What if a state prison department built an execution chamber and told no one about it? Last April, a group of California legislative policy analysts on a research visit to San Quentin State Prison discovered that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was building just such a room without the requisite prior approval from statehouse lawmakers, who were furious when they found out about it. Welcome to the California state prison system, the country's largest and one of its most poorly run so badly managed, in fact, that it is on the verge of federal supervision.
The story of the secret death chamber is, critics say, symbolic of the chronic mismanagement and rule-flouting in the system. "This was an outlandish move by one branch of government to deceive another branch and simply say 'Damn the torpedoes, we are going to do what we want to do," says California State Senator Gloria Romero. "It's a problem that goes beyond the death chamber issue." On June 27, a panel of federal judges is scheduled to review the plans and legislation to reduce prison overcrowding and improve inmate health care and decide whether penitentiary head-count limits are warranted. If they impose caps, the state likely would face the troubling prospect of releasing large numbers of inmates early.
The California system is a mess. Apart from severe overcrowding and inadequate health care, it is plagued by deadly violence, a revolving-door parole system and a lethal injection procedure deemed constitutionally flawed by a federal judge. The corrections department's current $8 billion budget pays for operations at the state's 33 prisons, which were designed for a capacity of 100,000 inmates but which now hold 172,000. That population is forecast to grow to 190,000 in five years. Because some 16,000 of those prisoners must now bunk in hallways, recreation rooms, laundry areas and gyms, the facilities are in near-constant lockdown, raising both tensions and the crime rate within. "We have overcrowding and idle inmates and the combination of the two is causing an unsafe situation," says James Tilton, Secretary of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "On top of that we have pressure from all these lawsuits regarding our provision of medical and mental health care which has brought the threat of [judicially imposed] population caps."
For corrections officials like Tilton, the lawsuits and legislative criticism are examples of how bureaucracy bogs down their efforts to comply with orders to overhaul things like execution chambers and the rest of the state's capital punishment protocol. "We authorized people to do the work and they were doing it, it's just that they weren't sensitive to the notification issue," says Tilton of the execution chamber controversy. Joan Petersilia, a consultant to the prison system and a professor of criminology at the University of California-Irvine, concurs: "The pressure to produce results in this environment is unrealistic." She says prison officials "were ordered by the courts to upgrade the facilities and so the pressure to deliver something pushed them to move too fast [in the case of the execution chamber]." She adds, "Gov. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger came into office making grandiose promises and so far there is nothing that people can point to that the prisons department has done. The legislature is also constantly demanding movement and it has no patience."
Lawmakers last month threw even more money at the problem by passing a $7.4 billion spending package to fund new housing units within existing facilities. The bill adds 53,000 beds and a cluster of rehabilitation programs. The legislation, which Schwarzenegger quickly signed, also authorizes the department to transfer about 8,000 inmates out of state and move another 16,000 short-term convicts to other facilities around the state that offer services to help them successfully reenter society.
Tilton hails it as a crucial first step on the path to reform. Petersilia largely agrees. "I don't think any of us who understand the problems would have written this law, but it was the best we could do," she says. The most significant provisions in her view are those mandating programs to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them for reentry. Petersilia points out that the law also ties the new-bed construction to compliance by the corrections department with benchmarks for prisoner participation in those programs that will be set by an independent oversight committee. "This is no blank check," she says.
But others contend the legislature abdicated its responsibility to tackle the most nettlesome problems by not also overhauling parole policies and revising sentencing laws. "I don't think the judges are going to be fooled by this," says Romero, who voted against the measure. By her count, only about $50 million of the new spending will go toward the rehabilitation programs touted as a first step to paring the state's 70% recidivism rate. And she laments that the law doesn't go far enough to reform the system that puts all released convicts on three-year parole supervision, only to re-imprison them for each technical infraction. "California has the nation's longest parole leash," she says. "We hold on to everybody as if we can't let go and they just keep cycling back through the system."
Even if judges decide that the new law is a blueprint for real reform, there will be other federal exams to pass. In response to a judicial condemnation of virtually every facet of its capital punishment procedures, along with completing the once-secret death chamber renovation project, the Corrections Department has revised its lethal injection protocol by recalibrating the dosage levels in the widely discredited three-drug cocktail used to execute inmates. Death penalty opponents, defense lawyers and academic researchers gave the proposal a failing grade. A federal report card will be issued in October.