Watchdog planned for prisons
Working to fix a major weakness in California's beleaguered prison system, state officials are creating a new agency to oversee a Department of Corrections' internal affairs unit described by a federal court monitor as "almost totally ineffective."
The independent oversight authority would provide lawmakers and the public with a window into the internal investigation unit while it is handling cases against any of the 50,000 prison employees in the 33-prison, 160,000-inmate system. Officials within the new unit would help shape the probes, make suggestions about how they should proceed and post their findings on a Web site.
Legislative critics of the prison system said they welcome the oversight office as a critical step toward establishing credibility in the internal affairs process.
"We had tainted investigations, and this right away would provide for almost a professionalization, a fresh set of eyes, to review on a real-time basis any ongoing investigation," said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-East Los Angeles, co-chair of recent joint legislative hearings into California's corrections agencies.
Officially known as the Office of Investigative Services, the internal affairs unit came under heavy criticism in a Jan. 15 special master's report filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Special Master John Hagar blasted the Department of Corrections for its handling of allegations that prison officers perjured themselves in the 2002 federal trial of two Pelican Bay officers. Hagar's report also ripped the unit's performance in investigating other allegations of inmate abuse by prison officers.
Hagar concluded that a failure to crack the officers' "code of silence," as well as an inability to prevent retaliation against whistle-blowers or blunt the influence of the officers' union, "has rendered the adverse action process in the California Department of Corrections almost entirely ineffective."
"Grave, systemic shortfalls" in the internal affairs unit hashave left the state with "no current effective mechanism for monitoring and correcting abuses when they occur," the report said.
Hagar's report recommended that the department "develop a system of monitoring and discipline" to restore public confidence in the prison system.
Officials since have proposed putting the Department of Corrections under a separate oversight group, one modeled on a board at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department endorsed by state officials from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on down.
Details are still to be worked out about how the unit would operate and how muchwhat it would cost. The new unit, projected to have a staff of 20, would be attached to the Office of the Inspector General.
The Legislature created that office in 1998 to oversee a prison system then reeling under allegations of officer abuse of inmates at Pelican Bay, Corcoran State Prison and elsewhere.
H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the governor's Department of Finance, said Schwarzenegger supports the idea and will likely propose funding for the oversight authority for itin his May budget revision.
Inmates' rights lawyers involved in a decade-long federal lawsuit with the Department of Corrections say independent review is the state's last chance to reform its disciplinary function before being forced to surrender it to the federal government.
Steve Fama, an attorney with the San Rafael-based Prison Law Office,
described the independent review process as an alternative to taking the
internal affairs function out of the Department of Corrections completely.
Fama said if the state fails to create the new office or doesn't fund it
adequately, he will ask the court's special master, Hagar, to propose a
takeover of the Department of Corrections' entire internal affairs apparatus.
"Then we'd have the court oversee it," said Fama, whose office forced the monitoring of Pelican Bay in a lawsuit filed a decade ago. "This is why the state has so far responded the way it has, and the way the state has responded indicates to me that they themselves understand very well what the consequences would be if their efforts fail."
The prisoncorrectional officers union also favors independent monitoring.
"Anything that gives the Department of Corrections credibility in its investigatory process is a good thing," said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Sources said that independent review will be a major topic of discussion in a meeting scheduled for todaythursday in the San Francisco chambers of U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson. Expected to attend the session will be Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Roderick Hickman; gubernatorial counsel Peter Siggins; Fama; Prison Law Office supervising attorney Donald Spector; Hagar; and Mike Gennaco, director of the Los Angeles County sheriff's Office of Independent Review.
Gennaco has since been retained by the state to help develop the oversight office. In Los Angeles, he said, his office has seven monitors to oversee internal affairs investigations in an agency with 7,000 sworn officers. He said his monitors work in conjunctionwith the sheriff's internal affairs detectives "to make sure the best evidence is followed."
He said his office posts the details of its monitoring efforts – as well as its recommendations – on its Web site while investigations are under way. Such "real-time" involvement helps shape the outcome of the investigations, Gennaco said.
"It gives a window to the public where there traditionally haven't been windows," Gennaco said. Gennaco said state prison officials "absolutely" have been receptive to the idea of incorporating the L.A. model.
"They've been exceptional in their willingness or desire or motivation to learn about us and to adopt the principles we have here," Gennaco said. At the Department of Corrections, the new head of the internal affairs unit, Martin Hoshino, strongly favors the creation of the oversight model. Hoshino formerly worked for the Office of the Inspector General. At the OIG, it was Hoshino who supervised an audit released in October 2001 that found significant shortcomings in the Department of Corrections' internal affairs operation.
"It's kind of like, 'Do you want to be the patient or the surgeon?'" said Hoshino, noting the irony of working for the agency he once investigated. "I've got to say it was more fun to be the surgeon."
The Bee's Andy Furillo can be reached at (916) 321-1141 or email@example.com .
Prison probe panel sought by governor
Responding to criticism that the state's prison system is beset with corruption and mismanagement, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Monday he'll appoint a special commission to investigate the problems.
Although aides said Schwarzenegger announced the move earlier than expected and that details won't be available for several weeks, he said in a talk radio interview that his commission would "really study the whole prison system Â… the overspending that has occurred, why is this kind of corruption going on.
"Then the code of silence, all of those things. We want to clean the place up. We want to really bring order in there, because it can't continue on like that. I've campaigned on that, that if I see something wrong with government, I want to fix it."
Schwarzenegger's "code of silence" remark referred to a recent report commissioned by a federal judge that said guards are reluctant to expose wrongdoing in their ranks and intimidate colleagues who want to come forward. The report also said other corrections employees who seek to expose problems are retaliated against.
The system was also pilloried in two days of legislative hearings last month that focused on a riot at Folsom State Prison, a subsequent administrative cover-up and other transgressions.
"And so," Schwarzenegger said on KFBK radio in Sacramento, "the only way to do it is, I think, by setting up an outside commission. Let them go in there and really clean up the mess, because we don't (want) to continue the way it is right now."
Schwarzenegger also singled out Rod Hickman, a former correctional officer and warden whom he named secretary of the Youth and Adult Corrections Agency, calling him "a great leader."
" And so I think together with him we are going to be able to clean up the mess," the governor said.
Schwarzenegger's comments came in the wake of criticism in the Legislature and elsewhere of his proposal to slash the budget for the independent inspector general's office, which is charged with investigating prison corruption, and move it into Hickman's agency.
Although he called the agency a "waste" and said it hadn't done "the job that they were supposed to do," Schwarzenegger said at a press conference last week that he was willing to re-evaluate the proposal.
Two Democratic state senators who have been holding hearings on corrections issues applauded the Republican governor's willingness to bring in outsiders to study the prison system and recommend reform.
"I'm glad that he's heard the concern," said Sen. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles. "It's a brand-new administration, and I stand ready to work with him."
Romero, who is conducting the hearings with Sen. Jackie Speier of Hillsborough, called the state's prison system "the Titanic in terms of correctional policy nationally. This thing is dirty. There is a hell of a lot more we have to pick up and look at. Rather than have it swept under the carpet, I'm happy to work with the governor."
Speier said Schwarzenegger's decision to name a commission of experts shows that he believes "this deserves the highest level of involvement of his office and the best minds in California to bring the overspending of that department under control."
But Jim Mayer, head of the Little Hoover Commission, which recently issued its own study calling the state's parole system a "billion-dollar failure," said the problem with trying to reform the prison system has not been lack of information.
"There have been ideas," he said. "The problem has been the willingness to implement significant reforms. Unless he's going to structure a commission that will deliver the political will, the outcome won't be any different."
Schwarzenegger disclosed his plans for the corrections commission in one of four talk radio interviews he conducted Monday to promote his two propositions on the March 2 ballot.
Proposition 57 would authorize the sale of $15 billion in bonds to refinance existing state debt. Proposition 58 would ban such borrowing in the future and require a balanced budget. Both measures have to pass for either one to take effect.
Polls taken several weeks ago showed both propositions trailing, but Schwarzenegger said new internal polls show support growing now that people are focusing on his message that the bond refinances existing debt he "inherited."
The bond is aimed at replacing $10.7 billion in borrowing authorized by former Gov. Gray Davis and the state Legislature to help balance this year's budget, a package that was jeopardized by a legal challenge.
Schwarzenegger, facing a larger budget hole since the courts rejected another $2 billion in borrowing and he repealed an increase in the state's vehicle license fee that Davis triggered last year, wants to replace the current bond package with the $15 billion measure.
He plans to campaign for the bond package at a San Diego middle school at noon today, appearing with Democratic state Controller Steve Westly, co-chairman of the bond campaign.
About the Writer
The Bee's Gary Delsohn can be reached at (916) 326-5545 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
A shortsighted Schwarzenegger
Thursday, January 29, 2004
NEARLY 12 HOURS of state Senate hearings last week and a 71-page federal court report the week before make two things abundantly clear about the California Department of Corrections: It is a dangerously flawed agency, and it is likely to stay that way without outside oversight.
That's why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's attempt to eliminate the Office of Inspector General, the state's only independent watchdog agency set up to monitor prison abuses, is both puzzling and shortsighted.
For two days, a host of witnesses, most notably guards and former prison administrators, gave startling accounts of widespread misconduct -- including staged prison riots, botched internal investigations, high-level coverups, intimidating influence by the guards' union, and death threats and other reprisals to silence whistleblowers.
The hearings came right after a special federal court master's report that concluded both former prison director Edward Alameida and his chief deputy Thomas Moore ought to be criminally prosecuted for lying and conspiring to conceal widespread wrongdoing.
Still, Schwarzenegger this week reiterated his plan to shave $2.8 million from the state budget by wiping out the inspector general's office. Though there are "big, big problems'' with the prisons, he says the office is " a waste ... they haven't done the job they were supposed to.''
He's wrong. The office was set up in 1998 on the heels of a prisoner abuse scandal at Corcoran State Prison. But it can only investigate alleged wrongdoing. Its findings are then surrendered to the CDC for internal disciplinary action that, we now know, seldom occurs.
"When you have the director and the No. 1 investigator essentially being indicted ... how do we take away independent oversight?'' wonders state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who co-chaired the hearings.
This is no time to abolish the office. Instead, Schwarzenegger should join the bipartisan fight to regain control of prisons by giving the watchdog more teeth.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle
Unshackle the Inspectors
January 20, 2004
Working in California's vast correctional system is often dangerous, and most prison guards carry out their jobs honorably. Nothing, however, can excuse what federal investigator John Hagar revealed in a blistering report on the prison system released last week: a pervasive "code of silence" that protects rogue guards who pummel inmates and sometimes prod them into fights, and that is condoned by leaders who "neither understand nor care about the need for fair investigations."
At a hearing last week on prison and parole reform chaired by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), Roderick Q. Hickman, the secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, conceded that "the revolving door in and out of prisons in California creates too many victims and shatters too many lives … we have to achieve more success." Hickman promised to "give our offenders … services to allow them to succeed," such as job training and drug treatment. Unfortunately, though, his newly released budget not only fails to fund such new services, it eliminates the money for the most basic reform of all: the correctional system's independent watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General.
In the last two years, the inspector general's office, whose director is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, has served California well. One of its recent reports, for instance, shows how Richard Krupp, a 31-year Corrections Department veteran, was stripped of his duties in 1999 because he revealed how prison guards overcharged California taxpayers by $250 million a year by abusing sick leave and overtime pay. How did the Legislature reward this good work? By agreeing, under pressure from the prison guards union, to cut the inspector general's budget by 76% in the last two years. Now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his fiscal year 2005 budget, has proposed reducing the agency's budget to zero.
Tip Kindel, a Hickman deputy, says the department is setting aside $630,000 to carry on the job of the inspector general from within the agency. "We're in the process now of developing a comprehensive [oversight] program," he says, "that is going to be fair … and free of inappropriate outside influence."
But at prison reform hearings today and Wednesday, Sens. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Romero should make it clear to Hickman that the once-independent inspectors shouldn't report to him, the head of the department they are investigating.
Restoring the inspector general's independence is only a first step toward reform. But it's the best single step to get at the root problem that Hagar's report exposed: a correctional system that now sanctions not only needless violence against prisoners but assaults on the careers of those who blow the whistle on abuse.
State prisons overseer is fired
Sacramento -- A state investigator who wrote a report condemning the way Folsom State Prison officials handled a riot in 2002 has been fired by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger days before the deputy was to testify at state Senate hearings on California's troubled Department of Corrections.
John Chen, who was chief deputy director of the state agency that acts as an independent watchdog over the penal system, was given less than eight hours to pack his belongings and get out of his office Friday.
Chen is expected to testify this week that the Office of the Inspector General should be beefed up to better handle oversight of the state's 33 prisons -- an idea that runs counter to Schwarzenegger's proposal to eliminate the office.
The firing was fiercely criticized by state Sen. Jackie Speier, D- Hillsborough, and Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who are chairing the prison hearings that begin today.
Speier called Chen's dismissal "a move of questionable timing'' and said she would call him to testify as a private citizen.
"His voice will not be silenced,'' Speier said.
A spokesman for Schwarzenegger denied that Chen's removal had anything to do with the hearings, saying the governor was simply replacing a Davis appointee, as he has done throughout state government.
"The people elected a new governor,'' said Vince Sollitto. "Surely, Sen. Speier wouldn't deny Gov. Schwarzenegger's ability to replace Gov. Davis' staff with his own preferences.''
An investigator with 25 years' experience auditing prisons, Chen concluded in an October 2003 report that several officials at Folsom State Prison had mishandled a brawl there. The confidential report, detailed in a story in The Chronicle on Saturday, played a role in the firing of the warden at Folsom in December and is expected to get its first public airing at the hearing today.
Chen alleged that prison staff had improperly released dozens of members of two rival gangs into an exercise yard at the same time, sparking the riot, and then tried to cover up mistakes.
Chen could not be reached to comment Monday.
Schwarzenegger, who has the right to fire Davis appointees, moved Monday to replace Chen with a former prison guard who has risen through the ranks to hold several oversight posts within the Corrections Department. Regis Gene Lane takes over as the highest-ranking official in the state Office of the Inspector General.
Chen had been running the office since late last year. The previous inspector general, Steve White, was appointed to a state judgeship by Davis just before Davis left office.
The office was created as an independent watchdog in 1998 in the wake of revelations of inmate abuse at Kings County's Corcoran State Prison, where guards staged gladiator-style fights among prisoners. It is charged with performing financial audits and investigations of prisons, and it currently reports to the governor.
But the office has been slowly gutted during the state's budget crisis. In the past two years, the inspector general's budget has been cut by 77 percent; it has only 19 employees now.
Schwarzenegger has proposed eliminating the office entirely and folding all internal-affairs operations into one unit at the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. The proposal would have to be approved by the Legislature and would not take effect until July 1 at the earliest.
Speier and Romero appear poised to fight the proposal. They are expected to call more than a dozen witnesses today to discuss various breakdowns in oversight of state prisons, and they say there are too many internal pressures within corrections to allow a watchdog unit to be effective.
Some testimony will focus on the situation at Folsom. Other speakers will discuss a federal report released last week that accused top corrections officials of quashing a perjury probe of guards at Del Norte County's Pelican Bay State Prison at the behest of the state's politically powerful prison guards union.
Also expected to emerge in testimony today is another mishandled riot, at Avenal State Prison in Kings County, and how one officer at Salinas Valley State Prison was ostracized for warning corrections officials about the code of silence among guards there.
On Wednesday, the hearings will conclude with discussion about how the department can be fixed.
Chen is expected to be on hand to testify both today and Wednesday.
E-mail Mark Martin at email@example.com .
State Prison Investigators Sworn Silent
Agents must agree to confidentiality rules or face possible sanctions.
Senators opening hearings on Corrections fear intimidation.
January 9, 2004
SACRAMENTO — Agents who investigate wrongdoing in state prisons have been ordered not to disclose information about any aspect of their work to legislators, the media or the governor's office — and told to sign a pledge committing to follow the confidentiality rules or face possible sanctions.
The directive, contained in a memo obtained by The Times, was issued as two state senators prepare to hold hearings on misconduct and coverups within the Department of Corrections, including a "code of silence" that often protects rogue guards.
On Thursday, both senators expressed concern that the memo might discourage whistle-blowers from reporting troubles within California's vast and often criticized correctional system.
"I am deeply concerned that the wording … could create a chilling effect on employees who seek to report wrongdoing, waste, corruption or illegal activities," Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said in a letter to the official who wrote the memo.
Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) added that "it was inartfully written and, from my read, violated individuals' civil rights and the whistle-blower statute in this state."
The memo was written by Martin Hoshino, newly hired chief of the department's Office of Investigative Services. In an interview, Hoshino said he never meant to stifle reports of abuse or other improprieties in the penal system. Nor, he said, did he intend to block his agents from responding to inquiries about internal affairs procedures.
Rather, Hoshino said his goal was to protect the integrity of internal investigations from outside influence, a problem that has dogged the department's disciplinary efforts in the past.
"The point of doing this was to foster more independence and reduce opportunities to influence investigations," Hoshino said. He said the memo was prompted by employees within internal affairs who were concerned about leaks that were compromising investigations.
To clear up the confusion, Hoshino said he would soon release a new memo explaining the origin of the confidentiality policy and declaring that it was not meant to limit the reporting of wrongdoing under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Nevertheless, at least two agents — both of whom spoke on the condition that they not be identified for fear of reprisals — said they viewed the policy as an attempt to silence them at a time of intense scrutiny of the department.
"This obviously is an effort to quiet us down and keep us from coming forward," said one investigator. He noted that the Senate hearings later this month were prompted by agents who divulged stories about the code of silence among prison guards and pressure by the guards' union to stymie investigations of brutality.
"The hearings are coming up," one agent said, "and they want to muzzle us."
Other frequent critics of the department agreed that the timing of the new confidentiality policy seemed noteworthy. In addition to the upcoming hearings, The Times recently published an article critical of the department's record of policing itself. The report appeared the day before the memo was issued.
"The timing suggests that the department is interested in managing information by suppressing it," said Steve Fama of the Prison Law Office, which provides legal services to inmates. "While it's necessary to protect the integrity of investigations, sunshine is the best disinfectant…. This directive seems to go too far."
Amid such criticism, others said they were surprised to see such a memo issued by Hoshino, who was hired late last year to revamp and increase the credibility of the department's internal affairs unit. Formerly, Hoshino worked for the state inspector general's office, which investigates abuses within the prison system.
Aides to Speier also noted that Hoshino and other corrections officials have been cooperative under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration, providing documents and other help in a timely fashion.
"There has been no attempt to keep us from talking to anyone [within the prison system]," said Richard Steffen, Speier's top aide and a key organizer of the upcoming hearings. "There is an openness that we didn't see with the last administration."
The Office of Investigative Services is charged with examining allegations of employee misconduct within corrections, from guard brutality to workers' compensation fraud and sexual harassment. Recently, agents have alleged that their investigations have been stifled by pressure from the powerful guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
Last summer, for example, internal affairs agents in Southern California said top department officials had ordered them to turn over to the union their files in an investigation of claims that Chino state prison guards had beaten five inmates in 2002. The agents also said the department had targeted their Rancho Cucamonga investigative office for closure because they refused to turn over the files, charges the union and department officials denied.
More recently, a federal court hearing was held to explore whether former
Corrections Director Edward S. Alameida ended a perjury investigation of
three prison guards because of union pressure. Alameida, who denied any
interference from the union, resigned shortly after testifying in that
case in December.
Code of Silence
Three Strikes Legal - Index