Some Reforms Blocked, but Prison System Is Improving, Senator Says

Times Staff Writer

A state senator who spent the past year investigating problems in California’s $6-billion correctional system summed up the fruit of that labor Wednesday, declaring that many major reforms were blocked but that positive changes are afoot.

In a briefing with reporters, Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said that her top worry as chairwoman of a special committee on corrections remains California’s prisons for the young, which she believes do little to rehabilitate delinquents.

“It was a year of crisis in corrections, but out of crisis rises opportunity,” she said. “We saw an unprecedented example of the three branches of government tackling an issue that had largely been invisible in California politics.”


Romero said she had hoped that the suicides of two young inmates in January, coupled with a series of critical reports on the juvenile system, would by now have brought about major improvements.

State officials responded that they have stopped using large wire mesh cages to confine unruly youths, suspended the use of police dogs after an inmate was bitten and closed a housing unit that some visitors likened to a dungeon. But major changes in how youths spend their time behind bars have not happened.

Still, Romero said the state’s vast prison system--the nation’s largest with 168,000 inmates--is “absolutely” in better shape than it was this time last year.

Teaming up with Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), Romero held nearly a dozen hearings on corrections during the past year. Among the topics investigated were the ballooning prison budget, inmate healthcare, security housing units, employee misconduct, and the use of force in the Youth Authority.

Those hearings reflected a tumultuous year for the correctional system. In the adult prisons, one inmate died from starvation, another bled to death in his cell and a third died from complications of a pulled tooth.

A report from a federal investigator said a “code of silence” tolerated by top managers protected rogue guards and prevented the Department of Corrections from policing its own. And, capping it all, a federal judge -- faulting the Schwarzenegger administration for a “business as usual” attitude toward reform -- threatened to place the prisons in receivership.


In the juvenile system, the suicides -- two young men hanged themselves with bedsheets in an isolation cell -- were followed by a series of state-commissioned reports portraying violence inside as “off the charts” and education, healthcare and mental health services as substandard.

In addition, a videotape -- aired on national television -- showed correctional counselors kicking and striking two inmates after a scuffle. The employees were fired last month after an internal investigation found they had used unnecessary force.

Against that backdrop, 28 prison-related bills cleared the Legislature and were sent to the governor.

He signed 17-- including one imposing a ban on smoking inside prisons and another creating a code of conduct for employees -- and vetoed 11.

Other bills failed to win approval by the Legislature, including one by Romero that made her a lightning rod for criticism from her colleagues.

That bill, SB 1731, centered on a clause in the prison guards’ labor contract that critics said allows the union to interfere in disciplinary investigations.


After the bill failed to muster enough votes in the Assembly, Romero fiercely denounced the lower house, suggesting members had bowed to pressure from the politically powerful union. “Justice took a walk today,” she declared at the time.

That infuriated Assembly members, who said she had no right to question their logic in weighing which way to vote. And when Romero brought the measure back for reconsideration, the Assembly doomed it once again.

Among the 17 bills that became law was one that expands the powers of newly appointed Inspector General Matt Cate, the prison system’s watchdog, and makes his investigative reports public.

Among those vetoed was a Romero measure seeking to restore full media access to the state’s 32 prisons. That bill would have reversed rules adopted by former Gov. Pete Wilson that banned reporters from conducting interviews with specific inmates. Instead, journalists may question only those convicts they encounter randomly on prison tours.

Prison officials argue that permitting reporters to schedule interviews with specific inmates leads to glorification of criminals and can offend victims. Romero sees it differently.

“If anything, this year of crisis proved that we need more sunshine behind prison walls, not less,” she said.


The senator was joined in the briefing by Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit firm that has frequently sued the state over prison conditions.

Specter said one failure during the year was the absence of major changes within the Youth Authority, which houses the state’s most serious juvenile offenders. Specter noted that he and Romero recently toured Missouri’s youth prison system -- considered a national model because so few parolees commit new crimes -- and saw “a program that works.”

“It shows a program that values kids, that uses words instead of weapons,” Specter said. In addition to a lower recidivism rate than California, “the system is humane and also cheaper,” he said.

Prison officials said they have visited Missouri and plan to try a similar program with a small group of offenders to see how it will work here. They added that an upcoming settlement of a lawsuit against the Youth Authority will result in major changes.

Youth and Adult Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman said he welcomed the collaboration of Romero and Speier, “though we may not agree on exactly how to fix the problems we face.”

Appointed by Schwarzenegger last November, Hickman argued that he and his team have laid a foundation for major change in the coming year.


Among other things, his agency has been working to identify programs with a track record of helping parolees succeed once released -- a key goal for a state where nearly two out of three return to prison within two years, driving up the population and corrections spending.