If the Deukmejian Administration has its way, state prisoners soon will be put to work sorting through confidential motor vehicle records as part of the governor’s plan to keep inmates working and save taxpayers money.
But the program, which is set to begin July 1, is prompting concern among some lawmakers and other officials who worry that the records--which include names, addresses and some financial information about California motorists--might end up in the hands of career criminals.
“The concept boggles the mind,” said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), chairman of the Transportation Committee. “They may be car thieves. . . . They may have killed people or molested kids and now we’re going to give them access to home addresses of people along with (information on) loans that they have on their vehicles and what cars they drive. It seems like an open invitation for trouble.”
The program, little more than a footnote in Gov. George Deukmejian’s $47.8-billion proposed budget, would employ an undetermined number of inmates in an assembly-line operation with Department of Motor Vehicle records, removing staples, discarding extraneous materials and preparing the remaining documents for microfilming. Most of the records involve vehicle ownership and typically include names and addresses of former and new vehicle owners, prices of the vehicles and loans obtained in the purchases.
No one is sure what illicit uses, if any, inmates might make of the information. But the Legislature’s nonpartisan analyst charged in a report that procedures employed by the state “may not be adequate” to ensure the security of the documents.
“From our position, there is a fair amount that could be done even with this much information,” said Emily Burstein, who helped prepare the critical report.
Adding to the concern was the abrupt cancellation in January of a similar contract under which inmates at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione sorted outgoing mail--including drivers licenses--for the DMV. A search of prison cells reportedly turned up slips of paper with names and addresses, although corrections officials denied that prisoners were stealing DMV mail or obtaining information from it.
Addresses of Officials
Some corrections officers said they believe the inmates were searching for addresses of prison officials. One source familiar with the investigation said a list of addresses of show business celebrities was found in a cell, but there was no evidence it was compiled from DMV records.
Gina McGuinnes, the DMV’s communications manager, acknowledged that “we were not happy with the security procedures” followed at Mule Creek. But she said steps would be taken to guarantee the security of documents under the new DMV contract.
Among those, she said, would be strip searches of inmates leaving the job, close monitoring during working hours and a method of counting documents at the beginning and end of each work shift to assure that there is no theft.
“We also would not allow them to use any inmates with backgrounds in auto theft or auto fraud,” McGuinnes said. The inmates would be required to process as many as 160 documents per hour. At that speed, McGuinnes added, it would be difficult for them to search for particular addresses or other information.
“You’re talking about a lot of documents running by you each day,” McGuinnes said. “They’d have to have an awfully good memory.”
Such promises have done little to reassure Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., who said he personally witnessed security lapses at the Mule Creek institution.
“We found some real deficiencies there,” Novey said. “These people when they wind up in the California Men’s Facility or Folsom have been in the system two or three times. They’re career criminals. They have nothing else to do but orchestrate a way to smuggle these records out and use them somewhere.
“These programs are only as secure as the people you have working there. With large (numbers) of inmates, these guys are going to beat you.”
Other Work Projects
The proposed DMV program is the latest in a long list of work projects put together by the Prisons Industries Authority to save taxpayer money and promote work habits that could help inmates adjust to life outside the institutions.
In addition to the time-honored practice of pounding out license plates, inmates today build office furniture, work in prison laundries and manufacture everything from boots to flags, all for state use. The inmates typically earn from 30 cents to 90 cents an hour, depending on their experience and level of skill. Concerned about an escalating prison budget and seriously overcrowded institutions, Deukmejian is pushing to expand the prison work program to allow inmates to work in private industry. The plan would require voter approval and has encountered opposition from union groups worried about competition for jobs.
At a meeting of the nation’s governors last week in Washington, Deukmejian touted the state program as helping “to defray the costs of building and maintaining prisons.”
“It’s truly a win-win situation,” Deukmejian said. “It helps build a sense of self-esteem that is vital for inmates to become constructive members of society.”
Some critics, however, contend the proposed DMV prison labor program is not only a security risk, but ultimately will do little to help inmates.
“From the description, it seems like at best it’s preparation for a hopeless dead-end job,” said Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), chairman of the Labor and Employment Committee, which held hearings last week into Deukmejian’s overall prison labor proposal.
The DMV contract must be approved by the Legislature. Katz, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said he will ask that the plan be abandoned when the department’s budget is submitted for legislative review.
The program also could encounter opposition in the upper chamber, where Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), chairman of the Transportation Committee, reacted with surprise to the first reports of the DMV plan. “Jeez, prisoners having access to that information. I don’t want that,” Kopp told a reporter.
Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), who is carrying legislation to expand the Administration’s prison worker program, said the DMV plan ought to be given a chance.
“If they can have the proper safeguards in place, it’s worth at least surveying, giving it a good perusal,” Presley said. “I wouldn’t want to dismiss it out of hand if there is a chance to accommodate prison workers and save taxpayer money.”