Thursday, May 6, 2004

USA: Problems, blame abound in prison system

A correctional officer, [guard], watches over the central exercise yard at Folsom State Prison. California built 21 prisons and tripled prison staff as the statewide inmate, [prisoner], population grew in the '80s and '90s.

US: The jaw-dropping moment came right at the beginning of a hearing in a room tucked away near the top of the state Capitol building.

Lawmakers wondered: Was anybody managing spending at the state's adult prisons, which had blown their budget by a half-billion dollars this year? The one-word answer they got from a Finance Department official at the March hearing: No.

More than two decades after California started toughening its sentencing laws and building new prisons to deal with rising crime rates, the mammoth penal system it created is embroiled in financial and management turmoil.

The adult corrections system has overspent its budget by a cumulative $1.6 billion since 1999. Annual overtime costs for correctional officers, have tripled in the past six years. The price of inmate, [prisoner], medical care has doubled in five years as officials handed out no-bid contracts to health providers. And a recent watchdog report called the state's parole system a "billion-dollar failure" because more than two-thirds of inmates, [prisoners], released from prison end up returning.

On top of it all, corrections, officials last month declared a state of emergency so they could cram three prisoners into cells originally designed for two after they were faced with an unexpected surge of inmates, [prisoners.]

News of the prisons' budget mess has come as the Legislature also investigates discipline problems among prison officers, and rampant violence and substandard care for juvenile inmates, [prisoners], at the Youth Authority, [Youth Prison.]

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has appointed a panel of experts to recommend reforms and said he will cut $400 million from the corrections budget next year.

But while it may sound like an unfolding catastrophe, the problems in California's $5.3 billion corrections system, [prison system], are nothing new.

Concerns about prison management and costs date back to the 1980s. Watchdogs and fiscal experts such as the state auditor have been warning about financial and management chaos at the Department of Corrections, every year for the past five years. So far the state has not succeeded in controlling the system's costs, which are driven not only by administrative problems but by demographic and political forces.

Some point fingers at the power and pay hikes the state has given the members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union representing 31,000 prison employees. The Department of Corrections, blames lawmakers, who consistently have passed budgets that underestimate the real price of running the prisons.

At the same time, federal courts have found the system violated inmates,' [prisoners], civil rights by failing to provide decent medical and mental health care. Court-ordered improvements have added to costs but have not always been reflected in the budgets.

"There's plenty of blame to go around," James Tilton, the Finance Department official in charge of the corrections budget, told legislators at the March hearing.

The current crisis is erupting after 25 years of expanding criminal penalties and prisons in California, where the adult penal system has 162,000 prisoners, the most of any state in the nation.

The change over time has been dramatic.

In the early 1980s, the state spent about 3 percent of the general fund, its main tax-funded bank account, on the Department of Corrections. The prison system held about 42,000 prisoners, about one out of every 600 Californians.

As the number of prisoners swelled in the 1980s and 1990s, the state built 21 prisons. It tripled prison staff.

Today, the state spends $5.3 billion, nearly 7 percent of the general fund, on the Department of Corrections. One of every 222 Californians is incarcerated in a state prison. Though 22 prisons with thousands of beds have been added since the 1980s, the system continues to run at nearly double its designed capacity.

Crime rates have dropped by about a third since the early 1980s. But the state's prison population is still expanding, thanks to tougher sentencing laws such as "three strikes" and a system that sends many parolees back to prison for violations such as failing a drug test.

Another factor in the prisons' unchecked growth was the long history of political connections between the correctional officers union and the administrations of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, said Franklin Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor who has studied the prisons for decades.

All the while, no one has focused on management, Zimring said.

"The system has been running as a headless horseman without any overarching purpose except warehousing for at least 20 years, and that's fine with most of its constituencies," Zimring said. "It's just when it can't count and can't budget and tell you where the money goes that we have ... an administrative governance crisis."

Wardens at each of the 32 prisons are largely in charge of their own budgets, and staffing levels have been left up to their discretion. Lawmakers recently discovered that prison officials added, and paid for, 1,000 extra staff positions that weren't in their budget this year.

The prisons "are medium-sized companies, and they're being run by individuals who may or may not have a college education," said state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who with Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, has been holding hearings into all aspects of the corrections problems.

"These are people who are the equal of CFOs who may not have accounting or finance experience," Speier said. "We have to professionalize the entire operation."

It has always been hard to pinpoint an exact budget for the prison system, where staffing costs can be driven by outbreaks of violence, fluctuations in the inmate, [prisoner], population, and other security concerns. But beginning in the late 1990s, the problem seemed to get worse. The Department of Corrections started showing up regularly at the end of each fiscal year with its hand out, needing millions more dollars than its budget allowed.

Part of the problem was that the budget, for years, simply did not meet the basic costs of the prison system. In fact, Schwarzenegger's proposed spending plan for next year includes almost $500 million to cover the cost of raises and retirement benefits that the state is contractually bound to pay prison employees but failed to include in last year's budget.

Some say the problem goes beyond recent raises granted to prison employees, who could see their salaries go up by at least 37 percent in the next three years.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, correctional officers this year are making about the same amount of money as they did 10 years ago: an average of about $54,000, not including overtime.

The main problem, some say, is that the people at the top of the corrections system either had, or exercised, little control.

Under Davis, problems with the Department of Corrections often were ignored by the governor's top staff, said Robert Presley, the Cabinet official in charge of the department at the time.

Presley, who ran the system from 1999 until this year, said in a recent interview that he submitted a five-year plan for the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency to Davis' Cabinet secretary, but never got a response one way or the other.

"Davis never wanted to rock the boat in any way," Presley said. "He just wanted to maintain pretty much status quo."

Presley said he also was hamstrung by union members' say over work rules and assignments.

Under the current agreement, correctional officers sign up for 70 percent of work assignments based on seniority. And, even though Presley headed the agency, an entirely separate arm of government - the Department of Personnel Administration - negotiated the contract for prison staff.

"Unions have their place on bread-and-butter type issues, salaries and that type of thing," Presley said. "But when they get into management and operations, it's too much. I would tell them that. But of course they weren't too concerned with what I thought, because they already had it in the contract. So it didn't matter a lot."

Steve Maviglio, who served as Davis' spokesman when he was governor, blamed Presley for failing to get control of the prisons.

"The governor was focused on the big issues of the day, which were energy and the budget," Maviglio said. "It's Mr. Presley's job to keep his house in order."

Maviglio added: "It's not like anything was swept under the rug. We tried to do everything we could."

From the time that California state employees were first allowed to collectively bargain, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has represented prison officers and other correctional staff. It has grown from about 2,500 members in 1982 to about 31,000 today.

To the union, which has donated millions of dollars to the campaign funds of state lawmakers, including Davis, the benefits and control they have won are their due in a dangerous job that has not had parity with other law enforcement agencies.

"Corrections for years was the doormat of public safety, and I think we have upped our stature with respect to the law-enforcement community," said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the CCPOA.

Corcoran argues that the state consistently has underestimated how much staff it takes to maintain security.

But auditors' reports have found that prison officers use overtime as a privilege, with senior officers getting first dibs on extra hours. That, too, drives up costs because the state is paying time and a half on the senior officers' higher salaries. Meanwhile, the prison officers' contract limits how often the state can use cheaper, part-time workers to fill schedule gaps.

State Auditor Elaine Howle has been examining these problems since 2000. Her office has come up with a host of recommendations - among them, cutting down on overtime and the use of sick leave.

Since her office began weighing in, results have been mixed. The Department of Corrections has cut its staff vacancy rate from 12 percent to 2 percent in an effort to reduce overtime.

But the latest prison officers' contract, signed in 2002, got rid of a program that tracked sick-leave use. Since then, sick leave among prison employees has risen by more than 8 percent.

"There has been some improvement," Howle said. "But would I consider it significant improvement? No."

Three decades of California's prison system

1977: California's determinate sentencing law goes into effect. The old system of open-ended sentences is replaced with a system in which offenders serve fixed sentences before being released to parole.

1980: The state prison system has 23,500 inmates, [prisoners], and is operating at 99 percent of capacity. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has 5,000 members, and the average annual salary for correctional officers is $14,400.

1982: The Ralph C. Dills Act, allowing state employees to bargain collectively, is implemented. The CCPOA negotiates its first contract.

1985: Inmates, [prisoners], at San Quentin fatally stab Sgt. Howell Burchfield, the last California correctional officer to be killed in the line of duty.

1985: The state prison system has 47,000 inmates, [prisoners], and is operating at 158 percent of capacity.

1984-1997: To deal with the growing inmate population in its already crowded facilities, California builds 21 new prisons.

1990: The state prison system has 94,000 inmates, [prisoners], and is operating at 177 percent of capacity.

1994: "Three-strikes" law goes into effect, doubling prison terms for second-time felons and instituting sentences of 25 years to life for third-time felons.

1995: A federal judge begins oversight of Pelican Bay State Prison after finding that inmates, [prisoners], were being subjected to excessive force and inadequate medical care. A federal judge in a separate case begins monitoring services for mentally ill inmates, [prisoners.]

1995: The state prison system has 131,000 inmates, [prisoners], and is operating at 177 percent of capacity. The CCPOA has 20,000 members, and the top salary for a correctional officer is $46,000.

1998: Corrections officials restrict rifle fire to incidents in which inmates, [prisoners], pose threats of death or serious injury to officers or each other. A dozen state inmates, [prisoners], had been killed by officers' gunfire from 1994 to 1998, twice the total of all other U.S. prisons combined.

2000: Six Corcoran State Prison officers accused of setting up gladiator-style fights between inmates, [prisoners], in 1994 are acquitted by a federal court jury.

2000: A racially motivated riot at Pelican Bay leaves one inmate, [prisoner], dead and 32 wounded. Correctional officers fire 24 shots.

2000: California voters approve Proposition 36, allowing people convicted of drug possession to get treatment instead of prison.

2000: The state prison system has 162,000 inmates, [prisoners], and is operating at 192 percent of capacity.

2002: Correctional officers get a new contract that gives them a roughly 37 percent pay raise over five years.

2002: A riot between members of rival gangs at Folsom State Prison leads to injuries to 25 inmates, [prisoners], and correctional officers, and the firing of the warden after state investigators find that prison officials failed to head off the brawl.

2002: Two Pelican Bay correctional officers are convicted and sentenced to federal prison for beating inmates, [prisoners], and soliciting prisoners to attack other inmates, [prisoners], in the early and mid-1990s.

2002: State settles a class-action lawsuit alleging that inmate, [prisoner], medical care is abysmal. State agrees to overhaul medical care in the prisons and spend more to ensure inmates, [prisoners], get timely medical treatment.

2003: Federal prosecutors turn over information to state corrections officials indicating that some prison officers perjured themselves during the trial of the Pelican Bay guards.

2004: The federal official in charge of overseeing Pelican Bay alleges that corrections chief Edward A. Alameida and his deputy, Thomas Moore, improperly quashed the perjury investigation under pressure from the CCPOA. Alameida and Moore resign.

2004: State prison system has 162,456 inmates, [prisoners], and is operating at 194 percent of capacity. The CCPOA has 31,000 members, and the average salary for a correctional officer is $54,771.

Source: state Controller's Office, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Bee research

By Clea Benson and Gary Delsohn


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