The prison hunger strike is over… or is it?

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Matthew Cate issued a statement this morning saying inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison had ended their hunger strike.

Pelican Bay State Prison“Hunger strikes are a dangerous and ineffective way for prisoners to attempt to negotiate,” Cate said in his news release. “This strike was ordered by prison gang leaders, individuals responsible for terrible crimes against Californians, and so it was with significant and appropriate caution that CDCR worked to end the strike. We will now seek to stabilize operations for all inmates and continue our work to improve the safety and security of our prison system statewide.”

Cate said the strikers, who began their protest July 1, stopped yesterday “after they better understood CDCR’s plans, developed since January, to review and change some policies regarding SHU housing and gang management. These changes, to date, include providing cold-weather caps, wall calendars and some educational opportunities for SHU inmates.”

But this came as news to the prison activists who have been relating the strike to the outside world; lawyers and mediators haven’t heard from the hunger strikers that they’ve quit their protest.

“We would like to hear directly from the men at Pelican Bay that they have resumed eating and what demands, if any, have been met,” Carol Strickman, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, said in a news release this afternoon. “At this point, we have not been able to ascertain what concessions may have been granted.”

CDCR “has used deceptive tactics throughout this strike to try to overcome prisoner resistance,” Taeva Shefler, a member of Prison Activist Resource Center and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, said in the same release. “In order to break the strike, the CDCR has regularly underestimated strike participation and withheld information regarding the health of striking prisoners. Prisoners not yet in solitary have been placed in Administrative Segregation or Security Housing Units as punishment for protesting. These are the very issues this strike aims to change in the first place.”

Pelican Bay SHU cellThe activists say hundreds of inmates refused food in order to protest conditions that international human rights groups have called torturous and inhumane. Inmates in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) – who have been classified as the prison system’s most dangerous and violent offenders – are kept in windowless, 6-foot-by-10-foot cells for about 23 and a half hours per day, sometimes for years. Their demands included an end to long-term solitary confinement, collective punishment, and forced interrogation on gang affiliation.

UPDATE @ 4:43 P.M.: The LA Times reports the inmates at Pelican Bay are eating again, but some inmates at Corcoran, Tehachapi and Calipatria – who’d started striking in sympathy with the Pelican Bay guys – are continuing to refuse meals.


Audit finds lousy bookkeeping in Calif. prisons

Lousy internal control policies in California’s prison system puts millions of taxpayers’ dollars at risk of fraud and abuse, according to an audit released today by state Controller John Chiang.

“My auditors found the CDCR has grossly inadequate procedures in place for collecting overpayment of salaries and travel advances made through the agency’s office revolving fund,” Chiang said in a news release. “This is the latest in a series of agency audits conducted by my staff that point to the waste and abuse of state funds due to the lack of attention to collecting overpayments. Gov. Brown and I are working together to identify the causes of these problems and to protect public funds.”

The audit comes amid increasing inclination on both sides of the political aisle to find fiscal savings in the prison system, which accounts for 11.4 percent of the state’s general-fund spending in the current budget; in comparison, about 11.9 percent of general-fund spending goes to higher education.

Chang’s auditors reviewed California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation records from July 1, 2009 through July, 31, 2010, and found that inadequate collection efforts resulted in delays in collecting millions of dollars in overpayments for employee salary and travel advances. Of more than $6 million in outstanding receivables related to salary and travel advances, more than $4 million, or 65.6 percent, remained outstanding for more than 60 days, and $465,000, or 7.5%, had been outstanding for more than three years.

For example, an employee terminated in May 2010 got a lump-sum check for $14,950 from the office’s revolving fund to meet the timeline for paying employees separating from state service, auditors found. But CDCR didn’t take the steps necessary to offset the employee’s final check, resulting in the former employee receiving both a salary advance and a full, final check. And six months later, there had been no effort to recoup the $14,950 overpayment.

In another case, an employee got a salary advance of more than $8,000 in January 2008, plus a regular payroll check; as of Nov. 1, 2010, almost three years later, the advance still hadn’t been collected, even though the employee still works for CDCR.

The audit also found serious internal control deficiencies put CDCR at risk for fraud and abuse. For example, CDCR was tardy or noncompliant in trying to “reconcile bank accounts to ensure the accuracy and completeness of recorded transactions,” the controller’s office said – what you and I would call balancing our checkbooks. As of June 30, 2010, the bank reconciliation of CDCR’s major account showed $27 million in unresolved funds on their bank balance, while CDCR’s records showed unresolved funds totaling more than $31 million on their book balance. Without reconciling these funds, anyone with access to the fund’s check stock could issue bogus checks with little chance of getting caught.

Also, state accounting procedures require two authorized signatures for payments of more than $15,000, yet the audit found two separate checks exceeding that amount without dual signatures.

And the audit found CDCR used its revolving fund to spend more than the department’s appropriation under the state budget. That those payments appeared to be for legitimate purposes isn’t the issue, the audit said: CDCR has no legal authority to make such payments without an appropriation from the Legislature. As of last Nov. 30, CDCR still hadn’t received reimbursement for more than $3.5 million in payments made from its revolving fund prior to June 30, 2010.

Martin Hoshino, CDCR Undersecretary for Administration and Offender Services, said the agency agrees with the findings and already has implemented 22 of the 36 recommendations made by Chiang’s office. In his formal response, Hoshino said CDCR has now “prioritized the vigorous collection of outstanding debts,” succeeding in decreasing the outstanding balance by $2.2 million since November 1, 2010. “We will continue in our efforts until we have surmounted the issues identified in this audit.”

Chiang’s auditors will revisit CDCR a year from now to gauge its progress in correcting the problems.

UPDATE @ 3:16 P.M.: “The situation here is terrible, but the great thing is that we have acknowledgement and action – it’s a new day in Sacramento,” Chiang told me this afternoon, noting Brown issued an executive order April 20 addressing some of the issues this audit found. “We think they’re making the efforts to do so. We’re going to go back a year from now and make sure they’re implementing as promised.”

Chiang said amid the state’s fiscal crisis, administrators must find every opportunity large and small to conserve money.

He blamed the sloppiness on “a lack of focus. What we’ve heard in prior instances is that it (proper bookkeeping) is not their core function, but they have to understand they’re not going to be able to perform those core functions unless they have financial controls.”


Death penalty author to argue for its abolition

An author of California’s death-penalty law as it exists today will testify for its abolition tomorrow, an East Bay lawmaker announced.

Don HellerDon Heller, a former prosecutor who authored the successful Proposition 7 of 1978 to broaden the capital punishment California had just reinstated the previous year, will testify to the Assembly Public Safety Committee in favor of SB 490, state Sen. Loni Hancock’s bill to abolish the state’s death penalty. The bill would convert the sentences of all those now on California’s death row to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Witnesses previously scheduled to testify for the bill include Hancock, D-Berkeley, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee as well as the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Corrections; Judy Kerr, sister of a murder victim and spokeswoman for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; and Death Penalty Focus Executive Director Jeanne Woodford, who as San Quentin State Prison’s warden oversaw four executions before becoming director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Among those scheduled to testify against the bill are Crime Victims United of California lobbyist Dawn Sanders-Koepke and a representative from the California District Attorneys Association.


Hancock to introduce death-penalty bill today

As she promised a week ago, state Sen. Loni Hancock today will introduce a bill to abolish California’s death penalty.

The bill would replace capital punishment with life without possibility of parole. Hancock, D-Berkeley, who chairs both the Senate Public Safety Committee and the Budget subcommittee overseeing prison spending, will gut and amend her SB 490 to carry the language. It’s expected to have its first hearing at 9:30 a.m. next Tuesday, July 5, in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

If passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the bill would still require voters’ approval as a Legislature-sponsored initiative in November 2012. That coincide with the high-turnout presidential general election; the state’s significant Democratic voter registration edge means a somewhat more liberal electorate would decide the issue.

Hancock will discuss the bill in a live interview with host Jeffrey Callison on Capitol Public Radio’s “Insight” at 10 a.m. this morning.

“Capital punishment is an expensive failure and an example of the dysfunction of our prisons,” Hancock said in a news release issued late last night. “California’s death row is the largest and most costly in the United States. It is not helping to protect our state; it is helping to bankrupt us.”

Hancock announced her legislation after the Los Angeles Times reported last week on a new study highlighting capital punishment’s high cost in California: $4 billion since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, although only 13 executions have occurred since then while the number of condemned inmates has swelled to 714. The report, “Executing the Will of the Voters: A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature’s Multi-Billion-Dollar Death Penalty Debacle,” was written by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon, a former prosecutor, and Loyola Law School professor Paula Mitchell. It will be published this week in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review.


Oakland group decries 24-hr youth prison lockups

An Oakland-based human rights nonprofit is waging an online drive urging California’s Division of Juvenile Justice to immediately stop extensive isolation of youth prisoners.

A declaration filed May 24 in an Alameda County Superior Court lawsuit regarding conditions at DJJ prisons included documentation that some youth inmates aren’t receiving the minimum three hours per day of out-of-room time that they should.

“(T)he most frequent failure to meet out-of-room requirements has occurred at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility,” Nancy Campbell, a court-appointed special master in the case, wrote in a May 20 memo. “In the 14 weeks documented, there were 173 out of 1,453 incidents during which youth on TD (temporary detention) or TIP (temporary intervention plans) spent more than 21 of 24 hours confined to his or her rooms. Other DJJ facilities struggle to meet mandated services requirements as well.”

More than a dozen members of Books Not Bars, a campaign of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, have children who have spent 23-plus hours a day locked up in cold cells with little human contact and zero programming.

“The DJJ abuses my son by keeping him in solitary confinement. The last time I saw him, he had bruises on his face and he couldn’t hold a conversation with me. How could they do this to our children?” Books Not Bars member Maria Sanchaz said in a news release; her son is locked up in the Ventura facility.

Books not Bars says the special master’s report also indicates DJJ is failing to provide youth inmates with the minimum education required every day and, due to high levels of institutional violence, is canceling medical appointments without rescheduling them.

“The use of solitary confinement is one of the most egregious violations we’ve seen from California Division of Juvenile Justice,” Ella Baker Center Executive Director Jakada Imani said in a news release. “Extensive isolation amounts to torture and trauma for our youth- the exact opposite of the rehabilitation the DJJ is tasked with providing. Californians should be outraged that Secretary Matthew Cate is allowing this dangerous and abusive practice to persist.”

This video posted last year by DJJ paints a rosier picture of life at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, and includes some views of the youth inmates’ rooms:


Assembly passes Swanson’s prison education bill

Yesterday was a banner day for Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda. Besides the human trafficking bill on which I’ve written an article, he had another unanimously passed bill that would increase educational opportunities available in state prisons.

AB 216 would create incentives and remove restrictions for community colleges to offer courses in state correctional facilities. Swanson said this is especially important in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court order requiring California’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons to reduce their inmate population by 46,000.

“Education is a critical component to rehabilitating inmates and ensuring their successful transition back into society,” Swanson said in a news release. “AB 216 is part of a larger re-entry strategy that will address the Supreme Court mandate and the safety of our communities by significantly reducing the likelihood that released inmates will commit new crimes.”

California spends more than $49,000 per year to house each inmate, only to see many re-offend and cost their communities even more, he said. “It is better for our state to invest money upfront on training and educating inmates who will eventually be released into our communities, rather than have them re-enter society without the tools necessary to keep them off the streets and out of prison.”

The Assembly voted 79-0 Tuesday to pass the bill and send it on to the state Senate.