Governor Calls for U.S. Probe of Folsom, Boosts Prison Oversight
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the U.S. attorney here Friday to investigate allegations that officials at Folsom State Prison orchestrated a riot two years ago and then conspired to cover it up.
Facing a wave of troubles in all corners of California’s far-flung penal system -- the nation’s largest -- he moved on several other fronts as well.
The governor said he was reversing an earlier decision to greatly reduce the state’s lone correctional watchdog agency and would instead restore its funding and give it new law enforcement powers, including the authority to issue subpoenas and seek search warrants.
In a third move, administration officials announced plans to phase out the use of steel-mesh cages to confine unruly juveniles in the California Youth Authority. The cages, used only in California, were singled out recently as dehumanizing by experts who studied the juvenile system.
Officials considered asking Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to undertake an investigation, but concluded that the U.S. Department of Justice had resources and other tools that gave it an advantage, including sweeping civil rights laws under which prosecutions might be brought.
Peter Siggins, the governor’s legal affairs secretary, said the attorney general, who represents state agencies in legal matters, also might have faced potential conflicts of interest in an investigation of Folsom.
Political analysts called the governor’s decision to summon federal investigators extraordinary and said they could not recall it happening before in California.
They suggested that the unfolding scandal in the state’s vast adult and juvenile prison system had become a nagging distraction for the young Schwarzenegger administration, and that the governor hoped decisive moves would help stem the troubles.
“It’s consistent with his pledge of ‘action, action, action,’ ” said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, citing a phrase Schwarzenegger used in his first days in office. “It’s also consistent with his effort to establish himself as a reformer. He’s the political outsider who’s going to come in and clean out the stables.”
The investigation probably will examine the conduct of Folsom prison guards, who are represented by one of the most politically powerful and entrenched employee unions in the state. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. was a heavy financial contributor to former Gov. Gray Davis, and during his tenure won lucrative contract concessions, including the right to review prison investigative files.
In a statement, Schwarzenegger said he was “gravely concerned” about disclosures of alleged corruption and other problems in corrections, and would “bring to justice those individuals who do it dishonor by their misconduct.
“Prison employees who engage in misconduct bring disgrace ... to the many hard-working professionals who daily go to work and do their best to serve the public and effectively manage this state’s criminal population,” Schwarzenegger said.
Siggins said the governor decided to ask for the federal investigation in part because of explosive testimony at hearings held by two state Senate oversight committees last month.
Among other charges, whistle-blowers at those hearings said a “code of silence” discouraged guards from reporting wrongdoing -- such as the events surrounding the April 2002 Folsom riot -- for fear of reprisals.
McGregor W. Scott, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, said he had received Schwarzenegger’s request Friday and would review the matter “to determine the appropriateness of an investigation.”
Capitol veterans said they could not recall an instance in which a California governor had sought the aid of the U.S. attorney’s office and with it, the FBI. Among them was attorney Steve Merksamer, who was chief of staff to former Gov. George Deukmejian.
Merksamer praised Schwarzenegger’s decision and said it “tells me that there are some extraordinarily serious problems” in the penal system.
Earlier this week, state officials released a series of studies by independent experts criticizing the California Youth Authority for its high levels of violence and failure to provide adequate medical care, psychiatric treatment and education to the 4,500 wards it incarcerates.
Those disclosures came less than two weeks after a federal court investigator’s report portrayed the adult prison system as having lost its ability to investigate and discipline rogue guards. The report said pressure from the guards union influenced decisions at the very top levels of management.
Shortly before its release, former state Corrections Director Edward Alameida -- accused in the report of killing an investigation at the behest of the guards union -- resigned.
Meanwhile, two state senators -- Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) -- have been focusing on the penal system as well. At two days of hearings in January, whistle-blowers -- some in tears -- described a dysfunctional system in which those who reported wrongdoing were penalized with demotions or other forms of retaliation by a fraternity determined to protect its own.
A prominent case in point was the Folsom riot. Though it lasted just 90 seconds, the fracas left 24 inmates injured and one guard permanently disabled -- and may have played a role in the suicide of another officer. More recently, it also led to the firing of the warden and the reassignment of 10 other top officials.
Whistle-blowers said the riot in the exercise yard was caused when officers broke with procedure as they integrated members of two rival gangs that had been locked in their cells for months -- the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia. Instead of inmates of each group being released a few at a time to ensure that no fights broke out, more than 80 with gang affiliations were released all at once.
A videotape of the incident showed that one officer, Capt. Doug Pieper, expressed concern about a possible riot and tried to take action, only to be overruled. In the aftermath, Pieper raised questions about the incident with superiors, but was demoted and pressured to sign a document saying he had voluntarily changed jobs, according to testimony at the hearing from his wife. A year later, he committed suicide, leaving a note saying, “My job killed me.”
Also testifying at the Senate hearing was a sergeant in the prison’s investigative unit, who said he was ordered by superiors to remove the audio portion of the videotape because it made it appear the riot should have been stopped. He said he refused, and was demoted six weeks later.
On Friday, one correctional officer at the stately old prison in Folsom, just east of Sacramento, reacted with optimism to news of a possible federal investigation. The officer requested anonymity, fearing, like so many in the prison system, retaliation for expressing what might be an unpopular view. “I think it’s a good thing, I think it’s fair,” said the officer, a 16-year veteran.
Investigations by corrections’ own internal affairs staff, he said, are invariably tainted by personal connections that often diminish or block sanctions that are merited. “If you’re good with someone downtown, then they won’t look as closely,” the officer said. “It’s bias is what it is.”
Speier also welcomed the federal probe, calling it “long overdue,” and she and Romero said they were gratified that Schwarzenegger had done an about-face on his bid to slash the budget of the independent Office of the Inspector General. In his January budget proposal, he had recommended gutting the office and moving it inside the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, a plan widely criticized by those who feared that investigators would lose their ability to work free of influence.
Speier said the hearing “dramatically underscored the need for an independent inspector general.... I give [Schwarzenegger] credit for recognizing that the inspector general is the beacon of truth.”
An official with the guards union, meanwhile, said he was pleased to hear that a federal investigation might occur.
“He has to make sure there is no stone overturned. We’re big fans of the governor,” said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the union.
Though he has “no idea” where the investigation is headed, Corcoran said the union has nothing to fear from the probe. “Follow due process, don’t violate anybody’s rights, and you’ll never hear from CCPOA,” he said.
Times staff writers Dan Morain and Eric Bailey contributed to this report.