Thursday, July 22, 2004

CA Prison System in Receivership?

A San Francisco District Federal Judge is so unhappy with the bargain Ah-nud struck with the guards' union that he's threatening to take over the State Prison system altogether.

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.

The prison system is a cesspool and not just in CA. It's a shame to have to say this but prison guards are today what the cops were 50 years ago: primarily head-bangers--they can be brutal, even sadistic; they're not all that well-trained as a general rule; they're chosen for their ruthlessness and how tough they are, not how smart they are; and they're intimately involved with (and making a lot of untaxed money from) the sex rings, drug sales, weapons smuggling, and other illegal activities of the inmates. But since it's a job few smart people want to do, as being a cop was not a job most people wanted, those who will do it have a stranglehold on the system.

It's ironic that the same kind of people who used to get paid to break union strikes by force are now being protected from the law by one of the strongest unions in the country.

The law may have the last laugh yet.

(Thanks to eRobin of Fact-esque for the link)