Inspector General Unfazed by Prison System Challenge


Heading to the witness table to be quizzed by the Senate Rules Committee recently, Steve White, the state’s inspector general, toted two bulging briefcases.

State Sen. John Burton, the committee’s chairman, asked if White was going to read everything in the cases to the panel, which was going to recommend whether his appointment by Gov. Gray Davis should be confirmed.

“No, I do that, senator, so that I look like I’ve done my homework and I know what I’m talking about,” said White, whose job is to keep an eye on California’s correctional system.

White, 50, has had plenty to talk about too, although confidentiality restrictions prevent him from publicly disclosing details of his investigations into the dark corners of the state’s penal system. He would not discuss the latest crisis for the Department of Corrections--last week’s melee at Pelican Bay State Prison, which ended with guards shooting one inmate to death and wounding 15 more. But White flew to Pelican Bay late last week to keep an eye on the aftermath of the incident.


For an ambitious moderate Democrat, the inspector general job is not exactly designed to win friends in high places.

White has made waves in Sacramento because of a wide-ranging investigation of allegations that guards at state-run facilities are abusing juvenile offenders--a probe that, in part, led to the ouster of the California Youth Authority director.

Since White was appointed last March, his staff has mushroomed from a few employees to 77, to help him monitor the nation’s largest prison system and the California Youth Authority. His staff is expected to grow further with the agency’s proposed budget growth of 69% in the coming year.

The office was set up by the Legislature in 1994 as an independent watchdog and expanded in the past year in the wake of reports detailing how the prison system had failed to police itself.


White, a former Sacramento County district attorney, is the third person to hold the job, although he’s the first to have a significant budget and some cachet with the governor.

Burton’s committee urged the full Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, to approve his selection and the upper house is scheduled to act by the end of March.

White’s supporters applaud his intelligence, savvy and diplomacy in handling thousands of potentially sensitive complaints from inmates and guards. His critics say White is too ambitious, angling to run the entire penal system, not content to be merely its watchdog.

White wouldn’t say whether he has interest in higher office.

White is a local product. He is a third-generation Sacramento resident and a graduate of Cal State Sacramento and UC Davis law school. He served as a deputy district attorney and became executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn. Former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp appointed him as a chief assistant attorney general in the early 1980s.

“I think it’s fair to say he’s smart, a good manager, adept, forward thinking,” Van de Kamp said. “He’s not a political crazy. . . . I think he’s willing to run against the tide.”

White is no stranger to controversy.

In 1989, he was appointed Sacramento County district attorney, and the following year he was elected to a four-year term. But in 1994, White, his office rocked by dissension even before his appointment, lost a reelection bid to a veteran prosecutor.


After his defeat, White joined a law firm that on occasion represented the Department of Corrections. He was questioned by lawmakers about whether this posed a potential conflict of interest.

White sought to distance himself from the firm’s prison law work. White said he handled such complex litigation as class-action matters, not typically involving the Department of Corrections. But he acknowledged helping represent the department sometimes, though he has not “for a number of years.”

Why did he take the inspector general’s position when called by the governor?

“I’ve always been interested in penology and how we deal with offenders, how a civilized state deals with offenders,” White said in an interview.

During the time he has been on the job, White said he has toured all the state’s 33 prisons and the Youth Authority facilities. White believes even more firmly now that there is a need for an outside monitor of the prison system.

“Many . . . issues . . . would never have been addressed in the old days before an inspector general. The things that we uncovered have been going on for years,” White said.

What’s the most noticeable change in the prison system? White said he sees far more mentally ill inmates within the walls of the state’s prisons. In the past, he said, they would have been sent to now-shuttered state mental hospitals.

How does he have time to juggle his family responsibilities as well as his duties overseeing complaints lodged by the state’s 160,000 inmates and thousands of employees?


“I just make it,” White said. “I live close to the office and sometimes I bring my kids [ages 8 and 9] down here on the weekends.” His wife is an assistant U.S. attorney.

Shortly after he agreed to take the job, White recalled, he began second-guessing himself because he was turning his back on what he regarded as an enjoyable law practice.

But, he said, “from the second I started this, I have found it to be very satisfying and challenging.”