SuperCell: Our Superhero!

A wish apparently fulfilled in the state of California.

 A photo of the original ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, at the Smithsonian (August, 2005)

The original ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in
The Wizard of OZ,
photographed at the Smithsonian
in August of 2005 (by P. Jackson). Obviously, out here
in California we don't need to click them to create our reality!

No need to click your heels three times.
No need for an action figure
No need to think too deeply.
Indeed, no need to think at all!

Crime Control is Easy:

Just Unleash


gif of construction worker

Here's what you do, it's easy:

You just put your offender in, close the door, push the Time button and SuperCell takes over. The more prisoners you put in and/or the longer you lock them up, the bigger SuperCell gets. SuperCell in California is HUGE!!!

Known for surprising longevity given high capital and operating costs and questionable crime reduction benefits, SuperCell is California's (until now) unrecognized Superhero. Other jurisdictions may have similar superheroes.

SuperCell in California

(not including jails)

You are invited to create a Junior SuperCell in your jurisdiction!
(Let us know so we can link to you.)

(Taken from CDCR 2009 Annual Report)

Today SuperCell in California includes 33 state prisons, 39 camps, and about 13 community correctional facilities and 5 prisoner mother facilities as of 2009, but things have changed quite a bit since then. In 2009 over 171,085 individuals were held in prisons and camps; 123,597 were on active parole. The total number under CDCR jurisdiction was over 316,000. The Community Correctional Facilities, most of which operated under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, included 19 re-entry centers, 2 restitution, one (1) drug treatment facility, 40 camps and sixteen community correctional facilities. There were then190 parole units and subunits and 4 parole outpatient clinics.

93 percent of inmates and parolees were then male; 27% of inmates were white, 29% black, 38% hispanic; and 6% other. The offenses of new male commitments were categorized as 33% persons (the corresponding figure for females was 15%); 27% property (45% female); 26% drugs (33% female); and 14% other (6% female). Inmate reading level averages were 7th grade. Their average age was 37. 53.6% were unemployed at the time of their offense. Death row inmates numbered 671; that number is updated frequently so take this link and look under state by state comparisons.

The average time served by inmates released for the first time from SuperCell was 26 months for crimes against persons, 13 months for property crimes, 15 months for drug crimes, and 13 months for other crimes. There were 22,3167 lifers, 3,781 inmates serving life without parole, and 690 were under sentence of death. Note: there were only a little over 21,000 total adult inmates in California in 1976 with a budget of 2.2 billion.

Of course all of this has changed now with realignment. SuperCell has not been happy. That U.S. Supreme Court upheld legal decisions that in effect require SuperCell to release tens of thousands of inmates to local jurisdictions. That Court decided in favor of lawyers arguing that prison crowding had horrible effects on inmate health. Governor Brown just tried to limit realignment from the original target and that three judge Federal panel upheld the high court's order. This has been very, very sad for SuperCell, who previously just did the job these cells were built for and incarcerated everyone who came. This had gone on for decades and no one seemed to care even when SuperCell was over 180 percent of capacity much of that time.

SuperCell has been expensive although the real cost of it is debated. The average yearly cost per inmate has sharply increased from a decade ago--to $48,536 per inmate. Legally mandated improvements in health care are associated with the relative rise of average inmate costs. The proportion of inmates in SuperCell who are older is sharply increasing and the medical needs of older inmates are greater.

California's 2009 SuperCell $10.3 billion budget was up from $5.237 in 2002-2003. There were 62,961 budgeted positions; 34,705 were sworn peace officers. 52,829 were in Institutions, over 3,600 were in parole and over 6400 were in Administration, all of which had grown substantially in recent decades. Now, with realignment, some people are being laid off and are following the inmates to local jails and probation departments where they hope to get jobs.

SuperCell is a little defensive about having the highest rate of recidivism in the country (66 percent returned to CDCR; members of the public ask why this system is so ineffective when so few people aren't recidivists). Most returns to prisons (59 percent of all returns) are for technical violations of parole, not new criminal convictions. Most technicals are for positive hits on drug tests.


California's rate of prison incarceration has increased substantially over the decades. In 1989 it was 295 per 100,000 state population, increasing to 419 by 1995, and to 456 by 2005. In 2008 it stood at 447 per 100,000 (see data source here). This is a phenomenal increase. California has one of the largest prison building programs in the U.S., although other states may have higher rates of commitment.

Does Growth Mean Reduced Crime? Some officials routinely state that high incarceration levels have caused the dramatic decline in crime. However, jurisdictions without increases in prison populations or three strikes laws have likewise shown dramatic declines in crime in both the U.S. and Europe. See this link for federal prison data, this one for a discussion of the increases in federal prison populations and reasons for declines in crime, and this one that highlights the Western region. One review of studies, Unlocking America from the JFA Institute at this link, also make this highly persuasive argument. Moreover, the most recent (July, 2010) study of juvenile incarceration in California, The California Miracle: Drastically Reduced Youth Incarceration, Drastically Reduced Youth Crime, by Mike Males and Dan Macallair, indicates that the precipitous decline in juvenile incarceration there is associated with major decreases in juvenile offending.

SuperCell's size is a function of the number of inmates going in and how long they stay. The data are clear that the rate of commitment has increased dramatically from 1989 to 2008. During this same period the amount of time that inmates spend in SuperCell has increased dramatically. These two factors drive SuperCell's spectacular growth.

Until recently, California prisons were over 180% of their rated capacity. There were numerous court orders and legal issues facing CDCR at nearly every turn. This agency, like the state in general, is facing severe budget cuts and programmatic changes brought about by realignment. In this environment it seems clear that we can not continue to choose to build our way out of the demand for prison space, especially when it is ineffective. This is a political decision, just as our decision was to embark on the unprecedented growth in prison building, which began under Governor Deukmejian.

Another way to look at the enormous and increasing expenditures on prisons is to consider the expenditures as lost opportunities--that is, opportunities to use such enormous sums of money to deal constructively with other, very pressing, problems in our society--like the societal conditions that permit and encourage crime, fixing schools, repairing bridges, etc., or even such prominent and important things like California's very high recidvism rate. Locking people up may make it possible to incapacitate and prevent some crime for a very brief period--we pay the enormous amount of money on prisons for that narrow benefit. However, the extraordinarily high recidivism levels of released prisoners means that we are doing absolutely nothing to correct the long term issues of our society that lead to crime. Over 93% of prisoners get out some day. The California sentencing statute makes it clear prison is there to punish them and not rehabilitate, despite CDCR's name change. Cui bono? Who benefits in such a system?

If you believe the myth that building a prison will improve a local economy, take this link.

If you believe the myth that Three Strikes is the solution to California's crime problem, then take this link.

If you don't care about these myths,
If you don't voice your opinion
Don't worry...

SuperCell loves you!

In the meantime, SuperCell is sad because the happy symbol of imprisonment--constructing new cells--has been slowed or stopped.
Who knows, maybe SuperCell's junior partners (county jails) will be building in some counties to accommodate realignment.

gif of construction worker

(if the worker isn't busy, reload the page to see a construction worker trying to build prison cells.
The state of California has run out of money, however, so the animated gif only goes a short while.
This is actually a mythical figure at this point.)

Copyright 2013 by Patrick G. Jackson. All Rights Reserved.