, a former correctional officer, is critical of the union. It’s “frustrating trying to get anything done,” he says, “because everything has to go through the [union’s] bargaining unit.”


Working in a prison eight hours a day is not pleasant. Or safe. What makes the job tolerable is an average salary of $63,000 a year—good money for a position that requires only a high school education. (As one guard says, “This is the job I landed, not the job of my childhood dreams.”) But being surrounded all day by prisoners who hate you has a way of making a person want to hunker down. On my last visit to the prison, I meet with a number of guards, among them a 14-year correctional officer named L. Bryant (he won’t tell me his first name). He’s wearing nine gold union pins on his collar, and like many correctional officers, he’s a military veteran. “Being in green,” he says, referring to his uniform, “you never really trust anyone. With the press we’re always misguided, misquoted, or misinterpreted.” When I ask him why the union doesn’t champion a more rehabilitative approach, given that the state prison system has a 70 percent recidivism rate (almost one-and-a-half times the national average), he looks at me like I’m from another planet. “You’re asking an officer to be an officer, a counselor, a doctor, a lawyer, an investigator,” Bryant says. “Where does it end?”

The truth is, nobody knows. California has to cut expenses, and the corrections department’s $10.6 billion annual budget is a prime place to start. The government has also begun to put state employees, including guards, on three-day-a-month furloughs. To expect politicians to focus on improving the lives of prisoners when it can’t provide basic services to the rest of the population would be naive, considering they wouldn’t do it when they could better afford to.

Four years ago the California Department of Corrections added the words “and Rehabilitation” to its name, as a signpost that it was headed in a new direction. Nevertheless, the system is cemented in the past. “The prevailing philosophy of the department still remains all about negative reinforcement,” says Hartman. “It’s still all about inflicting pain, still all about a self-fulfilling prophecy that says ‘prisoners are all a bunch of dirtbags, they cannot be successful, so we will not bother investing any time or energy in helping them or encouraging them to become successful.'”

Photograph by Ted Soqui

ALSO: For Ted Soqui’s take on photographing inmates for this feature, read Postscript: Anatomy of a Prison 

Related Content