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Inmates Kept in Cells to Save State Money

As a response to the budget crisis, Lancaster prisoners have been confined since Wednesday to reduce overtime pay to guards.

June 03, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

To reduce overtime pay for guards in the midst of the state budget crisis, nearly all of the approximately 4,000 inmates at the state prison in Lancaster are being kept in their cells 24 hours a day, a spokesman for the state Corrections Department and an official from the prison guards union confirmed Monday.

Lt. Charles Hughes, a representative of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. and a guard at the maximum security prison, said officials "locked everything down" starting Wednesday and were continuing with the plan as of Monday afternoon. Nearly all prisoners have been denied access to exercise yards and are eating all meals in their cells, Hughes said.

The inmates, Hughes said, "are just staying in their cells all day long."

Such measures, called "modified programs" by prison officials, are usually imposed during and after attacks, riots and other safety threats. But Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, said the Lancaster policy was an attempt to reduce costs in the state prison system, which is running out of money it needs to operate through this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The plan, Heimerich said, is a temporary one and, because of complaints from the prison guards unit, could be eased. But, he added, the restrictions could last until lawmakers agree on a budget for 2003-04 -- which could be weeks, or even months, away.

The decision to restrict prisoner activity was not made lightly, Heimerich said. In general, restricting prisoners' movements can effectively quell violence in a troubled prison. But it can also stoke tensions if inmates believe the policy is being applied unfairly.

"This is nothing that we want to do permanently or even for a very long term," Heimerich said.

The Lancaster policy has enraged some inmates' families.

Anita Hartman, whose husband is serving a life sentence for murder, said she was surprised when he told her Saturday that yard privileges were revoked because of budget problems.

"It's almost as if they're being punished and they haven't done anything," said Hartman, 44. "I think it's wrong. I don't think it's reasonable at all."

The action at Lancaster comes as state officials wrestle with the massive costs of maintaining California's prisons while trying to close a $38-billion state budget gap.

The cost of operating the state Corrections Department will be about $5.3 billion for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, according to Gov. Gray Davis' latest projections. That is $24 million above the estimate the governor made in his January budget proposal.

Although the prison system is not facing the same kinds of painful choices as health care and schools, lawmakers are considering cuts to prison literacy and other programs.

This year, the Corrections Department is expected to exceed its budget by $70 million. As a result, Sacramento prison officials last month gave wardens at all 32 state prisons the option of using modified programs to reduce their costs, but Lancaster is the only prison Heimerich knows of that has done so.

The department was hoping to avoid a repeat of last summer, when it ran out of money and was unable to pay some vendors while state officials wrangled over the budget well into September.

But state officials changed their minds Friday after complaints from the officers union and rescinded the modified-programs option. However, the policy is one of a host of cost-cutting options that corrections and union officials will discuss in meetings at all state prisons this week, he said.

Before the most recent restrictions were imposed, prisoners in some cellblocks at the Lancaster facility had seen their privileges revoked for security reasons, said a spokesman.

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