Takeover of State Prisons Is Threatened
Criticizing the Schwarzenegger administration for a “business as usual” attitude toward reforming California’s $6-billion prison system, a federal judge warned the state Tuesday he may appoint a receiver to take over the state Department of Corrections.
If U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson were to make good on that threat, it would be a blow to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a beleaguered system reeling from a string of scandals.
Prison oversight by federal judges is not unheard of. But experts said placing day-to-day operation of an entire correctional system under an outsider may be unprecedented.
Henderson requested a meeting with the governor and expressed “disappointment and concern” over the administration’s “noncompliance” with some of his earlier orders.
The San Francisco-based judge said he is particularly disturbed by a renegotiated labor pact between the state and the prison guards union. That agreement, struck last month, deferred raises for corrections officers but granted the union new powers, protections and benefits worth millions.
Henderson said the pact grants the union too much control over prison management and he suggested that Schwarzenegger was not serious about fixing the “systemic problems” in corrections “condoned for many years by the highest level of California officials.”
Peter Siggins, Schwarzenegger’s legal affairs secretary, said the administration was disappointed by the judge’s strong words. “We think nothing that was done in connection with the negotiations ... impairs or impedes our obligation or our ability to ensure that state employees meet the highest ethical standards.”
He said Henderson’s comments came as a surprise because the judge had complimented the administration’s actions on July 7. “It seemed at the time that the court was very satisfied with the progress we were making,” Siggins said.
In a reply sent to the judge Tuesday, Siggins said that the governor would be glad to meet with Henderson, but that it was not necessary to ensure that the governor was committed to improving the state’s prisons.
Henderson’s warning marked another chapter in a long-running dispute that began as a civil rights case involving Pelican Bay State Prison, on California’s North Coast. Ruling on that suit in 1995, Henderson found that brutality by guards and poor medical care at the prison had violated the rights of inmates.
To ensure improvements, the judge appointed a special master to oversee progress. In January, the special master, John Hagar, issued a report saying that Pelican Bay and the entire prison system were infected by a “code of silence” that protects rogue guards, corrupts recruits and is condoned by top officials.
In that report and a subsequent one last month, Hagar pointed the finger at the powerful guards union, saying their labor contract with the state, negotiated by former Gov. Gray Davis, allowed them to interfere in disciplinary investigations. That interference, he said, has prevented the department from fairly and impartially punishing employees who did wrong.
Two senators who have led oversight hearings on corrections said the judge’s firm warning should motivate the Legislature to reject the new labor agreement when it comes up for a vote, perhaps as early as today.
“It is puny, it is a policy swindle and I believe it goes backwards in our efforts to restore some sense of integrity to the system,” said Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough). “If we don’t act, Judge Henderson is going to start running the Department of Corrections.”
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) agreed that the union pact was a bad deal, but said it “absolutely does not warrant a federal takeover.”
“I think this threat is an overblown statement by the judge, and I’m disappointed,” Romero said. “When he sits down with the governor, he will see there has been a pattern of progress in corrections.”
Leaders of the guards union, known as the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., bristled at the judge’s characterization of their new labor pact, saying it represented a good-faith effort to help the state during tough fiscal times. By deferring the full raise that guards were to receive July 1, the deal saves the state $108 million over this fiscal year and next.
Lance Corcoran, the union’s executive vice president, said if legislators rejected the deal and sought to block the raises in total, “some sort of job action” by guards would be likely.
Scholars who track prison reform say that placing a state correctional system under federal receivership is rare. More commonly, a court places an individual prison, or prison program, under a receiver. Such was the case in Washington, D.C., where the Department of Corrections’ medical and mental health programs were in receivership for five years until 2002.
In other instances, judges have threatened to hold top officials in contempt, or appointed “special masters” to ensure that court orders are carried out.
What Henderson is considering for California “is so extraordinary it’s hard to imagine,” said James Jacobs, a professor and prison litigation specialist at New York University School of Law.
“A move like that would be almost revolutionary,” he said, especially with a system that is the largest in the nation with 32 prisons, 162,000 inmates and 49,000 employees.
“Displacing the authority over such a large agency would be very disruptive and it would certainly be subject to a legal challenge,” Jacobs said. “So it sounds to me like a negotiating tactic to get someone’s attention.”
In recent months, Schwarzenegger’s new team of corrections leaders has revamped its disciplinary process and, at the July meeting with the team, Henderson seemed pleased with the progress.
But then came details of the renegotiated labor pact with the union.
Soon after his election, Schwarzenegger had pledged to win back as much as $300 million in pay and benefits from the guards to help bail the state out of its financial mess. He could have vetoed the guards’ raises from the state budget, but the union had a binding contract and made clear it would sue.
Instead, the governor negotiated a deal in which union officials deferred the full 10.9% raise for the coming year. Instead, members would get a 5% raise starting this month and another 5% on Jan. 1.
The pact also grants the union new powers. Among other things, it allows about 3,000 sergeants, lieutenants and other supervisors -- rather than prison managers -- to decide their work shifts. Veteran officers already have that power, but critics said it gives undue workplace influence to the union.
In his three-page letter, Henderson said the new pact effectively “transfers management authority to the union.”
“If the state of California is no longer willing to manage the necessary corrective actions,” the judge wrote, “I must consider the appointment of a receiver to bring California’s correctional system into full compliance with the court’s orders.”
Siggins, however, said in his letter that the administration agreed to the new contract “only after its prison professionals concluded the agreement would not significantly impair management prerogative.”
Though the fate of the labor pact remained uncertain, Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) said he, for one, was inclined to support it. Burton said he met Tuesday with the governor’s chief of staff and legal affairs secretary and decided that “there is a fair amount of misinformation circulating in the Capitol” about the contract.
For example, Burton said, a provision allowing guards to obtain videotapes of assaults -- so they can use them in public relations campaigns showing the dangerous conditions of their workplace -- permits such access only after a disciplinary case related to any footage has been closed. Not forcing the union to file a public records request to get the videotapes seemed reasonable, Burton said.
“Clearly, we had hoped to get more money from the [guards union],” Burton said. “But we got no money from the Highway Patrol or the firefighters [unions], and clearly [the prison guards agreement] is better than a sharp poke in the eye with a stick.”
Times staff writers Robert Salladay, Jordan Rau and Gabrielle Banks contributed to this report.