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State Will Oversee Probes of Guards

Times Staff Writers

Citing the “sorry history” of California’s handling of prison disciplinary problems, a federal judge Tuesday cautiously gave a green light to the state’s plan for independent oversight of prison guard misconduct.

After questioning newly appointed prison officials, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson gave an initial go-ahead to using the state’s inspector general to oversee investigations of excessive force and other alleged misconduct.

The judge said he hoped that the state Department of Corrections would address the so-called “code of silence” among guards and that public confidence could be restored. “It is not going to be an easy task,” he said.

At the outset of the hearing, Henderson suggested that he was ready to take more severe action: “I am seriously considering appointing a receiver to oversee the California Department of Corrections.”

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The session was an important chapter in a case that had begun as a civil rights suit involving Pelican Bay State Prison and had evolved into a much broader legal fight over the integrity of the disciplinary system for prison employees. Henderson in 1995 found that brutality by guards and poor medical care at the prison had violated the rights of inmates.

In response to the scathing findings of a special master appointed by Henderson, the Corrections Department recently submitted a remedial plan for its disciplinary process. It calls for an independent review of probes of correctional officers, which critics say have been impeded by the prison culture.

The department’s latest proposal calls for using the state Office of the Inspector General, an independent agency that reports to the governor, to provide oversight for the court in disciplinary cases.

Oversight has been the stickiest element of the state reforms.

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Prison officials originally had proposed that role for the Youth and Corrections Agency, the parent of the department and the California Youth Authority. But the Prison Law Office, which filed the suit, objected on grounds that the agency lacked independence. And state officials revised their proposal, which both sides said would take a few months to finalize.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys said state officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had to take several steps to make an independent review a reality. The first was the appointment of an inspector general, which happened in Sacramento as the court session was winding down.

Schwarzenegger named Matthew Cate to lead the office that would investigate wrongdoing in state lockups. Since 1996, Cate has been a supervising deputy attorney general at the state Department of Justice, where he has managed the prosecution of political corruption cases and provided counsel to grand juries and law enforcement agencies.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said Cate’s appointment “demonstrates to me that [the governor is] serious about good oversight of California’s prison and parole system.”

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And Schwarzenegger praised Cate’s integrity, saying, “He shares my commitment to bringing truth and justice to California’s correctional system.”

Cate will investigate allegations of misconduct, perform audits and special reviews requested by legislators, and follow up on tips from whistle-blowers and the public. A Republican, Cate will report directly to the governor and earn $123,255 annually.

Cate said in a statement: “I am committed to ensuring a system of accountability and integrity where prisoners, guards and the public can trust that the law is followed and public safety is top priority.”

Officials at the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., which represents guards, did not return calls seeking comment on the appointment and the department’s proposal.

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The appointment comes as the state’s $6-billion penal system is undergoing scrutiny from the Legislature and the federal court. A series of reports and oversight hearings in the Capitol have spotlighted troubles ranging from excessive violence to corruption, abuse of inmates and other misconduct by guards.

In a 10-page remedial plan filed here last month, prison officials proposed adopting a code of conduct that would require all employees to report misconduct and cooperate in investigations.

On Tuesday, Henderson said he had heard promises and plans from state corrections officials in the past and wanted to know why he should give this new group another chance before seizing more direct control of the disciplinary process.

“I believe there is a commitment by the agency and the administration for ... real-time ... oversight by the inspector general,” said Roderick Q. Hickman, the new agency secretary.

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“Your honor,” said new Corrections Director Jeanne Woodford, “we are taking this issue very seriously.”

Prison Law Office attorney Steve Fama granted that the proposal to involve the inspector general was markedly different, but said the review’s timeliness and thoroughness was critical.

“Unless that is done,” he said, his office will seek to put discipline under a court-named receiver.

Henderson said the only reason that he is giving state prison officials another chance is that he met several weeks ago with Hickman. “I have faith that he will carry through,” the judge said. The judge approved the use of Mike Gennaco, head of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office of Independent Review, to set up the state’s independent review of the prison disciplinary system.

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Reiterman reported from San Francisco, Warren from Sacramento.


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