Experts: Trim California crowding to reduce inmate deaths 

click to enlarge In this Tuesday, July 8, 2014 photo, Dan Ager holds a graphite sketch showing his father, Alan Ager, and him, while standing outside San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. Alan Ager was killed in 2010 at Salinas Valley State Prison and also served time in San Quentin. California state prison inmates are killed at a rate that is double the national average, and sex offenders like Alan Ager account for a disproportionate number of victims, according to an Associated Press analysis of corrections records. - AP PHOTO/ERIC RISBERG
  • AP Photo/Eric Risberg
  • In this Tuesday, July 8, 2014 photo, Dan Ager holds a graphite sketch showing his father, Alan Ager, and him, while standing outside San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. Alan Ager was killed in 2010 at Salinas Valley State Prison and also served time in San Quentin. California state prison inmates are killed at a rate that is double the national average, and sex offenders like Alan Ager account for a disproportionate number of victims, according to an Associated Press analysis of corrections records.

California's extraordinary rate of prison homicides is rekindling a debate over whether the state needs to further reduce its prison population to ensure inmates' safety.

Experts say trimming the inmate population is also the best hope for protecting sex offenders. Their recommendations respond to an Associated Press report that the state's long-term inmate homicide rate is twice the national average and that sex offenders make up a disproportionate share of those killed.

California's high inmate suicide rate is often cited as evidence of problems with crowded facilities and poor treatment of inmates, while its homicide rate previously received little attention. The state already reduced its inmate population under an ongoing federal order.

California prisons are so deadly in part because they are so large, with many holding more than 4,000 inmates, said Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley. It attempts to manage them with a modest staff and is only now beginning to restore educational, vocational and other programs that keep inmates positively occupied but were decimated because of budget cuts during the Great Recession, said Krisberg, who formerly was president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Yet Illinois and Texas, for instance, operate prisons nearly as large but have prison homicide rates below the national average. Moreover, Illinois' prisons would be considered overcrowded by the standards federal judges set for California lockups, but serious inmate-on-inmate assaults have tumbled 62 percent in the last two years and Illinois averages less than one inmate homicide a year.

Officials there and in other states reported no significant problems in protecting sex offenders from attacks by other inmates. Most said controlling gangs was their biggest problem, with Texas and Illinois officials citing their careful screening of inmates as one reason for their success in reducing homicides.

"You're not going to put a guy who's five (foot) six, nonviolent offender, in with a six-five violent offender. Not going to happen," said Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer. "We really work hard not to have cellie-on-cellie problems."

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is reviewing its policy of housing most high- and medium-security inmates two-to-a-cell after the department's inspector general reported last fall that many recent homicides occurred in the victim's own cell.

Most prison assaults result from either gang violence or a festering personal dispute, so Illinois beefed up its intelligence unit in recent years to make sure gangs stay separated and disputes don't escalate.

"Our intel people investigate any whisper of a conflict," Shaer said.

California has too many inmates in tight quarters despite its success in reducing the population to 137.5 percent of the system's designed capacity as required by federal judges, said national prison consultant James Austin. As a result, California doesn't have enough space to safely segregate sex offenders and other vulnerable inmates who need protection, said Austin. He was tapped by the judges to work with California corrections officials on ways to reduce the state prison population without endangering the public.

The homicide rate, already high, spiked in the two years after the prison population was reduced under a 2011 law that keeps lower level offenders in county jails instead of state prisons. Corrections officials said the number of homicides declined last year.

California has operated so-called Sensitive Needs Yards for more than a decade in an effort to protect sex offenders, inmates trying to leave gangs and other vulnerable inmates, yet the AP found that the yards themselves have developed predatory gangs.

Krisberg said California could better protect sex offenders by housing them separately even from other inmates considered vulnerable for different reasons.

Michael Bien, a lawyer who helped successfully push for the court-ordered limit on California's prison population, noted that more than a quarter of the state's inmates are now housed in those special protective housing units.

"The number of people going in there is a reflection of how serious the violence is," Bien said. "It's backwards: The victims of crime have to get locked up."

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