Riot lessons

War broke out a few weeks ago at the California Institution for Men in Chino. The inmate riot was so large and out of control that for a long time a crisis response team of 80 guards brought in to quell the disturbance could only wait outside for the prisoners to tire, watching as the inmates reinforced positions with barricades, set buildings on fire and clashed in hand-to-hand fighting. The battle was largely along racial lines, black against Hispanic, though inmates of all races were among the 175 injured.

In 2007, corrections experts had warned that overcrowding at the facility created “a disturbance waiting to happen.” The Chino prison housed 5,900 men in space designed for half that many.

Of course, it’s not just Chino that’s overcrowded—the entire 33-prison system is. In addition, it’s been allowed to run via a system of racial segregation, and gangs have flourished, making the overcrowding worse.

That’s why a federal three-judge panel last week ordered the state to release 40,000 prisoners within two years. The judges’ message: This can’t continue.

There are many ways to deal with offenders besides prison, and we need to become more creative. Prison should be the punishment of last resort, not the default response to crime. We’re spending as much (nearly $10 billion annually) on these schools for scoundrels as we are on all higher education in the state.

The state Department of Corrections recently added “and Rehabilitation” to its title. Legislators and prison officials should take the new title seriously. Most prisoners return to society at some point. How they are treated while in the corrections system will determine how they act as free persons.