What's Ahead for California's Dysfunctional Prisons?


As a Supreme Court ruling looms this year, The Crime Report explores the choices facing one of the country's largest and most troubled corrections systems, in an exclusive interview with Matthew Cate, Secretary of California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

For the past decade, California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has been operating in crisis mode.

In 2004, a blue-ribbon commission convened by then- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger accused the CDCR of operating “dysfunctional” prison and parole systems characterized by “out-of-control costs;” by inmates who are “failing [to receive] mandated health care and other services;” and by corrections officials who lack “the integrity to stand up to political pressure.”

The catalogue of defects seemed endless. “The recidivism rate [of 67 percent],” the report noted, “exceeds that of any other state.” Wardens were running their prisons as if they were independent “feudal barons;” the “employee disciplinary system is failing to punish wrongdoers;” and union contracts were “encouraging a code of silence'' among prison guards.” The reasons for California's prison crisis, according to the commission, “were complex, yet simple: too much political interference, too much union control, and too little management courage, accountability and transparency.”

Schwarzenegger vowed to transform the CDCR. But as he ended his tenure early this month, his record of reform was decidedly mixed. The corrections budget, which was $6.2 billion when he entered office, ballooned to as high as $11 billion, before falling to a still staggering $8.3 billion for fiscal year 2010-2011. And the prison population which was 165,000 when Schwarzenegger entered the governor's office, rose to an all time high of 174,000 before declining to its current 153,000.

Most dramatically, in 2009, after years of the state failing to agree on a satisfactory solution to relieve the severe overcrowding, a three-judge federal panel declared that the prisoner overload had led to inmate medical care so inadequate that it violated the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It then ordered the state to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 inmates within three years–almost one-quarter of the total prison population.

The Schwarzenegger Administration appealed. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, setting the stage for what is likely to be a historic civil rights ruling–one which could either strengthen or curtail the federal government's power to force states to reform overcrowded, inhumane conditions in corrections systems across America. Oral arguments were presented late last year.

In May, 2008, Schwarzenegger named Matthew Cate as his Secretary of Corrections. A former Sacramento County prosecutor, Cate served as a public corruption prosecutor in the California State Attorney General's Office from 1996 to 2004, when he was named Inspector General of CDCR.

His mandate includes not only running a potentially explosive penal system with 33 prisons, 300,000 adult prisoners and parolees, a $8.3 billion annual budget, and over 50,000 employees, but re-imagining and transforming California's approach to corrections.

With new California governor Jerry Brown just sworn into office last week, Cate, who says he'd like to continue in his post, is waiting to see if he'll be reappointed. In the meantime, he spoke with TCR's West Coast Bureau Chief, Joe Domanick.

TCR: What most surprised you when began when working at the CDCR as Inspector General?

Cate: The sheer number of issues that had to be addressed simultaneously: The medical and mental health systems were being placed under court receiverships and special masters; the Bureau of Independent Review was being created in the IG's Office to oversee the department's internal affairs investigations and address allegations and law suits concerning the lack of quality and professionalism within department in policing itself; the department's prisons were massively overcrowded, and its budget was growing every year. So pretty much anything [negative] you can name was happening in California corrections in 2004 and 2005.

TCR: The department faced continuing allegations of prisoner abuse by correction's officers. What are you doing to try and recruit a different kind of officer, such as, for instance, Jennie Woodford, the progressive, former acting head of California's prisons, who started as a prison guard, and comes from a background of social work?

Cate: One of the good things coming out of this bad economy is that [high paying] jobs like California's corrections officers have become much more coveted. So we now have a massive pool of applicants to chose from. Tens of thousands. So we can be a lot more picky in terms of [the] quality of people.

But I can't say we go through applicants and look for people who understand the components of psychology, or have a background in social work. Not for our corrections officers. But we are starting to do that for our parole agents. Typically in California parole agents have been former corrections officers. We still recruit some of those people, but in the next academy class, between 50 and 70 percent will be from the outside, either from law enforcement or social work backgrounds.

I really worry about ensuring that folks from the sergeant's level up have some background in education and training, But we still have a long way to go in that regard.

TCR: How important has California's 2009 parole reform law been to you as secretary of the CDCR?

Cate: Next to reducing California's inmate population down from an all-time high of 174,000 to 153,000, it's been the governor's first and biggest win in corrections. It has allowed us reduce the corrections budget by $1 billion has been a principal cause of decline in the number of inmates.

TCR: Parole reform has always been a political third rail – a hot potato in California politics, why do you think it finally happened?

Cate: The policymakers in Sacramento understood that [today's] correctional science can help us make good, sound public safety decisions regarding corrections and rehabilitation. And so people on both sides of the aisle were willing to listen to ideas about reform and to understand that we're not just making this stuff up, but that we have an understanding of the research behind those reforms.

For example, we demonstrated to the legislature that for the first time we had a valid risk-assessment tool–validated by UC Irvine researchers–that gave us the ability to predict an inmate's future criminology. That was vital in getting the legislature and the governor to agree to the reforms. Rather than have a parole agent make decisions about who goes back to prison for a parole violation based on his gut, we developed a parole violation decision-making instrument, like a judge uses for sentencing.

TCR: By how much has California's inmate population decreased as a result parole reform?

Cate: By about 11,000 inmates. Most of that reduction comes from lower level, lower risk inmates.

TCR: Another big cause of prison overcrowding in California has been California's sentencing laws. Governor Schwarzenegger tried and failed to get sentencing reform through the state legislature. Governor Schwarzenegger called for the creation of a sentencing commission, but in both 2007 and 2009, he failed to win the support of the legislature. How big of an impact would sentencing reform make on solving the CDCR's problems?

Cate: It's important, and sentencing is ripe for improvement. Potentially it could be very big. If you ask any prosecutor in California, they'll tell you that sentencing laws in California are a byzantine, complex, difficult-to-decipher, and not always consistent patchwork. They have to be [changed] so that people we should really be afraid of serve longer terms, and that people we're just mad at do shorter terms.

TCR: Reforming California's parole policies is a big step in helping to reduce California's highest-in-the-nation recidivism rate. But inmate rehabilitative programs – which have been sorely lacking in California prisons — are also important in the equation. Where do such programs stand now?

Cate: We've had to cut funding for them [because of California's huge budget deficit], which as been a disappointment to me. But at the same time, we're now at least assessing the cryogenic needs of every inmate that enters our system with a new prison term. So at least we now know what their needs are and can use corrections science to steer the right inmate into the right programs.

TCR: How much of the $1 billion that been cut from the CDCR budget this fiscal year has come from rehabilitative programs?

Cate: About $250 million. Of that $250 million we were able to mitigate about half of that by ending programs [we calculated] didn't reduce recidivism, like a certificated program in landscaping when you don't need a certificate to do landscaping work. So we got rid of programs that weren't evidence-based. But at least half of the [rehab] cuts were to programs that really could have reduced recidivism, and I hope we can get them restored.

TCR: Another key to reducing recidivism is an effective re-entry program. What has the CDCR been doing in this regard? What happened to the 500-bed reentry facilities that were going to be built?

Cate: It's been a difficult. [Re-entry programs are] more expensive to run [per inmate] than regular prisons. They're a good idea and there's a future for them, but it's just difficult to get these kinds of things going when everyone is being asked to cut to the bone in California. So we have to try and do re-entry without bricks and mortar. But until local communities and corrections get together and figure out what we do together about these 9,000 offenders we keep rolling out of prison every month, we'll continue to miss a big opportunity. But [doing so] is the next big thing on my radar screen.

TCR: What are your two or three major accomplishments?

Cate: Reducing prison overcrowding while seeing crime rates in California continue to decline, is accomplishment number one. Number two is parole reform, where as I've mentioned, we've developed and used a risk assessment tool to identify and focus our resources on our most dangerous inmates, rather than just cycling our low risk inmates through our prisons over and over again for technical violations. This concept of basing our decisions on the science of who's risky and who's not is a major step forward in California.

TCR: What has been your biggest frustration?

Cate: The fact that corrections reform takes so long. It took two-and-a-half years to put in place the basic rudiments of parole reform. It was a highly politicized issue, and there were civil service and bureaucratic rules that had to be dealt with. The red tape is so unbelievable in California that it takes a long time to make anything happen even when everyone agrees it should be done.

TCR: What's your view on the on the federal court ruling ordering you to release 40,000 prisoners?

Cate: While there is active litigation in front of the courts I should steer clear of public pronouncements about it. The case could still be remanded for additional proceedings.

ED NOTE: Secretary Cate will join a special “conversation on America's prisons” with other corrections leaders later this month at the 6th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Conference on Crime in America at John Jay College in New York. The Crime Report will cover the event.

Joe Domanick is West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report

Photo by Mayor Gavin Newsom‘s photo stream via Flickr.

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