Prisons’ ‘perfect storm’

Reeling from what one legislator calls a “perfect storm” of censure, the state’s troubled prison system came under intense fire this week during special Senate hearings held Tuesday and Wednesday that were designed to discover just what is wrong with the system and how it might be reformed.

A blistering court-ordered report released last week that denounces the Corrections Department’s top officials for covering up guard abuses, particularly at the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison, is only the most recent example of censure.

Last fall, the Sacramento Bee reported on a secret investigation by the state Office of the Inspector General into a 2002 riot at Folsom State prison. That report revealed that the riot began when two supervising officers failed to follow orders and released rival gang members into the prison yard together. Two dozen people were hurt in the melee, including one officer whose injuries ended his career. Subsequently, the report found, prison administrators covered up the cause of the riot and demoted, transferred or otherwise punished whistle-blowing officers. One high-ranking officer forced to join in the cover-up committed suicide, saying in a note that he couldn’t stand the pressure.

At the core of the problems is the powerful prison guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which has held the system in a tight grip for years. According to last week’s report, the union sternly enforces a “code of silence” that prohibits prisoners and even honest guards from revealing abuses of power. And prison administrators condone and, when necessary, cover up these abuses.

The keys to reforming the prison system are simple and obvious. Take control back from the guards’ union. Make administrators responsible for running the prisons in a way that encourages improvement. And open up the prisons to public scrutiny by tearing down its nearly impenetrable barriers to media access.