Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday toured the Southern California prison where 175 inmates were injured in a riot earlier this month, likening the devasation to a scene from one of his movies.
More than 1,000 inmates were involved in the Aug. 8 riot at the California Institution for Men in Chino. The melee left dormitories so badly damaged that inmates have been shipped to other prisons while the dorms are being repaired. One unit was burned, while toilet seats, pipes and other materials were ripped out to be used as weapons.
"Entire housing units were burned," Schwarzenegger said during a news conference after surveying the damage. "It looks like a scene from one of my movies, except this is real danger here and real destruction."
The Republican governor said California's strict sentencing laws have contributed to inmate overcrowding, which is at the heart of several lawsuits that have led to federal oversight of the state prison system.
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Schwarzenegger seeks to cut the inmate population by 27,000 this fiscal year, which would allow the state to reduce the corrections budget by $1.2 billion. He seeks another reduction of 10,000 inmates in the fiscal year that will begin next July.
Diverting that many inmates from state prison cells also will help California comply with a ruling made earlier this summer by a federal judicial panel. The judges ordered the state to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 inmates over two years.
The federal courts have ruled that overcrowding has been the leading cause of unconstitutional inmate medical and mental health care.
"Politicians in Sacramento have swept the problem under the rug for so long," Schwarzenegger said. "We must be measured and smart about how we go about and create these reductions."
It's not clear whether overcrowding played a role in the riot at the Chino prison because various investigations into the incident have yet to be completed. Prison officials said it began with a fight between black and Hispanic inmates.
The governor's plan includes releasing older or physically frail inmates to home confinement, allowing more inmates to earn early release by completing rehabilitation programs and reducing certain thefts and other crimes to misdemeanors, which would keep more convicts in county jails and out of state prisons.
Schwarzenegger promised he would not relax the state's three-strikes law for repeat offenders or allow the widespread early release of violent criminals or sex offenders.
The state Senate has scheduled a debate on his plan for Thursday. Majority Democrats could approve the plan without support from Republicans, who oppose early release programs.
Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth disagreed that the Chino riot demonstrated the need to reduce the prison population. Rather, he said it shows the state needs more prisons and guards, not fewer inmates.
"The message I get from it is these are dangerous people who should not be roaming the streets," said Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta.