In 2006, California’s prison system housed more than 170,000 people, 199% of the capacity it was designed to hold. It was the highest total that the state has ever seen. In 2011, the Supreme Court found that the health conditions in the state’s overcrowded institutions qualified as cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment. In the years that followed, numerous pieces of legislation were passed, leading to a slow decrease in the number of people behind bars.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the state to further ramp up release efforts. Hundreds of inmates died and cases in the overcrowded conditions numbered in the thousands. These circumstances forced the release of over 27,000 people from California prisons in 2020, the largest one-year release the state has ever seen. As of February 2022, the state’s prisons held 98,000 people, 108% of the institutional capacity.
A combination of elements is forcing the CDCR’s hand toward change. All the while, California is framing itself as a leader in revamping the criminal justice system. While there’s much to be said about the state’s efforts to reverse its practices that led to mass incarceration, there is one question at the heart of this report: What assistance is there for people who are formerly incarcerated to ensure their successful return to society?
Starting in 2018, photographer Brandon Tauszik and I began documenting the lives of eight people who’ve spent decades in California’s prison system. All of them, save for one, had been serving life sentences; but even that one person is serving a different sort of life sentence, one where he may never become a citizen. In the decades since these eight people were convicted and sentenced, California has passed new legislation, the state’s prison population has decreased, and public perception of people who’ve been incarcerated has begun to shift. But as these individuals and thousands of others who’ve served extended prison sentences are coming to find out, it’s not easy to navigate the free world.
The eight people profiled in Facing Life have told me about the everyday difficulties of operating smartphones, auto-flush toilets, and electric cars. Arguably more important are the hurdles they face when applying for jobs and finding shelter in California’s scarce housing market. And then there are more nuanced issues: mental health, generational trauma, the search for purpose in a world that does not seem to care for them. These are obstacles faced by many, but for the formerly incarcerated, such struggles can bring life-or-death consequences.
It’s important to understand that the people profiled in Facing Life are a small example of what mass incarceration in California has created. And as the state pushes to reverse course, it leaves the question to be asked: After time has been served, what do you do once you are free? This isn’t just a question for the individuals, but for the state as well. It’s time to not only rectify the harsh penalties of the past, but to prepare for a society where mass incarceration is no longer a thing—but mass integration is.
– Pendarvis Harshaw