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August 16, 2004 - The Sacramento Bee (CA)

Schwarzenegger Lauds Prison Watchdog He Once Derided

By Don Thompson, Associated Press Writer

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IONE, Calif. (AP) - California is improving its "expensive and inefficient" prison system as it tries to ward off a federal judge's threatened takeover, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said after touring his first prison as governor Monday.

He touted programs including a tripling of spending on a prison watchdog program he previously tried to cut, and predicted U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson will decide to work with state corrections officials rather than assigning a receiver over the largest state prison system.

Schwarzenegger said he never asked Henderson during their recent half-hour telephone conversation whether the judge plans to carry out his threat to assign a federal overseer.

"I don't care. He can take it. It's no sweat off my back," Schwarzenegger said.

The state's adult and juvenile prison system has flared as Schwarzenegger's largest and most unexpected policy crisis since he took office in November. Since then it has been criticized by Henderson's special investigator, national experts and state Senate witnesses.

"When I became governor I found a system that was in disarray, wrapped in secrecy and with almost no accountability, financially or otherwise," Schwarzenegger said. "It was expensive and inefficient, with out-of-control budgets and topped off by enormous cost overruns, and an internal discipline system that was not doing its job."

Now, Schwarzenegger said, he has a team to "put this broken system back together" and is "optimistic" Henderson will give state officials time to make reforms.

Henderson last month threatened to take over the system if Schwarzenegger continued granting concessions to the powerful prison guards union, as he did to save a projected $108 million over two years to help ease the state budget crisis.

Schwarzenegger said lawmakers tied his hands on the union negotiations even as they criticized the power of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

He also touted $5.4 million in the budget he signed last month for the prison system's inspector general. Schwarzenegger in January proposed to sharply trim and merge the inspector general into the agency it is supposed to oversee, until he was persuaded to change his mind after state lawmakers strongly objected.

The budget also has $2.6 million for a new Bureau of Independent Review to watch the watchdogs, making sure investigations of employee wrongdoing are completed quickly and efficiently.

The combination is an improved prison investigations unit headed by newly appointed Inspector General Matthew Cate, a former prosecutor with the state attorney general, Schwarzenegger said after a brief tour of the prison near Ione with Cate, Corrections Director Jeanne Woodford and Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Rod Hickman.

Schwarzenegger also said he is sponsoring two pieces of legislation to protect the inspector general's independence and give it more authority. The legislation also would require the inspector general to publicly post reports on the Internet, something Cate said he will do voluntarily.

More than just incarcerating inmates, the governor said he wants the prison system to rehabilitate them, a goal that has become secondary in recent years. He toured the 17-year-old prison's vocational center, including the cabinetry and millwork center where conference tables in the governor's office were made.

Mule Creek offers a variety of vocational and education programs, and Schwarzenegger and top prison officials held it out as an example for other prisons.

But the governor also viewed day rooms which have been turned into temporary dormitories for up to 120 inmates because of the spike in the statewide prison population. Mule Creek now houses about 3,750 medium and maximum security inmates in space designed for 1,700.

Hickman, meanwhile, is taking steps to streamline a prison bureaucracy in which duties previously conducted separately by the Corrections Department and the Youth Authority will be combined under his agency.

Hickman is appointing deputy secretaries to oversee finances, health care, victims rights, communications, research, and labor negotiations, with the labor undersecretary expected to strengthen the administration's hand in future union talks.

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