SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday appointed former Gov. George Deukmejian to lead a panel to investigate and recommend changes to California's troubled prison system by June 1.
The independent panel was told to recommend ways to revamp the state's youth and adult penal system, from considering the closure of prisons to eliminating a "code of silence" that sometimes stymies investigations of guard misconduct.
"Go find out how to make this the best system in the country," the governor said, according to one panel member.
"In a nutshell, we have no restrictions," said Joseph Gunn, one of the law enforcement and corrections experts appointed by Schwarzenegger to recommend short- and long-term fixes to a system racked recently by reports of corruption and mismanagement. He will be the panel's executive director.
Next to a severe budget shortfall, California's prison system has become the most urgent problem for Schwarzenegger since he took office in November. In January, a federal report depicted the penal system as plagued by a code of silence that protects rogue guards and corrupts recruits. It recommended criminal charges against the former corrections director.
In February, state-hired experts condemned the Youth Authority, which oversees teenage offenders, as a decrepit, violent system. Lawmakers have launched hearings into failures in the adult and youth system and are examining the state's contract with prison guards that could cost taxpayers an additional $2 billion over its term.
"The Legislature has clearly signaled an interest in reforming the corrections system," said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh, "and we're here today to echo that concern."
Gunn, a former executive director of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, advised the LAPD after the 1999 Rampart scandal on ways to overhaul its culture, ethics and organization.
He will be joined on the four-member panel by George Camp, former director of the Missouri Department of Corrections and a national criminal justice consultant, and Robin Dezember, who served as deputy director of corrections under Deukmejian.
Deukmejian, a Republican, served as governor from 1983 to 1991. He oversaw a doubling of the number of prisons, while the number of inmates swelled during his tenure from 40,000 to more than 100,000. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
Gunn promised that the review panel would not "reinvent the wheel" but instead would gather and evaluate existing studies of California's youth and adult correctional system.
Besides examining personnel, training, discipline, structure and ethics, he said, the panel will consider whether to close some facilities to save money. Closure recommendations should be given to the governor within 60 days, Gunn said, and the entire report should be finished by June.
The panel will update the governor every 30 days as it investigates, he said.
In particular, Gunn said, Schwarzenegger wants the panel to examine the California Youth Authority, which incarcerates more than 4,000 offenders under age 25.
Recent reports from independent experts hired by the state found the CYA so sorely lacking in mental health treatment and education that it often turns youthful offenders into hardened criminals instead of rehabilitating them.
Last month, Schwarzenegger's administration announced plans to phase out the use of steel-mesh cages to restrain violent youths in the classroom, one aspect of the Youth Authority singled out by report writers.
Schwarzenegger is concerned "that the Youth Authority is set up for the 1950s and not the 2000s, and maybe they have to be brought up to modern times," Gunn said.
The governor also asked the panel to scrutinize a code of silence among correctional officers, he added.
In legislative hearings this month and last, lawmakers have accused the California Correctional Peace Officers' Assn., which represents prison guards, of fostering a code of silence to cover up guard misconduct.
This week, Kings County prosecutors complained of a lack of cooperation from correctional officers as they investigated the Feb. 2 bleeding death of an inmate at Corcoran State Prison. Guards who had appeared willing to talk to investigators have retained union attorneys who advised them against cooperating, said Patrick Hart, the Kings County chief deputy district attorney.
Gunn said he encountered a code of silence in the LAPD Rampart scandal, in which an ex-officer testified that he and other officers routinely planted evidence, framed suspects and covered up unjustified shootings. There's no overnight solution, he said.
"It's a long job and it takes everyone involved," and it begins with hiring and training, said Gunn.
Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the 30,000-member prison guards union, said it has been unfairly portrayed as an impediment to the investigation.