Prison Demons

California must exorcise state prisons of demons

Sunday, January 25, 2004 - "When corrupt people are watching over corrupt people, the only thing that results is corruption ."

-- Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough

INMATES are not running California prisons. Guards are, but at times it is hard to tell which are the criminals. No state agency needs reform more than the California Department of Corrections. 

What Californians learned through a series of recent reports and inquiries has been a clarion call to correct alarming problems in our prisons. Testimony at state hearings portrayed the CDC as a "tarnished institution" whose leaders failed it, lost control of its investigative and disciplinary processes and allowed the California Correctional Police Officers Association to fill part of the void. 

Corrections is, in the words of critics, "out of control" and "morally bankrupt." Here is an overview: 

John Hagar, special master appointed by a federal judge, recommends ex-director of prisons Edward Almeida and his chief assistant be charged with criminal contempt for caving in to union pressure, improperly quashing a perjury investigation and misleading a federal inquiry. 

Rogue corrections officers adopted "a prisoner's mentality," forming gangs, aligning with prison gangs and adopting such practices as a "code of silence." Such complicity may have facilitated a riot. To enforce the code and discourage dissent, officers who didn't comply were reportedly intimidated, harassed and in one case perhaps driven to suicide. Hagar says the CDC "turned its head" in such incidents. 

The CCPOA, a major campaign contributor to ex-Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, has so much power that it is the "800-pound gorilla" in corrections policy, says former Inspector General Steve White. Hagar says it disrupted several criminal and administrative investigations in the past decade. 

CDC overspent its budget by $1.4 billion over five years. The largest overrun was $544.8 million, mostly for "unexpected overtime," in 2002-03. 

Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes cutting $400 million from the CDC budget, his administration also approved $454 million in overdrafts. Thus, top prison guards earn more than $100,000, twice their salary. Davis, to whom CCPOA donated $3.4 million, increased their wages 37 percent in five years, adding $518 million a year to costs. 

Schwarzenegger plans to cut the Inspector General's office that investigates prisons from 117 to 6 people and fold it into the CDC. Speier and Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, co-chairs of Senate Select Committees on Government Oversight and the California Correctional System, want the office restored and to remain independent. 

We agree. But too little was done by the IG to address prison problems under Wilson and Davis. If the office survives, it must pursue its task with new zeal. 

To begin correcting the problems, we recommend that: 

An experienced, committed, no-nonsense, reform-minded CDC director be hired. 

Members of the CDC bureaucracy and unions who participated in criminal conduct and a cover-up be prosecuted and, if convicted or found to have acted improperly, fired. 

That the independent IG's office be salvaged and its manpower and budget partially restored. 

Strong legislative oversight of CDC and prisons be initiated. 

That the CCPOA's wings be clipped, its culture changed and the CDC regain control of its prisons and employees. 

That political donations by unions and associations of state employees be studied with an eye toward limiting them. 

That future reports on prison conditions and conduct be made public, as Speier suggests, and the IG be given more power to refer criminal matters to prosecutors. 

That Schwarzenegger take another whack at the CDC budget. Cuts offset by overtime pay don't count. A more creative approach to parole violations could return fewer persons to prison and help consolidate a few penitentiaries. 

CDC must be fixed. Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature need to exorcise its demons, ASAP. 

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