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11-12-06, 03:01 AM #1
The mess that is the California prison system
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California prisons quietly halted what was supposed to be a sweeping review of employee safety spurred by a guard's stabbing death last year, officials said in response to a records request from The Associated Press.
Just seven of the expected 41 evaluations were completed before the first-in-the-nation program was abruptly ended after Corrections Secretary Roderick Hickman resigned in frustration in February, officials said after months of inquiries.
The disclosure came in the past week as the prison system's new administration counters criticism from state lawmakers and federal judges who have complained that inmates often live in crowded and poorly staffed prisons and receive inadequate care.
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials would not confirm the reviews had been halted, nor make the final studies public, until the AP filed a Public Records Act request Oct. 12.
``They were pretty much ceased because of fiscal issues and no more have been completed,'' said spokeswoman Cheryl Campoy in response to the records request. ``We got a new secretary. ... There were some fiscal issues and other demands on the agency.''
She said the department had no specific plans to restart the reviews.
Hickman had ordered a panel of experts to check security at all 33 adult and eight youth prisons after correctional officer Manuel Gonzalez was killed in January 2005 at the California Institution for Men in Chino.
``We have a responsibility to make our institutions safe,'' Hickman said then, after scathing official investigations blamed multiple procedural failings for Gonzalez' death.
But just three adult and four youth prisons were studied.
Reviewers found that inmates at Deuel Vocational Institute, near Tracy, broke $40,000 worth of windows and set 130 fires in just nine months last year as they awaited transfer to other prisons. Guards at California State Prison, Solano, shared radios, personal alarms, batons and pepper spray, and had to walk unprotected past inmates to hand off the equipment during shift changes.
Both prisons are so crowded that gymnasiums and classrooms were turned into dormitories, the reviewers found.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said similarly dangerous crowded conditions exist statewide as he urged state legislators to approve $6 billion for new prisons and renovations this summer. When lawmakers balked, he ordered that 2,260 inmates be sent to private prisons in other states, transfers that are now under way.
Hickman resigned in February, citing a lack of political support for reforming the deeply troubled prison system. Now managing director at a consulting firm, he said the reviews were valuable.
``There was something helpful in all of them,'' Hickman said. ``With a budget of $8 billion, through some creative thinking you can carve enough out of the fiscal to do that kind of work.''
Hickman said his concern was finding money to fix problems found by reviewers, particularly the millions of dollars needed to repair juvenile facilities.
Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the 30,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said the evaluations made public what prison employees already know, particularly that prisons are understaffed.
``This is a department that traditionally, when something goes wrong, points the finger at someone else,'' Corcoran said. ``By conducting audits, they're well aware of the problems so there is no scape-goating.''
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