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Murder in Lockup

This undated file photo released by the California Department of Corrections shows how conditions at the state prison in Los Angeles have enabled prisoner-on-prisoner violence. AP Photo/California Department of Corrections
This undated file photo released by the California Department of Corrections shows how conditions at the state prison in Los Angeles have enabled prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Source: AP Photo/California Department of Corrections

In recent years, it has become abundantly clear that security does not always come hand-in-hand with safety. Although they house the most closely guarded of California residents, state prisons have become dangerous for prisoners and, as a recent report by the Associated Press suggests, prison assaults have increased by an approximated 40% from 2011 to 2013. Prisoner-on-prisoner violence has increased at an unprecedented rate in recent years and this has led to a significant rise in prison homicides.

Of the 672 homicides in state prisons nationally from 2001-2012, 162 were in California. State prisoners are killed at a rate that is double the national average and sex offenders are the ones most viciously targeted. Since 2007, sex offenders have been the victims in more than 30% of all prison homicides.

In light of these statistics, many have begun to question what is it about California that makes it especially dangerous to be an inmate, especially a sex offender. Although there is no easy answer to this question, two major factors have contributed to California’s long history of prison violence.

First, the internal politics of prison culture have made homicide a social norm. Because sex offenders are seen as less than human, it is very common for other inmates to verbally and physically assault them. Lt. Ken Lewis, a correction officer and spokesman at the California’s Los Angeles State Prison, explained of sex offenders that, “Once their crime has become known, they usually don’t make it without protective custody.” On occasion, the public has even expressed support for acts of violence against sex offenders and this has only served to exacerbate the problem and lead to more homicides.

Second, the external politics of prison reform have resulted in policy changes which have increased overcrowding and thereby created the conditions that make for easy assault. In 1994, California voters approved the implementation of the Three Strikes Law, which was one of the most significant changes to the criminal justice system this century. The law imposed a life sentence for felony crimes if the defendant had two prior convictions for crimes defined as serious or violent by the California Penal Code. However, it had the unintended effect of raising the population  of prison inmates to never before seen highs. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the law had caused the conditions of state prisons to become so poor that they violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

With an understanding of the causes, the state has slowly begun to move towards solutions. The most significant change to prison policy has come in the face of the state’s transition from an emphasis on incarceration to a new focus on rehabilitation. In 2014, exactly twenty years after the Three Strikes Law, California voters approved Proposition 47. The new law would downgrade non-violent drug possession and minor thefts to misdemeanor status and, as a result, 2,700 non-violent offenders were released last January. As such, Prop 47 has served a practical purpose by easing overcrowding and lifting much of the burden off of California’s taxpayers, but it also says something profound about the ways in which the state is seeking to represent itself on a national level. This policy has truly changed the rhetoric of the penal system away from lengthy incarceration to rehabilitation.

With this change in philosophy, the state has the opportunity to reform lives and focus on practical solutions– even for the most hated members of society. In the 1990s, the state designated special housing units to protect vulnerable inmates who often became visible targets– a pool of prisoners that included informants and sex offenders. This policy change intended to provide some protection for the physical abuse at-risk inmates received in general population. Last year, however, the corrections department reported that out of eleven homicides, eight of the victims were sex offenders. Even among other vulnerable prisoners, sex offender are regularly targeted. According to UC Berkeley Political Science Professor Alan Ross, the problem is rooted in political tradition. He explains: “The prison guard union in California has always been powerful and their goal is to maintain full employment for their guards. Their lobbyists are incredibly successful at getting things to happen in Sacramento . . . This is something that may prevent long-term prison reform.”

The high cost of incarceration, coupled with life-threatening conditions, causes many Californians to question the state’s prison policy and demand solutions.  The systemic problems inherent in the penal system are complex and will not be solved overnight, but the present conditions in our state prisons cannot be sustained in a way that is both ethical and practical. To allow inmates to take justice into their own hands and subjectively punish each other is to violate the rule of law. In short, it is vigilante justice. In terms of solutions, it has been suggested that the state could better protect sex offenders by separating them into their own facilities and, although this solution is imperfect, it can certainly help to prevent the conditions that make inmate-on-inmate violence so common. Whatever the final solution happens to be, it is time for the state to take control of the problem and fix it so that conditions are safe for all inmates. In our state prisons, inmates should be better protected so that they can serve out their court-ordered sentences.