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Lancaster State Prison Backs Off Lockdown

Inmates will no longer be confined to their cells full time to save funds. But cutbacks will be implemented at all California facilities.

June 06, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Under pressure from state officials, Lancaster state prison has softened its controversial policy of locking inmates in their cells nearly 24 hours a day to reduce overtime costs. But all 32 state prisons are instituting less drastic cutbacks to reduce the projected $70-million cost overrun for the current fiscal year, a state Department of Corrections spokesman said Thursday.

Various measures are being tried at other institutions -- from intermittent lockdowns to staff reassignments to the possibility of curtailing work details and educational programs. Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Heimerich noted that officials are trying to design the cuts for a minimum effect on education, however.

The temporary, unprecedented moves underscore the seriousness of the state's budget problems and may offer a preview of some tough and more permanent choices that corrections officials may have to face in the near future.

They have also opened a debate on the extent to which inmates' privileges should be curtailed in order to balance the state's books.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said it was "unconscionable" that inmates have been punished for budget overruns. But some victims' rights advocates say the inmates shouldn't be exempt from the pain that all Californians will feel as the state tries to close its $38-billion budget gap.

"[Prisoners] are already the most selfish group of people on the planet," said Susan Fisher, director of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau in San Diego. "To hear prisoners' families complaining that things are being cut back in the prisons -- when things are being cut back all over the state -- is not out of character."

Some corrections experts, however, say the cuts could create dangerous situations within prisons, upsetting established systems of punishment and reward in institutions where the tiniest privileges -- from exercise time to woodworking shop -- can mean a great deal.

"One of the primary ways we manage institutions is through the strict scheduling and regulation of activities," said Richard Tewksbury, a professor of justice administration at the University of Louisville. "When you take that away, you've moved into the possibility of a breakdown in order, and a whole range of acting-out behavior and difficulties."

Even California Department of Corrections officials concede that the cuts are not ideal. But Heimerich said they are essential to help rein in costs for a system that is about $70 million over its allotted $5.2-billion budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The department has exceeded its budget allotments for years -- and has always received a year-end bailout from the Legislature. But Heimerich said the pressure to stay within budget this year is particularly strong, given the state's imposing fiscal problems. As a result, the department last week asked wardens at all 32 institutions to look for ways to reduce costs, especially for overtime pay, through the end of the fiscal year.

Sacramento expected the cutbacks to affect the lives of some inmates, but officials were surprised to learn that Lancaster -- starting May 28 -- had deprived all of its nearly 4,000 prisoners of almost any time out of their cells, Heimerich said.

"We were expecting that there would be instances where inmates might be confined to their cells one day a week, maybe two, depending on what the needs were like, but I don't know if we were expecting an entire institutional restriction of movement," Heimerich said.

Inmates' families immediately criticized the move as unfair, while the prison guards union complained that they had not been apprised. The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, criticized the Lancaster lockdown as unconstitutional.

Inmates' rights groups were further incensed when Romero, who heads the Senate committee on prisons, alleged Wednesday that the "fiscally driven lockdowns" had been extended to two other prisons, the Salinas Valley state prison in Soledad and the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran.

On Thursday, however, representatives of those two institutions said they had not locked down prisoners for financial reasons but, like all of the state's prisons, are cutting back on staff assignments to save cash.

Corrections officials had not received details of all the various cuts as of Thursday, and not all plans had been approved by the guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. But Heimerich said plans such as Lancaster's would not be allowed.

Starting Monday, most inmates at Lancaster will begin receiving yard privileges two out of every three days, Lt. Ken Lewis, a prison spokesman, said Thursday. Some inmates had already returned to normal status as of Thursday, he said.

Although disagreeing with the proposed cutbacks, Ben Wizner, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, conceded that legally, they appear to be constitutional.

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