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New Thinking for Ailing Prisons

April 01, 2001

The California Department of Corrections--a lumbering agency with a budget of more than $4 billion, 46,000 employees and the nation's largest prison population--has been essentially adrift since the retirement of veteran Director Cal Terhune last November. Gov. Gray Davis, who will shortly appoint a new director, is reportedly leaning toward a candidate drawn from within the department's tight ranks.

Davis, however, should also consider outside candidates for director and other top jobs, like the deputy director position that Steve Cambra is expected to retire from shortly. The system desperately needs innovative and fresh thinking to solve a raft of problems, from lawsuits brought by prisoner advocates to outdated records systems and some of the highest repeat-offender rates in the nation.

* Lawsuits. Every year the department spends millions of taxpayer dollars settling avoidable suits pressed by aggrieved prisoners. For instance, the department's failure to have the state health department accredit its medical facilities is expected to prompt the Prison Law Office, a San Quentin prisoners advocacy group, to file a class-action lawsuit this week. The group alleges that the department has been "deliberately indifferent" to inmates' serious medical needs.

Davis should look to a respected prison leader like Dora Schriro, who reduced the number of lawsuits by 70% after taking over the Missouri Department of Corrections in 1993. Schriro's secret was opening a user-friendly "constituent services office" for inmates and accrediting prison infirmaries, which were a big source of complaints in Missouri.

* Repeat offense rates. California's prison system has one of the nation's highest recidivism rates--71%--because it sends many convicts home each year without dealing with underlying problems, from drug addiction and illiteracy to a lack of job skills.

* Violence control. The governor's budget proposal for fiscal year 2002 includes $2.5 million to hire 40 correctional officers and three mental health counselors for a "violence control program," and $5.1 million to buy "stab-resistant vests and impact munitions" for the workers. The program's stated goals--"teaching anger management, conflict resolution [and] decision-making"--are laudable, but it's unclear how they would be achieved with munitions, guards and only three counselors.

* Technology. The department's record systems are still largely paper-based. Doctors keep track of patient follow-up care by jotting on pocket-size note pads, for instance, and guards waste weeks interviewing returning inmates because "reception center" computers lack records of their prior incarceration.

California voters' passage of Proposition 36 last year, which diverts nonviolent drug offenders from prison to treatment, is the latest sign of a growing desire in many states to find innovative ways to protect public safety that go beyond "lock 'em up and throw away the key" incarceration. Gov. Davis should steer the mammoth Corrections Department in that promising new direction.

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