Lawmakers cut prisons budget plan Program failures, waste lead Senate panel to reject $100 million of  6.5 billion request

- James Sterngold, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

SACRAMENTO -A state Senate subcommittee slashed next year's budget request for California's Department of Corrections on Thursday after grilling prison  officials over a humiliating array of program failures and wasted money.

Senators frequently question state officials on their budgets, but rarely  are the lawmakers as harsh as they were Thursday. They  delivered one rebuke  after another for a string of failures throughout the state's badly overtaxed  prison system, from information technology to the training of guards and  medical care.

Roderick Hickman, secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency,  admitted that not only had a critical program intended to keep parole violators out of prison failed, officials had never even managed to put it in  place before he abandoned the effort. A new program will not be ready until  January, he said.

"We intended to implement, but we didn't succeed," said Hickman. "We just  never got off the ground as we intended."

The program was critical because it was supposed to save money by keeping  parole violators out of prisons, which are already bulging at almost double  their capacity.

Another official said that the Corrections Department had spent years installing a fiber-optic system so that prison officials would be able to use  the most up-to-date computer communications systems, but that they never  followed up to install the means of using the expensive optical fibers.

"What I'm saying is our information highway is broken" despite large expenditures, said Jeff Baldo, a deputy secretary for information technology.

At one point the budget subcommittee's chair, Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los  Angeles, demanded information on the money spent on an overdue computerized  system for tracking pharmaceutical information in the prisons, and a  corrections official asked if she could get back to her later.

"It was on the agenda for today," Romero snapped. "I would have expected  you to be ready today."

At another point, when an official was providing vague information on how  much the state had wasted on the failed parole program, Sen. Mike Machado, D- Linden (San Joaquin County), snarled, "Don't B.S. me."

With their frustration building, the senators agreed to cut completely or  scale back numerous budget items for a total of nearly $100 million, out of  the total corrections' budget request of $6.5 billion.

The state Senate was not alone in its frustration. On Wednesday, an Assembly subcommittee gutted the entire budgets of two boards within the  Department of Corrections, cutting a total of $30.6 million. The subcommittee's chairman, Rudy Bermÿdez, D-Norwalk (Los Angeles County), said  at the Assembly hearing that the two boards were being eliminated until they  could justify their existence.

The cuts agreed on by the Senate subcommittee on Thursday included everything from $2.6 million that was to be used to pay guards for supervising  inmate laborers, to a $480,000 reduction in the budget for responding to  discovery requests from civil suits. Some of the funds may be restored when  corrections officials provide the financial data the senators requested.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has requested $6.5 billion for the Corrections  Department for the next fiscal year, up from $6.26 billion in the current year, and a sharp jump from $5.1 billion in the 2001-2002 fiscal year.

The system, the largest in the nation, holds nearly 165,000 inmates, nearly double what it was designed for, a result of tougher sentencing laws  over the past several decades.

Schwarzenegger has promised a major reform effort to shore up a prison system that all agree is riddled with failures. As costs are soaring, the  recidivism rate is among the highest in the country and rehabilitation  programs have been gutted.

The Senate approved legislation Thursday on a plan that would change the  name of the system to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and  gives Hickman much broader authority to run the state's 32 far-flung prisons.

But the name change will not help some of the deep-seated failures. The  prison health care system performs so poorly that experts appointed by  a  federal court found prison clinics were actually killing some  inmates through  malfeasance. A federal district court judge has said  he is contemplating  appointing a receiver to seize control of the corrections health care program.

In fact, two weeks ago, G. Kevin Carruth, the agency's undersecretary, said at a Senate hearing that his department was simply not capable of providing adequate medical care to inmates and that the state was 
seeking to  bring in outside experts to manage the vast system.

But on Thursday the budget subcommittee rejected the department's request  for $850,000 to pay a consultant to prepare the contracts for those outside  health care experts.

"I do not have confidence that (the Corrections Department) has the ability to write the contracts," said Romero.

Chronicle staff writer Mark Martin contributed to this report.E-mail James Sterngold at .


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