Characteristics of Prisoners in the California Department of Corrections: Race, Ethnicity, and Other Aspects

By Eisenman, Russell | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Characteristics of Prisoners in the California Department of Corrections: Race, Ethnicity, and Other Aspects


Eisenman, Russell, Mankind Quarterly


A study of data from the California Department of Corrections -- the system in California for adult prisoners - shows that there are more Hispanic prisoners than any other group, with African-Americans second in percentage incarcerated. Other data, from the population of 160,846 prisoners, reveals interesting findings. Prisoners seem more likely to come from southern California than from northern California. Drawing on the author's own prison work in California, it is suggested that gang membership may account, in part at least, for the large percentage of prisoners being Hispanic or African-American. Other issues are discussed.

Key Words: California, criminal justice system, prisons, drugs, gangs, Hispanics, African-Americans,

Crime is a serious social problem in the United States and as in many other countries (Bartol, 1999; Correctional Service of Canada, 1990; Douglas, Burgess, Burgess, & Ressler, 1992; Hodgins, 1993). California is the most highly populated state in the United States. It has been a state where numerous innovative programs have appeared for dealing with crime and with prisoners. It also has a wide array of racial and ethnic groups. So, it is of some value to look at characteristics of prisoners in the state's Department of Corrections, which is the agency that handles adult prisoners. In a previous study, the author reported on the characteristics of prisoners in a California Youth Authority prison treatment program (Eisenman, 1993). Having worked for close to two years in a California Youth Authority intensive treatment program, he was able to draw upon objective data and staff ratings when engaging in this study (Eisenman, 1993). His previous study of official data in California revealed interesting information about crime rates and arrest rates (Eisenman, 1994).

Adulthood in California is defined as being 18 years of age or older. Younger prisoners go to a variety of prisons and county-run camps. The worst youth offenders are sent to the California Youth Authority. However, from age 18-25 years of age, a convicted person can be sent either to the California Youth Authority or to the Department of Corrections. Immature, weak offenders, in the 18-25 years age range, are more likely to be sent to the California Youth Authority, while your more normal criminal in this age range is more likely to be sent to an adult prison. Both the California Youth Authority and the California Department of Corrections have mostly prisoners with serious, felony convictions, and often with long histories of committing crimes.

Findings

The data ppresented here were obtained from the California Department of Corrections. At the time the data were gathered, in the middle of the year 2000, the inmate population comprised 160,846 prisoners, of which the greatest percentage were Hispanics, representing 34.0% of prisoners in the California Department of Corrections. Next come African-Americans, who comprised 31.4% of the prison population, Whites constituted 29.4% of the prison population, while 5.2% were classified as "Other."

Why would Hispanics be such a high percentage of the prison population? A partial answer comes from the top five counties in terms of inmates in the Department of Corrections. Los Angeles County, which has a high percentage of Hispanics, leads with 34.3% of the prisoners being from Los Angeles County. Then, the percentages drop off greatly from the 34.3% of Los Angeles County. But, the other four counties are all in southern California, where Hispanics would be more likely to be found, than in the northern California counties. The second most populous county is San Diego County, with 8.2% of the prison population being from there; the third most is San Bernardino County, 6.2%; the fourth most is Orange County (right next to Los Angeles County, but with a much wealthier population) 5.3%; and fifth is Riverside County, 5.4%.

Although the United States has had a War on Drugs that has led to large numbers of federal prisoners being incarcerated for drug offenses, this is surprisingly not the top cause of incarceration in California, although it is the second largest category of incarceration. …

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