Photo gallery: Prison Population at California Institution for Men
More than a year into the court-ordered realignment of the California prison system, the inmate population numbers have dipped to its lowest level in 17 years.
The numbers peaked in 2007, according to a recent study from the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
The California Institution for Men in Chino, which in December 2004 was at more than double its design capacity, is currently at 160 percent of capacity with 4,765 inmates held in a facility designed to hold 2,976, according to the most recent population reports from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
While that may sound like a high number, it's a more than 40 percent drop in the daily inmate population and it's most evident in CIM's gymnasium.
For many years, a total of 213 inmates going through the intake process could spend as many as 60 days living in the gymnasium, said Lt. Dirk Williams, spokesman for CIM.
"There would be double and triple-bunks lined up against the walls and rows and rows until you hit the other wall," Williams said as his voice echoed in the now empty space.
The image of men sitting atop bunks crammed into recreational spaces at several prisons became something many proponents of prison population control pointed to when arguing the overcrowded conditions constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" and was a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
On May 23, 2010, a federal three-judge panel agreed and ordered the state to reduce the prison population by about 30,000 inmates by Oct. 1, 2013.
"After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population," the Supreme Court found.
In response to the court order, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 109 or the Prison Realignment Plan and implemented it on Oct. 1, 2011, which aimed to meet the goal by shifting the responsibilities of housing and monitoring some inmates who would've gone to state prison back to the individual counties.
Since then, the state's overall prison population has dropped more than 12 percent, according to a CDCR population report.
"We used to have about 200 to 250 people coming through here every week," CIM Sgt. Joseph Powers who's worked at the Chino prison for nearly two decades. "It's 30 to 50 a week now."
Those lower numbers also means less violent outbreaks.
"I used to come to work and the sirens would be going off all the time," said Williams.
"You'd also always see the inmates coming and going through the hallways.
Only two inmates walked the corridor as they performed some of their daily duties.
Many blame the CIM prison riot which took place on Aug. 8, 2009 directly on the overcrowded conditions at the Chino facility and all state prisons.
Former prisoner Manuel - he did not want his last name used -- knows all too well the dangers of having to live in the common areas of a California prison. In 2006, he and more than 100 other men shared the gymnasium space at Ironwood State Prison near Blythe.
"(There was)a lot of tension. Stress. Not knowing if at any moment it's about to go down as far as a race war," he said.
The 33-year-old's last stint in prison was at CIM.
"Yeah it was crowded," he recalled. "Significantly more so than in 2002 when I first started visiting CDCR."
Manuel left CIM in 2009 and has not returned to the prison system. He graduated from a technical school last year and has worked in the computer field.
One of the most affected prison was Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, according to Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for CDCR in an email exchange.
Right before AB 109 went into effect, the population at DVI was more than double its design capacity of 1,681 inmates. On Sept. 28, 2011, nearly 4,000 men were being housed at DVI, he said. Today that number is down to 2,280 or at 136 percent of design capacity.
On March 2, authorities removed the last of 20,000 now-unneeded beds that had been jammed into common areas throughout the system. The last one was removed from DVI.
Sgt. Joseph Powers has seen the changes at CIM.
The Chino facility removed the last of its bunks from the gym last year, Williams said.
While nearly all the state prisons have seen a significant drop in the inmate population, one has seen its numbers begin to creep up again.
Last year in the beginning of December, the population at North Kern State Prison was 4,424 with a design capacity of 2,694. The latest count taken on Dec. 5, showed an increase of more than 200 inmates, but it's still a major decrease from its highest count in 2004 which had the facility holding 5,444 inmates, more than double its design capacity, officials noted.
State authorities hope to be able to reach the court's first benchmark set for March 24 of next year. The state prison population numbers must be at 137.5 percent of design capacity.
For Williams, Prison Realignment has helped make CIM a safer place to come to work.
"And it's also safer for the inmates."
Manuel agrees but hopes to never find out.