"At one time we had close to 5,600 inmates here at Centinela State Prison. Currently, we have just short of 3,000 inmates," said Lt. James Hill, Centinela State Prison.
California's Centinela State Prison is located in Imperial, about 120 miles east of San Diego. Centinela is one of 34 prisons run by the state of California under court order to fix its overcrowded prison problem. Two years after Assembly Bill 109, also known as "realignment," went into effect, the state has reduced its population by about 25,000 inmates.
"So now we have the opportunity to provide them with vocation, with education, so that way when they do get out they're more productive citizens," said Hill. "And that way when they are our neighbors, when they return to society, they are better people."
"The more things that you have available for the inmates, the less idle time you have. The less idle time you have, the less violence," said Centinela inmate Mark Tanner, in prison for murder.
The room where inmates worship can be pretty full on Sunday, said Lt. Hill.
"It's a blessing that I found God," said inmate John Wesley Young Jr., convicted of murder.
"Catholic, Protestant, Native American, Muslim, Odinist, Wiccan. Inmates have the right to choose the religion they want to choose, and we don't differentiate from them," said Hill.
Education is open to all. Teacher-led classes are available Monday through Friday, and tutoring sometimes comes from the inmates themselves.
That includes inmate Mark Jarosik, who earned a master's degree in architecture before his arrest and conviction for attempted murder.
"[One inmate] just passed his GED. Now the world is kind of opened up to him a little bit more for college, and I think it gives them something to look forward to," said Jarosik.
Severe overcrowding led to a 2011 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that California's overcrowded prisons were so bad they violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Common areas used to house excess inmates.
"Prior to realignment we had 20 bunks on some of our housing units on this side of the housing unit, and 20 bunks on that side of the housing unit," said Hill.
One gymnasium housed more than 100 inmates.
"Based on realignment we no longer use it as a housing area," said Hill. "Soon it's being refurbished, we'll be using it as a gymnasium and for programming areas. We'll be using it for chapel services, we'll be using it for NA and AA meetings. We'll actually be able to use it for rehabilitative purposes."
The average cost to house an inmate in California is $60,000 a year.
Inmate Mark Tanner argues that California taxpayers should see more of a payoff.
"You've paid all this money to rehabilitate me and help me make myself a better person. Don't you want a return on your investment?" said Tanner.
Tanner may never get out, but he says less-crowded prisons means greater access to rehabilitative programs and that, he believes, benefits everyone.
"Would you want to live in a community that was receiving back into the community a prisoner, somebody who had been in prison, who had done time, who felt neglected, mistreated, abused, forgotten or discarded? And would you want them in your neighborhood with you and your family and your children?" said Tanner. "Or would you want somebody who is going to have a sense of gratitude, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of being a part of society instead of a derelict of society?"
The state has until late February 2014 to reduce California's prison population by another 10,000 inmates.