February 7, 2004 - San Jose Mercury News (CA)

[CA] Prison System Reform Pledged

Governor Retains Watchdog Agency, Removes Wardens

By Author: Mark Gladstone

SACRAMENTO - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday promised a broad shake-up of California's troubled corrections system, starting with phasing out wire-mesh cages for youthful inmates and reversing his plan to scale back the state's prison watchdog agency.

The governor also removed wardens at two prisons and requested a federal inquiry into whether top prison officials covered up a probe of a 2002 gang riot at Folsom Prison.

"I am gravely concerned with what I have recently learned about internal operations within the California prison system,'' Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "Prison employees who engage in misconduct bring disgrace and dishonor to the many hardworking professionals who daily go to work and do their best to serve the public.''

The governor's actions come as the $6 billion-a-year corrections system faces increasing criticism, especially for its treatment of young wards and for being unable to police wrongdoing in its own ranks. Some prison reformers have raised the possibility of a federal takeover of the nation's largest prison system.

Resists change

The corrections system -- wracked with violence, gang warfare and lax bookkeeping -- could test the new governor's promise to overhaul the state's entrenched bureaucracies. Lawmakers and reformers have criticized the prisons as resistant to reform.

It will also challenge his political skills. Schwarzenegger must manage the crisis without triggering the opposition of the powerful prison guard union, with its 30,000 members. While Schwarzenegger has not taken money from the guard union or other public-employee unions, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is a major donor to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and had the ear of the past two governors.

In the past three weeks, a federal court monitor has declared the Department of Corrections has "lost control'' of its ability to investigate and discipline guards for abusing inmates, and legislative investigators scrutinized a coverup after the Folsom riot.

Court-appointed experts also reported that juveniles are regularly locked in cages, over-medicated and denied essential psychiatric treatment. The cages, they concluded, actually worsen violence at youth prisons.

And the Mercury News reported that the inspector general's office, which the governor declared a "waste,'' has identified tens of millions in wasteful prison spending. Schwarzenegger had proposed cutting its $2.8 million budget and moving the independent office under the control of the agency it's supposed to oversee.

The agency, expanded in the wake of an earlier prison scandal, had a budget of $11 million and 116 authorized positions at its peak in 2002. Under Schwarzenegger's now-abandoned proposal, the office would have had a budget of $630,000 and just six employees.

Reverses course

Friday, Schwarzenegger reversed his decision to place the inspector general in the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency and boosted its budget to $3.3 million, with the possibility of even more funds. Peter Siggins, the governor's legal-affairs secretary, said Schwarzenegger had described it as a waste because "there was an over-emphasis'' on its role as an auditor, which he said was the bulk of the agency's activities.

Steve White, who was the inspector general under former Gov. Gray Davis, disputed that assertion, saying that just 25 percent of the workload focused on audits. The remainder, he said, targeted issues such as brutality and mistreatment, but most of those reports are confidential.

"So it may be that those who have the impression that not much has been done in that area may not have read them,'' said White, now a superior court judge in Sacramento.

Good first step

White said Schwarzenegger's reforms "make for a good first step'' but "much, much more needs to be done.''

Siggins indicated that the governor might propose to expand the inspector general's powers, including the use of subpoenas, search warrants and grand-jury proceedings.

Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who co-chaired recent hearings into the prison system's failings, said the governor should be given credit for being willing to say he made a mistake in scaling back the inspector general's office. She hailed the office as "the beacon of light that provides the pathway to use to reform the system.''

Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the guard union, said he welcomed the administration's announcement that the inspector general's office would remain independent, and suggested it should be given greater authority to investigate.

"We're hopeful that some teeth may be given to do more than just recommend and audit,'' he said. Corcoran also urged the administration to do a clean sweep of the current office and hire new employees who have not worked inside the prison system.

Schwarzenegger also moved to stop the use of cages, which the Youth Authority calls SPAs, an acronym for Secure Program Areas. The cages, used only in California, are used to confine unruly wards during classes and also serve as exercise or therapy areas for youths who are otherwise locked up for as much as 23 hours a day.

At a press conference, Siggins said the governor viewed the use of the cages as "offensive'' and said it had been stopped. A spokeswoman later backtracked, saying there would be a gradual phase-out.

In the wake of reports about the violent world of the California Youth Authority, San Francisco officials said Friday that they are considering barring the county from sending juveniles there until conditions improve.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that the purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate and reform, not to punish. And clearly, the Youth Authority has failed in that mission,'' said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who is leading the charge for a moratorium. "The CYA is not only not fulfilling its primary function, it's actually making kids worse.''

Schwarzenegger also called for a federal review of what happened at Folsom Prison, where whistle-blowers have testified at legislative hearings that a state probe of the riot involving rival gangs was covered up. Siggins said the request was unprecedented for a California governor and noted that federal prosecutors have broader powers to bring charges, including civil rights violations.

"We will review this matter and consult with all necessary agencies to determine the appropriateness of an investigation,'' U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott responded in a statement.

Lockyer left out

The governor didn't ask Attorney General Bill Lockyer to investigate, Siggins said, because it "would pose too many potential conflicts.'' The attorney general's office often represents the Department of Corrections in civil lawsuits.

Two wardens -- Scott Rawers at Avenal and Michael Yarborough at Lancaster -- were also ousted from their jobs.

Bob Martinez, a corrections spokesman, said Yarborough will be reassigned when he returns from a vacation. He said Rawers chose to retire instead of being reassigned. Likewise, he said, Diana Butler, who was removed in December, had chosen a similar retirement option at Folsom Prison.

Martinez offered no explanation for the departures, saying: "There is a certain level of expectation, and if you don't meet those expectations you can be moved.''

Although prison critics blame the guard union for many of the system's deficiencies, Siggins played down the charge.

"In my experience, it's usually a handful of people that cause 95 percent of the problems,'' he said. "And I think to paint with a broader brush or say that there is some institutional complicity is something that's really not warranted until everyone knows all the facts.''

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