Skip to comments.CA: State's prison system drowning in scandals (What about the CCPOA and their culpability?)
Posted on 07/23/2006 9:09:57 AM PDT by NormsRevenge
One of the difficulties facing corrections departments around the country is that their directors dont keep their jobs very long.
The average tenure for prisons chiefs is 2.4 years not enough time to have a real impact, said Rod Hickman, the head of Californias prison system, in an interview earlier this year.
"I dont know that I can tell you exactly the right amount of time, but the one thing I do know that you can see from systems that are performing how people would like them to, albeit not perfectly: They had continuity in leadership," he said.
Three weeks later, Hickman resigned. Hed been on the job about two years.
Two months after that, his replacement also resigned.
For many, the revolving door at the top of the organization is the perfect symbol of Californias Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a prison system perpetually mired in scandal.
In the past two years alone:
n The department overspent its budget by a total of $1 billion.
n The systems health-care operations were taken over by a federal judge who cited dozens of preventable deaths and called the level of care "deplorable."
n The head of the parole division was fired after the department faced criticism for housing sex offenders in trailers and hotels.
n A private firm contracted to handle prison drug treatment was investigated for spending taxpayer money on extravagant purchases such as cars and plasma-screen televisions.
Going back to the 1990s finds additional problems, including accusations that officials in Sacramento conspired to cover up the abuse of inmates at several prisons.
Even without the numerous missteps, running the states corrections system is a daunting challenge. The inmate population now 172,000 has quadrupled since 1984.
That growth strains facilities and drives up costs. Since 1999, the departments budget exploded from $4.8 billion to $8.7 billion.
"The department is in dire need of new and proven leadership to initiate reform and restore public trust in our prison system," said Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, D-Norwalk, himself a former parole agent.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggers appointment of Hickman as secretary in 2003 was intended as a first step toward turning the troubled system around.
But now, two secretaries later, acting department head James Tilton says he only plans to stick around long enough to hire a new leadership team.
Whoever eventually leads the department will face a system that returns more released inmates to prison than any other state. Those parole recidivism numbers drive the crowding that has many institutions operating at twice their capacity.
The issue is critical, said Donald Specter of the nonprofit Prison Law Office. Population pressures make nearly every other goal for fixing the prisons impossible.
"Overcrowding has so overburdened the prison system that rehabilitation has become nothing more than an afterthought," Specter said.
Proposals to relieve crowding range from sentencing reform to a less restrictive parole system. The majority of inmates sent to prison are ex-convicts returning on parole violations.
But Schwarzenegger and his Democratic challenger in the gubernatorial race, Phil Angelides, see building new prisons as the answer. Both have called for extensive renovations to existing facilities and construction of new ones.
Either way, finding the best person to run the department is imperative, said Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who was chairwoman of the state Senates Select Committee on the California Correctional System in 2003-04.
"California has one of the largest prison systems in the world," the senator said. "Weve got to be able to find the right leadership to lead it. This is something we cannot walk away from."
As union's influence grows, so does its share of blame
The California prison guards union is often described as politically powerful. That's because the California Correctional Peace Officers Association isn't afraid to throw its weight around in Sacramento. The millions of dollars it's spent on campaign contributions is just the beginning of the union's influence.
"They're a very persuasive special interest in the capital," said Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, in an interview with Mother Jones magazine. "They're accustomed to getting what they want and have historically gotten everything they wanted."
With about 30,000 dues-paying members, the CCPOA can make or break a candidate's election hopes.
But as the union's strength has increased, it's also become a popular target, blamed by many for California's myriad prison failures.
Legislators have blasted the officers' contract, saying it gives the union influence over prison management. For example, officers can bid for choice assignments based on seniority, taking operational decisions out of prison administrators' hands.
Also, investigators looking into prison abuse have accused union officials of interference.
"The CCPOA has a mission of its own, and it has a fairly narrow scope," said former Inspector General Steve White at a legislative hearing in 2004. "The CCPOA has managed ... to move the department off of its larger comprehensive role and refocus the department on the CCPOA's ground."
Martin Aroian is the face of the union at the California Institution for Men.
Elected chapter president in 2004, the no-nonsense veteran is quick with a sound bite to describe his disgust with department leadership in Sacramento, like the department's former secretary.
"In a 2004 memo, Jeanne Woodford referred to inmates as clients,' Aroian said earlier this year. "Jeanne Woodford is an idiot. The inmates aren't the clients. ... The inmates are the workload, and the sooner (department leaders) get that figured out, the better."
Aroian's role goes beyond criticizing management. Earlier this year, he pressured officials in Sacramento to increase CIM's allotment of academy graduates and allow more transfers to the understaffed prison.
He rejects suggestions that the union has too much influence within the department, or that the contract gives officers more privileges than are necessary.
For example, the contract mandates officers be informed when they are under investigation before the review is completed. Critics argue the practice could jeopardize those investigations.
"That's an example of how little understanding those critics have of our contract," Aroian said. "The only thing we want to know is what's the complaint, who's involved ... so that we know what the nature of the complaint is."
The union was not always a Sacramento power player.
In his 1981 memoir, former corrections Director Richard McGee said CCPOA's political strength was "minuscule" compared to police and teachers' unions.
That changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when the state opened 20 new prisons. The union's membership boomed, and so did its influence in state politics.
CCPOA has supported 92 of California's 119 current state legislators, either through contributions or indirect expenditures. It also gave more than $1.1 million to then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2002 the year the current contract for officers was approved.
But there's evidence the union's influence may be waning.
As a candidate for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged not to take its contributions, and legislators like Sen. Gloria Romero have clashed with union leaders.
The CCPOA isn't beaten yet, though. Its money was key in the battle by state employee unions to defeat Schwarzenegger's slate of ballot initiatives in last year's special election.
"I think they will always be a significant player," said Romero, who described the union's influence as positive overall. "I think we would expect that, given that it is a very large workforce. If you are an employee of this system, you're going to be involved. I don't think it's a negative thing."
When were they un-convicted? Once one is convicted of a crime shouldn't it go on your permanent record? Say someone robs a bank, and gets sent to the big house for a spell, when released isn't the guy still convicted of the robbery?