Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Turning the Screws in California

by W. Wisely

Each year, the California Department of Corrections asks the Legislature for an ever-increasing piece of the state's tax pie based in part on claims that violence in the prison system is increasing. The truth is, violent incidents inside have been steadily declining the past decade, the legacy of incentives begun in the early 1970s. In the past few months the Department has quietly taken back many of those incentives. In what many believe is an attempt to spark violence inside in order to justify a bigger budget, the Department is turning the screws on California's 155,000 prisoners.

On October 16, 1997, Gregory Harding, Chief Deputy Director of the Department of Corrections, issued a notice of change to the state's administrative regulations governing prisoner grooming standards. Prisoncrats intend to turn the clock back more than twenty years by prohibiting male prisoners from having hair longer than three inches. Facial hair would be limited to a trimmed mustache, no more than one-quarter of an inch from the corner of the lips.

Female prisoners would be allowed hair any length, but they will have to wear it up above the collar. Females will not be allowed to wear colored hair clips, beads, barrettes, or hair ties. Only clear nail polish will be allowed. The women will be allowed one pair of "authorized" earrings, while male prisoners will be prohibited from wearing earrings or from having any body part pierced. A public hearing on the proposed regulation change was scheduled for December 12, 1997.

On July 21, 1997, the Department announced rule changes concerning law library services in prison. The Department intends to divert the entire $1 million budget for the prison law library system for other uses. As law books become damaged, lost, or out of date they will not be replaced except where necessary to assist a prisoner in filing "initial pleadings" in a civil suit or criminal appeal.

Initial pleadings are defined by the Department as a complaint and reply in a civil suit, an opening brief and reply in a criminal appeal, and a petition and traverse in a habeas corpus action. Other pleadings, such as discovery, motions to compel discovery, opposition to motions to dismiss or for summary judgment, are not considered "initial pleadings," and therefore no law library resources will be allocated for prisoners to prepare such pleadings.

Officially, prison administrators will only confirm the law library and grooming standard changes. Unofficially, however, they talk of even more restrictions. "The weights are gone," says one administrator at Lancaster prison. "The Department is getting a lot of heat from outside agencies about suspects recently released from prison with muscular builds," the administrator explained.

According to laundry staff, white jumpsuits have already been ordered. Beginning sometime next year, the Department will jettison some $14 million worth of prison blue shirts and denim pants, then spend an estimated $6 million more to purchase jumpsuits for the entire prison population. Staff members claim too much money is being lost by damaged clothing. However, they weren't able to explain how money was a significant factor when prisoners are charged for missing or damaged state clothing issued to them.

Some of the other restrictions rumored to begin next year include prohibiting quarterly packages, limiting canteens to just soap, shampoo, and toothpaste, eliminating smoking, personal televisions and radios. "It's tit for tat," one sergeant said. "The victims aren't running around lifting weights, eating three meals a day, wearing braids in their hair with their pants sagging. And neither should the scum responsible for all the hurt."

"For years the Department has extorted money from the Legislature by claiming violence is on the rise in our prisons. The truth is, violence has dropped off. This wave of restrictions is designed to return the system to the level of violence we saw in the early 1970s so the Department can get more money, plain and simple. And they're making these changes without the knowledge of state lawmakers," said Ann Sullivan, Legislative Liaison for FamilyNet, a statewide visitor advocacy group.

In 1972, the Department abolished rules requiring male prisoners to keep their hair short and limiting them to a short mustache. The same year, former Governor Ronald Reagan started the family visiting program. Prisoners were allowed to buy their own small televisions and radios. Regular visits were made a right by statute. Over the past few years, however, family visits have been taken from most prisoners, and regular visits are a privilege rather than a right now. "Gee," Ms. Sullivan said, "let's see, take back all the incentives that helped reduce violence. What do you suppose the result will be?"

The word is beginning to spread inside. Younger prisoners react with disbelief. "They ain't fixin' to cut my hair," said a young lifer. Older cons remember the way things used to be. "I can't believe we're going to do this again," said Red, a fiftysomething lifer at Lancaster. "Didn't someone say 'those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it'?" Yes, someone said that once. But, they didn't have billions of dollars to gain by increasing violence in prison. The history of California prisons seems ready to repeat itself. As the signal for yard recall blared, Red sat unmoving on the curb, wondering. Wondering whether he'd be around after the turning of the screws.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login