October 5, 2007

Ted Koppel goes to prison

"Breaking Point" airs Oct. 7 on Discovery Channel

Several months ago, I was strolling across "The Yard" at California State Prison-Solano (CSP) when a convict walked up to me and claimed he had just spotted Ted Koppel. At first I thought he was joking, but several others confirmed the sighting.

This Sunday, Koppel's show about the appalling state of California's prisons will air on the Discovery Channel at 9:00 p.m. Entitled "Breaking Point," it focuses on a converted gym crammed full of triple-decker bunk beds.

From the Discovery Channel website comes this overview:
What does the California prison system have in common with Harvard University?

It costs precisely as much to house, feed and guard one prisoner for one year in a California state prison as tuition, meals and housing cost for a student enrolled for one academic year at Harvard. As far as California taxpayers are concerned, it gets even worse. Their prison system is so overcrowded that it's reached a breaking point. Either the state finds a long-term solution or the federal courts have warned they'll begin ordering the release of inmates, just to ease the crush.

In this two-hour broadcast, Ted Koppel examines how California got to this point and presents an inside view of the crisis through in-depth interviews with inmates, guards and prison officials at California State Prison Solano in Vacaville.
Designed to accommodate no more than 100,000 inmates, California’s prisons now hold 173,000, each at an annual cost of $43,000.

How did things get so out of control?

Mandatory sentencing is a big part of the answer. When California voters threw their support behind a get-tough-on-crime bill that came to be known as "Three Strikes and You're Out," the state prison system filled up and is now overflowing.

While shooting, Koppel spent a number of days among the general population at Solano. His reporting focuses on the inhabitants of H Dorm, where inmates are stacked in triple-deck bunk beds on an old indoor basketball court. Correctional officers are so badly outnumbered that prison officials keep inmates segregated by race and gang affiliation in a desperate effort to avoid friction and maintain control. Even so, Solano still sees three to four race riots a year. Using smuggled cell phones, gang bosses continue running criminal operations on the street from behind prison walls. At the same time, they’re running drug and prostitution rings inside Solano.

Koppel will introduce viewers to many of Solano's inmates, including Travis Tippets, Joseph Mason and Brian O'Neal. Having completed a six-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon, Tippets is being released from Solano and sits for a brief "exit interview" with Koppel. The last time he was paroled, it took Tippets less than a day to get arrested and sent back. Knowing that a third strike could land him back in prison for life, Tippets finds out how hard it is to get a job with no skills and a criminal record.

Joseph Mason is a third-striker. He's been arrested and convicted three times for nonviolent burglaries and he won't be eligible for parole until 2019; the ultimate irony is that he voted for the three strikes law. Brian O'Neal is also a nonviolent repeat offender. He has been to prison 11 times and nine of those sentences were for violating parole. Koppel's cameras track O'Neal's 11th release from prison as his pregnant girlfriend picks him up and the two drive out of Solano. Within weeks, O'Neal is arrested again for violating his parole.