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California and the West

Prison Oversight Agency Given More Authority

Legislation: Wilson OKs bill in effort to increase accountability in wake of Corcoran violence.

September 30, 1998|MARK GLADSTONE and MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — In the wake of reports of widespread brutality and cover-ups at Corcoran State Prison, Gov. Pete Wilson on Tuesday signed legislation to beef up a state watchdog agency that is responsible for policing the nation's largest prison system.

The law, signed without ceremony or fanfare, expands the duties of the inspector general's office and makes it an independent agency that will report directly to the governor.

During recent legislative hearings, prompted by stories in The Times, testimony revealed that internal investigations of alleged brutality by Corcoran guards were often ineffective and there was a lack of accountability in Sacramento.

At the hearings, state officials also acknowledged that a special team of state investigators dispatched to Corcoran last year at Gov. Wilson's behest failed to look at the most serious allegations, ignoring dozens of shootings of inmates by guards. In all, 50 inmates were shot by guards--seven fatally--at Corcoran from 1989 to 1995.

The Legislature last month approved the compromise reform measure written by Sen. Ruben Ayala (D-Chino), which spells out the authority of the inspector general to launch investigations of prison abuse, sets up a confidential toll-free hotline for whistle-blowers, improves training for investigators, and ensures that allegations of serious misconduct receive criminal review. It would also establish sanctions for retaliation against officers who report employee misconduct.

Ayala said Tuesday that the law will "allow the inspector general to become a truly independent investigative office, and to complete timely and thorough investigations."

In a brief statement, Wilson said, "This bill makes it clear that the inspector general will operate as an independent oversight body. Considering the size, scope and nature of California's correctional system, this added protection will further ensure integrity and professionalism."

More than three years ago, the Legislature set up an inspector general's office within Wilson's Youth and Adult Correctional Agency to oversee internal investigations of prison staff misconduct. But critics maintained that the unit--which got its first full-time investigators earlier this year--fell short of what was needed to get to the bottom of violence at Corcoran and other prisons.

Supporters describe the new law as a first step toward reform, paving the way for more investigators to oversee complaints against officers in the $4-billion-a-year Department of Corrections. It will also have jurisdiction to oversee investigations of the Youth Authority.

During the recent hearings, several members of a state corrections investigation team testified that key decisions passed down from Sacramento officials stymied their attempts to examine allegations of brutality and cover-ups at Corcoran.

One supervising investigator said the department "rolled over" and yielded to the state prison guards union in removing any teeth from the 1997 examination of Corcoran, which had been launched at Wilson's request.

Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, whose agents investigated a single case of violence at Corcoran, have maintained that they fully met their obligations in regard to Corcoran.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Lungren's campaign for governor was dealt a setback when the prison guards union endorsed his Democratic rival, Gray Davis. Lungren was hoping to get the backing of the powerful union, which previously had supported him and has contributed $159,000 to his campaign.

In the past decade, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. has emerged as a major force in state politics, giving at least $5.2 million to candidates since 1987. That included $667,000 to Wilson. In 1990, the union spent an additional $760,000, mostly on ads targeting Wilson's opponent, Dianne Feinstein.

In a press release announcing the endorsement, the union called Davis "a proven champion of public safety."

The clout of the union was underscored last month when the Wilson administration agreed to grant a raise of up to 12% to the prison guards union, one day after the governor deleted $400 million from the new state budget in pay raises for most other state workers.

Lungren, California's chief law enforcement officer, on Tuesday won the backing of the California Narcotic Officers Assn. The 6,500-member organization praised the GOP nominee for "his record in the effort to make our society drug free."

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this story.

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