When California’s chief of corrections quit in frustration a week ago, a provocative question was left hovering in the air: Can anyone fix the state’s dysfunctional prisons? Will anyone be allowed to? Reformers were giddy when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed shortly after his 2003 election that he would demand “action, action, action” until the mess in his Department of Corrections was cleaned up, the Los Angeles Times said in a news analysis. Overcrowding had packed prisons to twice their intended capacity, increasing violence, straining staff and sending costs spiraling.
To champion his agenda, Schwarzenegger picked Roderick Q. Hickman, a former prison guard and warden, as corrections secretary. Though Hickman described himself as a “hook ’em and book ’em guy,” he said he believed true public safety was impossible if the state did not do a better job preparing inmates for success on the outside. For the first time in decades, advocates of reform felt real change was within reach. A popular governor – a Republican! – was singing their tune. But that optimism has dimmed, and inside the department – now called Corrections and Rehabilitation – employees exhausted by long hours devoted to charting a new course wonder if their efforts will amount to naught.