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Prisons czar seeks OK to hire guards

The court receiver for inmate healthcare asks a judge to give him new powers. A shortage of correctional officers is delaying reform, he says.

May 16, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The man charged with fixing California's prison medical system sought Tuesday to expand those powers by taking over the hiring of guards.

Saying he cannot improve deplorable medical care in prisons if there aren't enough correctional officers to escort inmates to doctors, receiver Robert Sillen asked the federal judge who appointed him to grant him oversight of the state's program for recruiting prison guards.

Sillen also said that a bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this month to add 53,000 prison and jail beds will do nothing to improve -- and may worsen -- medical care that the judge said was so shoddy it virtually guaranteed unnecessary injuries and inmate deaths.

"It is easy to talk of constructing prisons and jails," Sillen wrote in a report released Tuesday. "It is more difficult and expensive to staff correctional institutions with the appropriate clinical personnel and correctional officers."

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson suspended state control of the $1.4-billion prison healthcare operation in February 2006 and placed it in Sillen's hands in response to a class-action lawsuit. Sillen, whose compensation package totals $650,000, reports directly to Henderson and has power to dictate spending, hire and fire staff, sign or break contracts and set policy.

In his latest report to Henderson, Sillen said there is a shortage of 2,400 to 2,700 guards. He complained of a backlog of 4,000 to 7,000 job applicants awaiting background checks by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"If I can't get patients delivered to the caregiver," said Sillen, "how do I deliver the care?

"I'm charged with getting a job done, and I can't get it done without more correctional officers," he said.

Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said she found the notion of Sillen controlling prison guard hiring "intriguing."

"I think he's absolutely on to something," she said.

But another lawmaker who focuses on prison issues, Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), accused Sillen of "overreaching."

"Bob Sillen is not going to be happy until he's running the entire Department of Corrections," Spitzer said.

State prisons Director James Tilton said the department has recently stepped up its recruiting and is using overtime to compensate for vacancies. "I think it's my responsibility to hire correctional officers," Tilton said.

Last week, Sillen released a turnaround plan that legislative analysts said could cost $3 billion over the next five years. It includes specialized care for elderly inmates; chartered planes to fly doctors to remote prisons; and incentives to lure doctors.

The latest report is Sillen's response to Henderson's request last fall that he analyze the extent to which overcrowding interferes with the mandate to improve healthcare. Henderson will consider the report as he weighs whether a cap on the prison population is needed.

Sillen said a population cap would stabilize the prison system, which was designed to handle 100,000 convicts but now houses roughly 172,000. It would slow the churn of thousands of parolees a year who cycle back into prison for short stays on minor parole violations, all of whom must get medical evaluations.

But it wouldn't fix underlying problems with the prison medical system, Sillen said, including what he describes as "institutional paralysis," "trained incompetence" and "operational chaos."

nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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