To put it nicely, it has been a less than a stellar year for the California corrections system. Just consider a few of the lowlights in the first two months of 2004:
A guard at Corcoran State Prison was just arrested on suspicion of conspiring with an inmate in a murder- for-hire scheme.
Earlier this month, at the same prison, guards watching the Super Bowl ignored a 60-year-old inmate's screams for hours. The inmate, on dialysis, died in his cell as most of the blood poured from his body.
A federal court monitor recommended perjury charges against California's former prisons chief and accused correctional officers of living by a "code of silence" that encourages cover-ups.
In January, two boys used bed sheets to hang themselves in their cells at a juvenile prison.
Oh, and there was that scathing report accusing the California Youth Authority of keeping young inmates in small cages and locked down 23 hours a day.
"It is a priority of my administration to reform the California prison system and bring to justice those individuals who do it dishonor by their misconduct," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.
For serious reforms, he'll have to take on one of the most powerful forces in state politics, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA).
This year's rash of prison problems isn't new or isolated. For years, the California corrections system has been plagued by violence, cover-ups, abuse and mistreatment of inmates. (Remember reports about the "booty bandit" and the gladiator fights staged by prison guards back in 2000?) But the influential prison guard union has always managed to block efforts to bring any measure of transparency and accountability to the department.
Not only has the CCPOA blocked all efforts to incorporate responsibility, competition and private prisons into the system, but it's negotiated a steady stream of pay increases in the process. The governor must change all that, starting with competition, which would improve the quality of services, restrain costs, and bring more transparency and accountability to the entire correctional system.
Think about it: Had the various incidents and mistreatment occurred at a privately operated prison, a chorus of voices would argue that someone must be held responsible. The likely suggestion would be that the private company be fired. And the suggestion would be heeded - if a private prison permitted these events, heads would roll across the state like tumbleweeds.
At public prisons, the state Department of Corrections monitors itself. And we've seen the results.
By shifting to private prison companies and putting the government in the role as independent monitor with the power to fire poor-performing companies, states have a more powerful hand in making significant improvements. The government monitor watches the private watchmen, which is much more effective than the prison guards policing themselves.
Moreover, since private companies are trying to attract new customers and retain contracts, they have more incentive to provide high-quality service, a motivation government-run facilities do not have. If you are a private company selling your services, escapes, inmate beatings and riots look extremely bad on a resume.
If California simply launches a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the system, we'll probably get recommendations but little else. Recent events at public prisons across the country confirm this. After the escape of the infamous "Texas 7" in 2001, a blue-ribbon panel was convened. Yet no significant changes in Texas policy occurred.
Clearly, the California corrections system needs serious reforms. While the immediate focus should be on bringing the guards to justice, we also need to take a serious look at the way prisons operate and explore new methods to ensure heightened accountability and prevent future incidents. The state's multitude of prison woes suggests we can't wait much longer to bring profound change to California's correctional system.
Geoffrey Segal is the Director of Privatization and Government Reform at Reason Foundation