Unshackle the Inspectors

Times Staff Writer

Working in California's vast correctional system is often dangerous, and most prison guards carry out their jobs honorably. Nothing, however, can excuse what federal investigator John Hagar revealed in a blistering report on the prison system released last week: a pervasive "code of silence" that protects rogue guards who pummel inmates and sometimes prod them into fights, and that is condoned by leaders who "neither understand nor care about the need for fair investigations."

At a hearing last week on prison and parole reform chaired by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), Roderick Q. Hickman, the secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, conceded that "the revolving door in and out of prisons in California creates too many victims and shatters too many lives … we have to achieve more success." Hickman promised to "give our offenders … services to allow them to succeed," such as job training and drug treatment. Unfortunately, though, his newly released budget not only fails to fund such new services, it eliminates the money for the most basic reform of all: the correctional system's independent watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General.

In the last two years, the inspector general's office, whose director is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, has served California well. One of its recent reports, for instance, shows how Richard Krupp, a 31-year Corrections Department veteran, was stripped of his duties in 1999 because he revealed how prison guards overcharged California taxpayers by $250 million a year by abusing sick leave and overtime pay. How did the Legislature reward this good work? By agreeing, under pressure from the prison guards union, to cut the inspector general's budget by 76% in the last two years. Now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his fiscal year 2005 budget, has proposed reducing the agency's budget to zero.

Tip Kindel, a Hickman deputy, says the department is setting aside $630,000 to carry on the job of the inspector general from within the agency. "We're in the process now of developing a comprehensive [oversight] program," he says, "that is going to be fair … and free of inappropriate outside influence."

But at prison reform hearings today and Wednesday, Sens. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Romero should make it clear to Hickman that the once-independent inspectors shouldn't report to him, the head of the department they are investigating.

Restoring the inspector general's independence is only a first step toward reform. But it's the best single step to get at the root problem that Hagar's report exposed: a correctional system that now sanctions not only needless violence against prisoners but assaults on the careers of those who blow the whistle on abuse.

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