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Prison Problem Far From Fixed

October 23, 1998

At a concluding hearing into policies regarding lethal shootings by California prison guards, state prison director Cal Terhune deemed the inquiry a salutary continuing education for California's guards.

A dozen inmates have been shot fatally in the past four years, twice the number killed by guards in all other states over that period. Terhune promised to scrutinize the shooting episodes and beef up review of complaints against prison guards, both welcome steps. But Terhune appeared overly optimistic in proclaiming that with all the "light shined on problems" during the inquiry "we don't operate in isolation anymore."

It's far too early to be making such grand proclamations. Prison policies continue to remain murky even to state officials. Take, for instance, recent statements from the gubernatorial candidates: Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said vaguely "there ought to be a single . . . shooting policy throughout the entire system," while Lt. Gov. Gray Davis said he hasn't taken an in-depth look at the shooting policy.

Remarks like these offer little reassurance that the state prison guards and their politically powerful union have stopped trying to isolate themselves and their practices from scrutiny by the state's political leaders.

State leaders should not hesitate to decry the senselessness of the shootings when the facts suggest they could have been avoided. Surely breaking up fistfights does not generally require lethal force.

We join the state prison director in hailing the new light aimed at the prison system's problems. Now it's critical that the light remain strong.

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