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A Brief History of California’s Epic Journey Toward Prison Reform

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Keys and chains hang from the belt of a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officer at San Quentin State Prison.

A decade ago, so many inmates were crammed into California’s prisons that the sprawling system had reached a breaking point. Prisoners were sleeping in gyms, hallways, and dayrooms. Mentally ill prisoners were jammed into tiny holding cells. There were dozens of riots and hundreds of attacks on guards every year. Suicide rates were 80% higher than in the rest of the nation’s prisons.

The California prison population peaked at more than 165,000 in 2006—in a system designed to house just 85,000. That dubious mountaintop came after years of tougher and tougher laws like mandatory sentences, juveniles prosecuted as adults, and a “Three Strikes” initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1994.

Since then, California has struggled to deal with a cascading series of problems and almost constant oversight by federal judges. In recent years, the state has undergone the biggest transformation to its prisons since the first, San Quentin, opened in 1851.

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