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REACTIONARY UNIONS Imprisoned by timidity ...

April 21, 2006

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER hasn't just abandoned his campaign promise to fight the special interests that dominate Sacramento politics. He has thrown it from his favorite Hummer and driven over it. His craven surrender to the tyrannical prison guards union is so complete that his aides have been subverting the authority of the state corrections chief by consulting union officials on her choices for warden positions and other jobs.

And that, according to one insider, is the explanation for the resignation Wednesday of Jeanne S. Woodford, acting secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Woodford quit just two months into the job; her predecessor had departed because he felt the governor was not backing him in the face of resistance by the guards to reforms.

The union has long fought nearly every effort at turning the state prison system into an organization that rehabilitates as well as punishes. The result is a spectacularly dysfunctional operation. Prisons are running at about 200% of capacity because inmates are simply warehoused instead of getting the training or drug rehabilitation that might keep them from committing crimes once they are released. Woodford, a reformer, clearly didn't want to be just a figurehead.

Schwarzenegger hurriedly replaced Woodford on Thursday with James Tilton, a numbers cruncher from the Department of Finance who will run the department until the governor finds a permanent chief. Whether Schwarzenegger first begged union leaders for their approval before appointing Tilton is unknown, but it wouldn't be surprising.

Under the cynical calculus of political consultants, Schwarzenegger is probably doing the smart thing. The governor is up for reelection and doesn't want the guards to actively oppose him. Of course, the public embarrassment of having two prison chiefs quit in as many months as the system degenerates into chaos isn't great for his image either, but few voters know what's going on behind prison walls.

Smart as they might be in the short term, however, Schwarzenegger's moves are disastrous for the prisons. And they show he is nowhere close to being the kind of governor he said he would be.

In February, a federal judge placed the prisons' healthcare system under receivership, appointing an administrator who started this week and who has broad powers to hire and fire and controls a $1.2-billion budget. It was an extreme but necessary step given the negligence and incompetence of a healthcare system in which one inmate a week was dying needlessly -- despite big financial outlays by the state. In 2004, the same judge threatened to put the entire state corrections system under receivership.

Sadly, given the political clout of the guards union and the failure of the state's executive and legislative branches to stand up to it, that may be the only way to fix what's wrong with California's prisons.

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