David Beck-Brown - Writer - More Trouble for Our Prison System

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David Beck-Brown

  Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown
(Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown)

More Trouble for Our Prison System

By David Beck-Brown
San Diego Union Tribune, August 12, 2004

A federal district judge has threatened to take over the troubled
California Department of Corrections.

Judge Thelton Henderson condemned concessions Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association in union negotiations. The concessions give the union too much power and undermines the ability of the court to investigate abuse of inmates and the actions of rogue officers, states Henderson.

Henderson is considering appointing a receiver to manage the country's
largest prison system. The governor responded with a letter from his legal department defending his accomplishments at reforming the Department of Corrections.

This comes on the heels of a blue ribbon report by a panel of experts
appointed by Schwarzenegger recommending 239 changes for the troubled California prison system. The report describes the prison system as routinely overspending its budget and costing the state millions of
dollars in unnecessary lawsuits for failing to implement inmate programs.
The conclusions considered input from the Little Hoover Commission, the
Office of the Inspector General and the state auditor, among other

The prison guards union wields unprecedented influence over state policies and warden appointments. According to the report, a "code of silence" among some correctional staff has hampered investigations. The former director of the California Department of Corrections, Edward Alameda, also may be indicted on charges of obstructing justice in cases of staff misconduct at prisons in Pelican Bay and Sacramento.

Judge Henderson has been overseeing Pelican Bay State Prison since 1995 when he found a pattern of abuse by prison guards. He currently is probing internal affairs procedures for the entire state prison system.

Henderson's demand for a face-to-face meeting with the governor and the blue ribbon panel recommendations for changing the California prison
system are unprecedented in state history. The prison system has over
300,000 adult, juvenile and parolees assigned under its care and has one
of the highest reincarceration rates in the world. For the past several
months it has been the focus of state investigations and found to be
plagued with scandals.

California has additional opportunities to reform the prison system and to
reduce the annual cost of incarceration by voting to amend the Draconian
three strikes initiative that incarcerates nonviolent third-strike
offenders to 25-years-to-life prison sentences. We also can encourage our legislators to pass reform bill AB 1914, which will put prison programs under education.

Genuine prison reform is attainable through restructuring the correctional
system and rebuilding it on a foundation of rehabilitation, education and
counseling. We no longer have the luxury of being "tough on crime." We
must be wiser and smarter. The lack of rehabilitation has come to the
public's attention in a Los Angeles Times article quoting the spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections, Terry Thornton, as stating "the purpose of incarceration is punishment, not rehabilitation." This conflicts with the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, which has "rehabilitative activities" as one of the primary objectives of the correctional institutions.

When working with felons, teachers are qualified task masters and
effective disciplinarians. A young felon may challenge a beefy
correctional officer; however, the same felon will be noticeably
self-disciplined in a classroom taught by a teacher. Inmates assigned to
education are accountable for their actions. If they fail to demonstrate
personal improvements, the teacher will re-engage and motivate the
inmate/student in learning. The inmate's failure is often perceived as the
teacher's failure. The same applies to substance abuse programs.

Without the opportunity to receive counseling a felon does little more
than serve his prison sentence socializing with other convicts and
becoming more entrenched in the prison culture and its failed revolving
door. The taxpayer pays the bill.

Parolees are too often sent out of prison worse then when they arrived.
This does not protect the public.

The conclusions of the recent reports and state oversight hearings have
opened the door to genuine prison reform. This is an opportunity that
California cannot afford to miss.

Beck-Brown is on reform chairman with A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) and has worked with inmates in county, state and federal penal systems, including the federal witness protection program.