How California's Prison Population Exploded 

And why the costs of housing inmates skyrocketed at the same time.


Lindsey Bolar was living in Southern California, working as a short-order cook and raising two children. It was 1987, and the strains of being a new father, paired with a long-time heroin addiction, put him in a financial bind, so he rented out a room in his apartment. But his new roommate didn't pay his rent one month, so Bolar forced him into his car and drove him to the bank. He told his roommate, "If you don't get me my rent money, I'm going to beat your ass. I'm going to break your jaw.'" It was a strong-armed way of collecting what he was owed; the courts called it "kidnap for ransom." Bolar was sentenced to seven years to life.

Inside Calipatria State Prison, Bolar grew angry and started dealing drugs. He used the money he made to pay for his defense lawyer. Anything left over went to support his two children and his heroin habit, which followed him behind bars. The drug dealing went on for a decade, eventually landing him a fourteen-month stay in solitary confinement and a transfer to Solano State Prison. He says the ten years of hustling behind bars left him tired: "When your family start dying, when your kids start growing up, when you start missing stuff, then reality hits you," he said. "When you in that cell sometime by yourself, reality hits you, and you want to go home."

To go home, Bolar knew he needed to demonstrate to the parole board that he had changed, so he enrolled in the Offender Mentor Certification Program, which trained him and fifty other inmates to be drug rehabilitation counselors. It was a yearlong program, and Bolar worked hard. "I gave up visits and studied these courses twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for a full year." The commitment paid off. He passed his exit exam and received a drug counseling certification, which meant "If I came out and Kaiser hospital was hiring, I would be in a good position to get that job," he said.

Bolar was released about a year ago — seventeen years after his minimum term expired. He was 62 years old, and had no job and no money, but thanks to that counseling certification, he's now working for Options Recovery in Berkeley. "This training makes me feel like I can do anything I want," Bolar boasted. "Even though I've got 42 years documented of criminal thinking and behavior, it's possible that a man can change."

Inmates like Bolar once was are called "lifers," referring to the sentence of life with the chance of parole. They can stay in prison indefinitely, or, after a minimum number of years, a parole board can decide to let them out. It's called an indeterminate sentence and though it's now uncommon in California, it used to be the norm.

Before 1977, all California prisoners had an indeterminate sentence. They were given a range of time in which they would be imprisoned, with five years to life being a common sentence. To be freed, inmates had to prove to the parole board that they deserved it, which could mean enrolling in reform-oriented programs, learning a trade, or taking classes. The aim of indeterminate sentencing was to rehabilitate prisoners and, when they were ready to reenter society, free them.

Although the system had its flaws, it also had its successes. According to state statistics, just 15 percent of inmates released in 1977 returned to California prisons — an extraordinarily low recidivism rate in comparison to today. Nonetheless, in 1977, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that completely overhauled the state's sentencing system, switching the focus from rehabilitation to punishment.

Under the Determinate Sentencing Law that Brown signed, most inmates receive a fixed sentence, and are released from prison after a specified time period. As a result, most inmates no longer need to prove to a parole board — like Bolar did — that they are ready to reenter society, and so they don't have to work for their freedom. Because of this, participation in reform-oriented prison programs has dropped substantially. "The general prison population doesn't do shit no more," Bolar noted. "No jobs, no classes, no therapeutics, no nothing ... and when it's time to go home they go home."

In addition, funding for prison rehabilitation has been systemically cut from the California Department of Corrections' budget. In the 1990s, the legislature went so far as to officially change the penal code to say that the purpose of prison was punishment — period. "They took rehabilitation out of it entirely," noted UC Berkeley law professor Barry Krisberg. "So for the past three decades the system has been guided entirely by retribution. The main problem with the punitive approach is that the vast majority of prisoners are released."

And today, released inmates are much less prepared for free society. They usually commit new crimes and end up back in prison. According to the most recent state statistics, an astounding 65 percent of released inmates now return to prison. In the past 25 years, that number has fluctuated between 60 and 80 percent.

At the same time, California voters and state political leaders have made it much more difficult for lifers to win their release. During the past three decades, California governors have routinely overturned parole-board decisions, forcing prisoners to spend even more time behind bars, thereby further diminishing the role of rehabilitation.

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