February 13, 2004 - San Jose Mercury News (CA)

Schwarzenegger Deals With Prison Crisis

By Don Thompson, AP

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - - While prison guards allegedly watched the Super Bowl and ignored his screams for hours, an inmate on dialysis died as most of his blood drained from his body.

The death last month was just the latest horror story to come out of the California prison system and confront Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with one of the biggest crises of his new administration.

Among other things, two teenagers hanged themselves last month at a juvenile prison. And in a recent series of scathing reports and hearings, legislators, outside experts and whistleblowers have charged that the nation's biggest prison system is plagued by out-of-control spending, inhumane discliplinary practices, and outright brutality on the part of guards.

"Most people in California aren't sent to prisons on death sentences," said state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat from Los Angeles who is co-chairing legislative hearings now under way on the 160,000-inmate prison system. "Yes, we want to be tough on crime. We don't want to be torture chambers."

Peter Siggins, Schwarzenegger's legal secretary, said: "He's very concerned about this department. He's concerned about the way it does its business, serves its mission, and he wants to fix it."

Last month, sobbing witnesses at Senate hearings told of a systemwide "code of silence" among guards and accused top Folsom State Prison officials of covering up their mishandling of a 2002 riot.

The riot broke out when two rival gangs were released together into an exercise yard; officials later deleted a guard's objections from the audio portion of videotapes of the riot. Twenty-five inmates and one guard were injured, and a second guard committed suicide months later, complaining of his treatment by prison officials in the riot's aftermath.

In recent weeks, a federal monitor said the state's former corrections director and chief investigator should be charged with contempt for blocking a probe of whether Pelican Bay State Prison guards lied to protect co-workers convicted of soliciting inmates to attack child molesters and others they disliked. A federal judge appointed the monitor to investigate.

The California Youth Authority, which is responsible for 4,600 juvenile offenders, came under fire recently from state-funded experts who said authorities overuse Mace, drugs, physical restraints and wire-mesh cages on misbehaving youths while ignoring or delaying mental or physical health treatment.

Last month, Deon Whitfield, 17, and Durrell Tadon Feaster, 18, used bed sheets to hang themselves in their cells at a juvenile prison in Ione. Their parents have accused officials of providing inadequate mental health care.

In what Romero called "a Super Bowl horror," 60-year-old Ronald Herrera pulled the dialysis shunt from his arm and bled to death Jan. 25 in his cell at Corcoran State Prison. The Los Angeles Times quoted unidentified prison officials as saying guards were busy watching the game and ignored his cries for help. No one has been charged.

It was only the latest in bizarre allegations at Corcoran, where eight guards accused of staging gladiator-style fights among inmates were acquitted of civil rights violations in 2000. Last fall, jurors rejected a lawsuit by an 118-pound inmate who said he was repeatedly raped after guards intentionally housed him with a 220-pound aggressor known as the "Booty Bandit." The guards were acquitted of criminal charges as well.

In a confidential report obtained by The Associated Press, state investigators said guards at Salinas Valley State Prison formed a gang-like organization, called the Green Wall, to intimidate inmates and fellow employees, and even devised gang-style hand signals and codes.

Former internal affairs officer Donald J. Vodicka, a hulking man with a shaved head, was so frightened after he blew the whistle on the Green Wall that he wore a bulletproof vest and repeatedly burst into tears while testifying at a Senate hearing.

Schwarzenegger has readily acknowledged the failures. Last week, he asked a federal prosecutor to probe the Folsom riot; ended the youth authority's use of wire-mesh cages; and admitted his mistake in seeking to merge the watchdog inspector general into the very prison agency it is supposed to oversee.

Pledges of reform have echoed every few years, but even Schwarzenegger's political opponents believe things might be different this time.

The problem is too huge - and too costly - to ignore, said Frank Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied California prisons for 20 years.

An adult system that held 24,000 inmates two decades ago has grown sevenfold with a budget of more than $5 billion - and still overspent by $500 million last year. Since 1999, the department has overspent by nearly $1.6 billion, an AP analysis found, much of it going for guard overtime and sick leave.

In a possible sign of his independence, the governor has refused political contributions from the powerful guards union, which received a contract in 2001 that gave officers a 37 percent raise over five years and the chance to make more than $100,000 a year with overtime.

If Schwarzenegger does not follow through, court oversight will, said Donald Spector, director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit group that provides legal services to inmates. The Pelican Bay prison is already under federal monitoring, and Spector and some legislators said California's system is just a court order away from a federal takeover.

"It's just one unconstitutional practice after the next," Spector said. "It's so big, it's nearly impossible to manage."

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