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Major Prison Reform Eludes Lawmakers

A few measures pass, but significant changes opposed by guards union are voted down.

August 31, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — It has been a year of top-to-bottom scandal in California's sprawling prison system.

Officer beatings of two young inmates were caught on videotape and broadcast nationwide. A convict bled to death in his cell after howling for hours. Whistle-blowers testified about corruption and coverups -- while wearing bulletproof vests. And severe crowding forced some lockups to house inmates in the TV lounge.

Last month, a federal judge in San Francisco weighed in on the mess, threatening an unprecedented takeover of the prisons. But the Legislature has been cool to calls for a shake-up of the $6-billion-a-year system.

Despite a series of dramatic hearings by two state senators investigating corrections, lawmakers declined to adopt many substantial prison reforms before closing their legislative session last week.

"A year ago, I believed we had a real window of opportunity to reform the prison system in a drastic way," said Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "But all we've really had is empty rhetoric. No one has the political courage to take on this system and demand real change."

A handful of prison bills -- addressing such things as inmate health care and smoking behind bars -- found the votes needed for passage. One measure took aim at the so-called code of silence that protects rogue guards from punishment. Another -- considered a long shot for a governor's signature -- would force the state to beef up inmate rehabilitation.

But most of the bills will result in mere tinkering with a 164,000-inmate system that needs an overhaul, critics say. Even state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who joined fellow Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) in spending much of the year on prison troubles, declared herself unsatisfied.

Although several of her bills won approval, Speier's most ambitious measure -- which sought to ban officials from building new prisons until they reduced the state's sky-high recidivism rate -- failed.

"The gravity of the problems in the Department of Corrections has not sunk in for some members of the Legislature," Speier said. "They commend Sen. Romero and I for taking it on, and tell us to keep it up. But when it comes to putting up votes to remedy problems, they simply won't do it if the prison guards' union is opposed."

Speier's point about the union's influence was underscored in the final days of the session, when Assembly members faced a Romero bill seeking to remove a major barrier to investigations of guard misconduct. Breakdowns in such investigations have been a key complaint of U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who has threatened to place the prison system into receivership.

Killing the bill was a top priority of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., which represents the guards. Winning approval was a top priority of Romero, chairwoman of an oversight committee on corrections.

After a bitter lobbying fight spanning two weeks, the senator lost. The defeat, an angry Romero said after Thursday's final vote, "was about raw power and privilege."

"Today, power and privilege were ceded to the CCPOA," she said. "I'm extremely disappointed.... Justice took a walk."

Romero's measure, SB 1731, centered on a clause in the labor contract that critics say allows the guards union to interfere with disciplinary investigations. It requires investigators to turn over information about a probe -- including the accuser's name -- before internal affairs interviews are conducted. Investigators say that practice deters inmates and whistle-blowers from reporting misconduct for fear of retaliation.

Among those urging passage of the bill was Inspector General Matthew Cate, the governor's new watchdog over prisons. By providing the suspect with the victim's name and statement prior to the investigation, the state is "practically inviting the suspect to collude with potential witnesses, invent an alibi or intimidate the alleged victim into recanting," Cate said in a letter to Assembly members.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley also wrote in support, saying the disclosure clause grants prison guards a privilege enjoyed by no other branch of law enforcement. And in a June report, the federal court monitor working for Judge Henderson said the contract provision "renders fair investigations into the abuse of force almost impossible."

The bill sailed through the state Senate. On Aug. 17, it landed in the Assembly and received only 31 votes -- 10 shy of the number needed for passage. Furious, Romero spent several days lobbying members, then brought the measure back Thursday for a second try.

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