Gov.'s Rival Offers Prison Plan
State Treasurer Phil Angelides on Thursday said California’s sprawling prison system was suffering a “meltdown” and vowed to declare a state of emergency for corrections if he was elected governor in November.
Accusing Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of standing by as overcrowding, inmate healthcare and other problems in the state’s 33 adult prisons worsened, the Democratic nominee released a plan that he said would rescue the $8.2-billion system from the brink of collapse.
Angelides also said Schwarzenegger’s recent call for a special legislative session on corrections -- and the construction of three prisons -- was an election-year stunt that would yield no lasting results.
“Our prisons are powder kegs putting our communities and the public safety at risk,” Angelides said at a news conference at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. “It’s a crisis of competence, a crisis of safety.”
Campaign aides to Schwarzenegger defended his record and said his rival’s plan largely repeated the governor’s ideas for improving the correctional system, which houses 170,000 inmates and supervises more than 151,000 parolees.
“Phil Angelides’ reform rhetoric is yet another desperate ‘me-too-ism’ from his campaign,” spokesman Matt David said. “It seems each time Gov. Schwarzenegger works with the Legislature to move California forward, Angelides offers empty partisan echoes.”
The face-off marks a rare emergence of prisons as an issue in the governor’s race. Though crime and sentencing are perennial topics with candidates, few spend much campaign time on lawbreakers and the conditions they face behind bars.
But analysts said the crisis besetting California’s correctional system had become so severe that Angelides was viewing it as an inviting target. In recent months, a federal receiver had seized control of inmate healthcare -- a $1.2-billion operation -- and a federal court investigator had sharply rebuked the Schwarzenegger administration for allowing the guards’ union undue influence over prison policy and management.
Also this year, there has been continual turmoil in the leadership of the corrections department, with two chiefs resigning since February amid concerns that support for their reforms was waning inside the governor’s office.
“This crisis has been brewing for a long time, and not just on Schwarzenegger’s watch,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. “But it’s clearly something the governor is vulnerable on, and Angelides is seizing an opportunity.”
O’Connor said Angelides’ interest also was probably driven by a desire to woo the guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. The union is a powerful player in state politics, spending millions each election cycle on behalf of Democrats and Republicans of their choosing.
Its leaders have yet to endorse a 2006 candidate for governor. They have supported Angelides in some races, and backed his opponents in others. They have had frosty relations with Schwarzenegger, though the governor has recently made overtures to correctional officers and other labor groups.
Angelides did not address the union’s influence within the prisons Thursday, except to say that he would reach out to all parties within the system -- from managers to officers patrolling the cellblocks -- to fix problems.
One union official, lobbyist Lance Corcoran, said it was nice to hear politicians talking about prison woes. But he questioned the usefulness of some pieces of Angelides’ plan, such as his call to create space for inmates by renovating two state lockups in Stockton. Corcoran said the two prisons have been mothballed and lack the security needed to accommodate most inmates.
He also said Angelides’ plan to quicken hiring by declaring a state of emergency would run afoul of other realities, such as a shortage of support personnel needed to do background checks, drug testing and psychological examinations.
“You could decide to be less selective in the hiring process in order to make it expeditious, but historically that has led to more scandals, more discipline and more problem employees,” Corcoran said.
In an interview, Angelides said he had focused on the prison crisis because it would be one of the most daunting challenges he would face as governor -- “equivalent to becoming CEO of a company that has been run into the ground.”
Outlining a five-point, largely general strategy, he said he would first declare a state of emergency, which he said would free him to more quickly fill vacancies and spend money to correct problems.
And he said he would select a cabinet secretary and other managers for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and require that they produce a recovery plan within 90 days of their appointment.
The plan, he said, would include prisons to be built in three years, better mental and substance abuse treatment programs, and more education and job training for inmates.
Absent from his proposal was any mention of changes in criminal sentencing, which many scholars, legislators and others believe are necessary to reduce the prison population and cut California’s recidivism rate.
Angelides said his first priority would be to “stabilize a very explosive system.” Then, he said, he would consider the idea of sentencing reform.
Angelides would not discuss the potential cost for his prison plan, except to say that California must spend what is necessary to remedy the problems.