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Pinky99 01-27-2005 09:24 AM

Maximum Insecurity
 
MAXIMUM INSECURITY
by Dennis Romero

You know it's time for change when the most vocal advocate for
prison reform is the victim of a violent carjacking who helped send
the criminal away for 12 hard years. Gloria Romero, the state
Senate's majority leader and chair of a Senate subcommittee on
corrections, was carjacked along with her then preteen daughter,
Soledad, at a fast food drive-through in northeast Los Angeles
nearly 10 years ago.

"It was ugly," says the veteran Democrat, sitting in her East Los
Angeles district office. "And I went to court, and I testified, and
our assailant was put into a California penitentiary. He got 12
years. You know what? He deserved it. What that man did to us was
wrong and it was dangerous. So it's not about being soft on crime.
But it is about saying that assailant is going to be back on the
street some day. Do I want him to go after another mother and her
child like he did with us? What do 12 years of prison mean?"

For Romero and a growing chorus of critics, California's prison
system has become little more than an inhumane thug university, a
place where convicts bottle up anger, beef up, and learn how to
perpetrate more efficiently. It is the largest state penal
organization in the United States, and while Californians might feel
safer knowing that more bad guys and girls than ever are behind
bars, the costs of keeping them there will soon come due. Already,
the system's growing slice of the state budget, approaching $7
billion next year, has Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger concerned. It
costs nearly $31,000 a year to house one state prisoner, multiplied
by a record-high population of 163,000 prisoners more people than
live in Pasadena. One inmate's annual price tag is more than enough
to treat someone to a year of education at UCLA, room and board
included. But with UCLA, we get a bright young mind who can help the
state's economy soar. With prison, we get a 70 percent re-arrest
rate and in youths, it's even worse, with reports of a 75 percent
re-arrest rate among juveniles who've left the California Youth
Authority. The state has a daily parolee population of 103,000, one
of the largest in the nation. After nearly three decades of anti-
crime politics that loaded up the prison-industrial complex, we're
at an unprecedented crossroads, when both sides of the political
aisle are saying enough; it's expensive, ineffective, and perhaps
inhumane. The Schwarzenegger juggernaut has put prison reform on the
front burner.

"California was once the national leader, a pioneer in corrections
integrity, innovation, and efficiency," the governor said in his
recent State of the State address. "We can make it so once again."

The state's correctional system is at near double its intended
inmate capacity; it has problems serving the medical and mental
health needs of prisoners; it treats women convicted of largely
nonviolent drug offenses nearly the same as it does violent male
offenders; it puts juveniles in prison-like housing where 23-hour
lockdowns are common; and it has been home to prisoner abuse and
officer corruption some of it caught on tape. Just this week it
was revealed that a guard at Centinela State Prison was arrested on
suspicion of conspiracy to smuggle drugs and mobile phones to
inmates.

But a big part of the problem is punishing and further hardening
people at a great cost when they could be rehabilitated, says
Romero. In her study of the prisons, she has come across an 83-year-
old woman with extensive healthcare needs locked up for conspiracy
in a crime her son committed, and a 14-year-old girl holed up in the
California Youth Authority for being a lookout during a gang rape.
It costs us more than $80,000 a year to keep the teenager there
good enough for a few years at Harvard. As it is, however, we don't
do much as a state to keep her out.

"I looked at that kid, and I remember my heart broke when I met
her," Romero says. "Little tiny thing. Ugly things have been done to
her and she's done ugly things in return. But when you start looking
at the backdrop of what her life has been like her mother and her
father are both gone, there's no family, she's on the street until
we deal with those realities of youth, we're going to keep finding
kids like her at age 14 and 15 coming before us and us paying
$80,000 a year to incarcerate them and not make any changes in their
lives."


Too Much Influence

Last year, the state Independent Review Panel, chaired by former
Gov. George Deukmejian, looked at the sorry state of the corrections
system and found a lot to dislike.

"We found that everything was defunct," says panel Executive
President Joe Gunn, formerly of the Los Angeles Police
Commission. "They had no training, risk management, planning and
research, the organization sucked, the unions were too powerful, the
legislature had too much influence."

Schwarzenegger has also decried "too much political influence" in
the prison system, and critics seem to agree with him that something
needs to be done about the burgeoning, overcrowded and often
mismanaged Department of Corrections and California Youth Authority.
They disagree, however, on what road to take toward reform. One of
the first steps, the governor recently proposed, is to place both
programs under a Youth and Adult Correctional Agency run by a former
guard handpicked by the governor, Rod Hickman, thus sharing a
bureaucracy and saving some money. That scares some youth advocates,
who feel the California Youth Authority is already too prison-like.

"It's a really bad idea," says Sue Burrell, advocate at the Youth
Law Center/Children's Protective Legal Center in San Francisco, who
submitted testimony on the governor's plan to the state's Little
Hoover Commission this week. "A lot of the problems have to do with
treating kids as they would in the punitive adult system. But
there's nothing in this plan that indicates they want to do anything
different. It seems like a missed opportunity."

In fact, while the governor talks reform, his budget proposal for
next year would gut most of the state's Juvenile Justice Crime
Prevention Act funding cutting $75 million of its $100 million
budget. Critics fear this will send more wards to the prison-like
CYA, where they'll join gangs, learn how to become better criminals,
and likely end up in adult prisons someday.

Many would like to see the CYA become more like Missouri's youth
corrections system, which has college-educated "youth specialists"
instead of guards, smaller facilities, no prison-style uniforms, and
a low, eight percent recidivism rate. This week, Romero proposed
changes that would inch it closer to the Missouri model. She wants
to close a troubled facility in Stockton, put female wards in state-
funded county programs, shape new and existing facilities into a 40-
ward-per-unit system, end 23-hour lockdowns, and eliminate the
wards' prison-style uniforms.

While the governor is thinking of finally transforming the state
corrections system into something more than a crime school he's
talking about a fundamental shift toward rehabilitation instead of
just punishment perhaps foremost on the minds of reformers and the
Schwarzenegger administration alike is reforming parole, which could
let some pressure out of the prison population and cut costs. The
Little Hoover Commission has called the state's parole system
a "billion-dollar failure" and noted that California leads the
nation in re-arrests among parolees. It's an expensive revolving
door. Already Schwarzenegger has proposed trimming the rolls of
parolees by 6.7 percent next year, cutting some parolees completely
loose if they demonstrate trustworthiness. Romero would like to see
more nonviolent offenders released from prison and paroled early as
well. As many as 25,000 of the system's 163,000 inmates could be
considered "non-dangerous," administration sources told The
Sacramento Bee recently. But it's an issue the Schwarzenegger
administration has waffled on, first saying it's on the table, then
saying it's not.

"It's not just blanket early parole, but meaningful good policy
based on the possibility of least risk for all concerned, and we can
find those," Romero argues.

Also at issue is the Department of Corrections' insistence on
separating new prisoners by race at adult prison reception centers,
an unwritten policy yet to be challenged by the Schwarzenegger
administration. In fact, President George W. Bush's Department of
Justice has argued against the California practice in a case now
before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Department of Corrections says
the sorting is a necessary evil to protect prisoners from
interracial violence perpetrated by ethnically based prison gangs.
But Romero argues that the policy might actually exacerbate the
prison gang problem by delivering recruits straight to the doorstep
of the bad boys. "No other prison system in the country, including
the federal Bureau of Prisons, does it," she says.

So far, the governor's own ideas for reforming corrections, both
adult and youth, seem vague. Some critics fear that his vision of
reform lacks the teeth of civilian oversight and would increase the
number of private prisons.

After commissioning the Deukmejian blue-ribbon panel to find the
best ways to reform corrections, Schwarzenegger eschewed the group's
top recommendation that the chain of command in prisons should
ultimately lead to independent civilian oversight. Chief among the
more than 260 recommendations of the panel was to have the governor
create a five-person, non-politician civilian commission that would
be empowered with making broad changes to the state prison system,
including bureaucratic streamlining, increased rehabilitation, and
smarter parole. Under this recommendation, Youth and Adult
Correctional Agency Secretary Hickman whose ultimate power over
adult and juvenile corrections is still under consideration by the
legislature would have reported to the commission instead of to
the governor.

"The governor picks five individuals who are confirmed by the senate
who are not running for office," says Gunn of the Deukmejian
panel. "There has to be a buffer between the politicians, the
prison, and the guards' union. The governor's staff didn't like it,
obviously the prisons secretary didn't like it. We called it the
linchpin of our recommendations. We feel like 10 years from now
they'll convene another group to study this."


Arnold's Special Interests

Romero, who will perhaps have the most legislative power when
dealing with the governor on prison reform, is hot and cold on
Arnold. She's happy that he's using his bully pulpit and speaking
up, unhappy with some of the results so far.

"I will always give credit to this governor for having the courage
to take on reform in the prison system," says Romero, who will also
chair the budget subcommittee on corrections. "No one else has done
it. The question is where does that conversation take us, down the
road? That's the fight going on right now."

Indeed, while some credit the governor for finally putting a
spotlight on the overburdened, under-performing prison-industrial
complex, some accuse him of being a man of "talk" without "any
walk," as state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) told a reporter
recently.

Schwarzenegger has come under fire for his recent decision to reopen
two privately run low-security prisons, sans a bidding process.
Critics fear that Schwarzenegger is showing his true pro-business
leanings at a time when prisons and the state budget need less pork.
What's more, one of the companies that got the governor's go-ahead
to run a reopened facility, GEO Group Inc., gave $58,000 to
Schwarzenegger's campaign committees in 2003. And, according to the
Los Angeles Times, the governor's recent Department of Finance
director, Donna Arduin, moved to the board of directors of a GEO
spin-off, Correctional Properties, that is the brick-and-mortar
owner of the private prison. For Schwarzenegger, who repeatedly
vowed to cut off the gubernatorial influence of special interests,
the deal doesn't bode well. Romero, for one, has asked a state
auditor to investigate the reopening of the two private
prisons. "This deal was signed and delivered without any legislative
oversight, lending to the perception that state government is a
revolving door of quick deals that lack scrutiny and integrity," she
said.

"This may foreshadow the introduction of more private prisons in the
state," warned Sharon Dolovich, UCLA professor of law and prison
policy.

With private prisons, the professor sees the same self-serving
influence of the very prison-industrial complex that the governor
has promised to deflate in the name of efficiency. Schwarzenegger
has refused to take campaign contributions from the powerful guards'
union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association
(CCPOA). But Dolovich argues that private prison companies have the
same moneyed interest in maintaining the growth of prison
populations.

"The private prisons industry was one of the key supporters of the
1994 Three Strikes initiative," Dolovich says. "These corporations
also have a financial interest in increased rates of incarceration."

The governor stood up to the union last year when he got back $108
million in salary concessions, solid savings for the taxpayers. But
Schwarzenegger's deal with the guards alarmed a U.S. District Court
judge so much that he threatened to put state prisons under
receivership. Judge Thelton E. Henderson said the deal gave guards
management control, an accusation that the Schwarzenegger
administration denied.

Romero was so appalled that she wrote a bill that would have killed
a key provision of Schwarzenegger's deal, fine print that requires
information gathered during internal investigations of guards to be
turned over to the officers being probed. "That provision of the
contract, to me, is unlawful, illegal and I do believe it needs to
change," she says. Her bill, however, didn't make it in the state
Assembly.

Critics have called the CCPOA one of the main reasons the state
corrections system is consistently millions of dollars over budget
each year, with a lot of the spending going to overtime, medical
leave, and "fitness pay." Guards with 10 years experience make a
base of nearly $60,000 a year, reportedly the highest such salary in
the nation. Some credit the union with helping the Department of
Corrections budget balloon from $923 million in 1985 to nearly $6
billion today, although many others point to the burgeoning prison
population as the main culprit. The CCPOA has been pro-prisons since
the early '90s, helping staunch anti-crime candidate Pete Wilson win
the governorship with a then-unprecedented $1-million-plus in
campaign contributions. The union was also instrumental in backing
the Three Strikes law. A union spokesman did not return CityBeat's
calls.

"The union supports sentencing policies that will lead to more
people in prison because it benefits their members," says Dolovich.

Still, as Romero and others point out, it's a tough job being a
prison guard in an era of high public support for harsh punishment.
It puts the guards on the front lines of dealing with people no one
else wants to see. The fatal stabbing of guard Manuel A. Gonzalez at
the Chino Institution for Men earlier this month highlighted the
grave dangers of working on the inside, and it revealed problems
with the bureaucracy and the union's influence. Warden Lori DiCarlo,
reportedly with input from union representatives, held back on
distributing 300 stab-resistant vests being stored at Chino, fearing
that it wouldn't be fair to hand them out to some but not all 900
officers at the prison. But the union blames Schwarzenegger's Youth
and Adult Correctional Agency secretary, Hickman, saying he's bred a
culture of hostility toward guards by aggressively investigating
officer misconduct, putting them on the defensive in an offensive
world.

The stabbing suspect, Jon Christopher Blaylock, had been in a lower-
security reception center at Chino for six months three months
more than the rules allow despite having been handed a Three
Strikes conviction worth 75 years for attempted murder of a cop.
Officials said the 35-year-old prisoner had mental health problems
that made him hard to place in the overburdened system. Romero says
she's looking into whether Blaylock was receiving proper medication
for his mental health condition at the time of the alleged crime.

"Every inmate coming into prison starts at the reception center,
where they're supposed to be basically diagnosed, and their records
are supposed to be read to figure out where to send them," Romero
says. "An inmate is only supposed to spend 90 days in a reception
center. The suspect was there for six months. That is a breakdown
right away. On top of that, it is my understanding that this inmate
had mental illness issues. If that was the case, he should not have
been languishing in a reception center for six months. We have
facilities. For the safety of everyone around him, inmates and
guards as well as that inmate himself, he shouldn't have been there.
On top of that, although it's not certain yet, there's even a
question as to whether this inmate was receiving his medication.
Those are major issues."


The People's Choice

The seeming chaos that comes with bursting prison populations is the
result, ultimately, of the will of the people. In 1977, the state
passed a "determinate sentencing law" that took flexibility out of
prison terms and had felons serving most if not all their minimum
time. With the crack-fueled crime epidemic of the '80s, followed by
the 1992 Los Angeles riots, state voters demanded more from the
justice system, and even Democratic politicians in a largely left-
leaning California marched to the law-and-order drumbeat. The 1994
Three Strikes law, which means a minimum of 25 years behind bars for
a third felony conviction, violent or not, has been responsible for
putting 42,000 people behind bars nearly 25 percent of today's
prison population. It is, as UCLA's Dolovich says, "the biggest
culprit" when it comes to prison overcrowding. The Justice Policy
Institute estimates the law has also cost Californians an extra $8.1
billion to house third strikers.

For those who want to reform the state prison system, relaxing Three
Strikes so it applies only to those convicted of violent felonies
would be a smart start in reducing the population behind bars. But
Proposition 66, which would have done just that, was turned down by
voters in November after Schwarzenegger, under pressure from his
party's right wing, aimed his publicity and cash machine against the
initiative. Before the governor's move, polls showed healthy support
for the measure.

"The public is easily manipulated into endorsing tough-on-crime
measures," UCLA's Dolovich says. "There's some sense of satisfaction
that is completely unrelated to their own personal security. Often
the demands for tough punishments don't really correlate to the
crimes being punished. I think the single thing that California
needs if it's going to reform its sentencing policies is leadership,
and we lack leadership. We need political leaders who are willing to
tell the public straight up about the consequences of tough
sentencing."

If anything, Romero argues, the overpopulated state of our prisons
ultimately lies at the feet of an often paranoid and sometimes
shortsighted public.

"We have to look at us," she says. "We might feel good about saying
we have them all locked up. But then we have to realize we're not
building schools, we're not investing in diversion programs, after-
school programs, our emergency rooms are shutting down, our roads
are falling apart. At a certain point, do we allow society to
crumble so we can build prisons and fill them up?"

jessica23 01-27-2005 11:58 AM

Great article - thanks for posting.

Jessica

RPinSD 01-27-2005 12:42 PM

Bob-bi-lu

Really good article, love me some Seantor Romero.

Please remember when posting articles to adhere to the following.

Title: Article: Maximum Insecurity

and post a link to the articles orgin.

Thanks


Richard

Latinlove 01-27-2005 12:48 PM

Can you post the source of this article. I want to forward it to some friends.

Ananda 01-27-2005 07:46 PM

Great article! I would like to know the souce too.

JaimeeLynn 01-27-2005 09:29 PM

Awesome. I just love Gloria Romero! Thanks for sharing!!!


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