Although Jerry Brown wasn’t standing on an aircraft carrier when he declared six months ago that the “prison crisis is over in California,” his pronouncement, in hindsight, resembles the infamous one that then-President George W. Bush made in 2003 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln about the Iraq War more than eight years before the war actually ended. In fact, California’s prison system may be the state’s most dysfunctional bureaucracy — even worse than Caltrans.
The recent scandals have been dizzying. Last week, tens of thousands of prisoners launched a hunger strike statewide, protesting the abusive use of solitary confinement in California, in which prisoners have been held alone in their cells for ten years or more. At one point, about 30,000 prisoners were refusing to eat, and by the weekend, more than 6,000 inmates had been on an extended hunger strike.
Then, last week, the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that nearly 150 female inmates had been coerced into being sterilized by prison medical staff during the past decade. State prison officials subsequently verified the report.
Then there’s the deadly fungal disease. Last week, inmates who had contracted valley fever, which can be fatal, sued the state for failing to address a massive outbreak of it at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons in the Central Valley. State prison officials had refused to relocate inmates even though it could have helped stanch the spread of valley fever. Eventually, federal Judge Thelton Henderson ordered the state to move the sick prisoners.
Another federal judge, meanwhile, ordered an investigation into troubling accounts of severe mistreatment of prisoners at Salinas Valley State Prison’s psychiatric unit. Although US District Judge Lawrence Karlton didn’t specifically name the governor in his order, he appeared to allude to Brown’s foolhardy pronouncement six months ago about the prison crisis supposedly having ended, saying that state officials had “simply divorced themselves from reality.”
And divorced from reality is exactly where the governor and state prison officials seem intent on remaining. While some prisons are so overcrowded that inmates are forced to sleep on floors, Brown is appealing a federal appellate court order to immediately release 10,000 prisoners to relieve the overcrowding problem. “We are confident that if the US Supreme Court takes a look at the dramatic improvements in California’s prison system, the justices will find we are providing constitutional care,” Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the Los Angeles Times, apparently with a straight face.
“They have decided to circle the wagons and keep the system that exists today as intact as possible,” Jules Lobel, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the lead lawyer in a federal lawsuit over solitary confinement, told the The New York Times.
Credit to Kernighan
Oakland Council President Pat Kernighan told the Oakland Tribune last week that she’s scheduling a special hearing on July 25 to consider whether the council should officially censure Councilwoman Desley Brooks for her apparent illegal activities involving the creation of an expensive teen center in East Oakland. As we’ve noted, four separate investigations uncovered convincing evidence that Brooks had violated city and state laws, and yet the council has done nothing about it. Kernighan, as such, deserves credit for pushing forward with the censure proposal. She said she believes it will help restore the public’s trust in local government. We agree.
Kernighan and other councilmembers also deserve credit for saying they will look at ways to strengthen the city’s Public Ethics Commission. As we noted last week, the Alameda County Grand Jury not only criticized the council for failing to censure Brooks, but also noted that the council had failed to give the ethics commission the authority to fine or otherwise punish public officials who engage in wrongdoing.
Credit to OPD
Oakland police, under the command of Interim Police Chief Sean Whent, also deserve credit for showing restraint during protests in downtown Oakland over the weekend that turned ugly when a splinter group started smashing windows and assaulting journalists. In the wake of the not-guilty ruling in the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, OPD didn’t overreact — like it has in the past — and as a result, the public’s outrage has been directed entirely at the vandals rather than police — as it should be, considering the fact that the violent demonstrators trashed innocent small businesses like Awaken Café.
Joel Young Censured
And speaking of helping restore trust in government, the AC Transit Board of Directors voted last week to censure board member Joel Young for his use of confidential agency information for private gain. The vote was 5-0 in favor of censure. Young, who has denied wrongdoing, was not present for the vote.