How realistic are the budget cuts to Corrections when over $800 million of it is to prison healthcare, which is the part the state seems to have the least control over?
The receiver has said that he thinks he can do it. He relies on us to try to find efficiencies and vice versa. While on the one hand we continue to battle in the courts, on the other hand we try to work day-to-day to help each other reach those kinds of goals. He’ll have a definite challenge to try to reduce $800 million from his budget.
The thing that has been significant of late is we have agreed on a single construction plan. When I became secretary, the prisons had one construction plan for using AB 900 to build high security prisons. The receiver had a plan to build seven prison hospitals at a billion dollars apiece. Within the last year, we’ve gotten together. He’s eliminated his seven projects altogether and agreed that we would build facilities that the department has under AB 900 but that have a healthcare mission. His seven projects are now one healthcare facility in Stockton that we are going to use AB 900 for. Brokering that deal was significant as far as saving the state long term bond costs and in getting all four courts – meaning medical, mental health, dental and ADA to all agree that this is a construction plan that will meet the needs of state.
What about efforts to cut costs and reduce the prison population?
I just attended a hearing on women’s correctional issues. (SB) 1266 passed. That will give us the ability to put female inmates in alternatives to incarceration, halfway houses and those kinds of things. We think that if you’re going to try to reduce the prison population, females are a good start because so few of them have been involved in violent crimes.
That’s a pretty small part of the population.
It is. We’ll continue to see the effects of parole reform. We’ve finished the initial implementation of SB 18 3x, and it looks like about 15 percent of our inmates are going to be placed on non-revocable parole. Those inmates aren’t coming back to prison unless they’re convicted of a new crime. You have to have never been convicted of a serious, violent or sexual offense. You need to not be a high risk inmate. We have a validated risk assessment tool. If you’re high risk to commit a crime in the future, you’re excluded. You can’t be a prison gang member, you can’t have ever committed a serious rules violation in prison. Once you screen out all those folks, you’re left with about 15 percent of our total population. They’re still subject to search and seizure by any law enforcement officer, but they can’t go to prison for a technical violation.
I’ve heard a lot of back and forth about this – how many people are actually going back to prison for the technical violation of a positive marijuana test at this point?
I don’t have that number off the top of my head. Over the past two years we’ve put into place a parole violation decision-making instrument, PVDMI in our parlance. What that says is instead of a parole agent making a gut decision on who should go back to prison and who shouldn’t, we have instead what amounts to one axis, the offenders risk—low, medium or high—and on the other axis the violation, from failing to make a meeting with your agent to murder. There is a matrix on whether you should go to prison or what your sanction should be.
So where does a drug test show up on that, and is it different for different drugs?
It depends on your risk level, primarily. The guys that are high risk we keep on a pretty short leash. It doesn’t take much. Typically, your first dirty test we’re going to try to get you into treatment. Once you start to see a pattern, or if we know for instance that you’re an offender who committed previous offenses while on a certain drug, then the agents can say, “You may be only moderate risk and this may be only your second positive urinalysis, but you’ve committed a pretty serious crime on this same drug so you’re going back right now because we can’t take any chances.” So they can go above the matrix for reasons like that. There is a little bit of room for agents to make decisions. We typically try if we can, prisons are going to see a lot of turnover if every time somebody violated parole for drinking or for a single dirty test they went back to prison. About half the guys who commit that type of offense have to go before the parole board because they’re serious or violent offenders.
There was the Leno bill on aged and medical infirm prisoners. That’s probably going to affect a small population.
The receiver talks about people who we spend a million dollars a year on. I think there’s only a couple dozen of those. But if it’s 24, that’s $24 million. The state will have to pay some share of those costs, even in the community. Most of those folks are indigent. The federal government will pay for half, we’ll pay for some and the county will pay for some. We certainly recommended the governor sign it. It makes sense.
Prison guards are still on furlough. How is that affecting morale?
It’s tough on our staff. When I walk into prisons and I talk to people, it’s hard on morale when your pay’s cut 14 percent and you’re still showing up working your eight hours in a prison. The officers show up every day and understand how serious that job is, so they do really professional work nonetheless. But if you put yourself in their shoes, of course they’re feeling like they’d like to get a contract, and I’d like to see them get one. It’s tough.
There was just a riot down at Calipatria State Prison a couple days ago.
I think in that situation, anytime you have to use deadly force from our officers, we consider that to be obviously a very serious situation. The riot at Calipatria was difficult. We had one at Folsom several weeks before that. It should never get away from the public’s mind that these are highly volatile places that can erupt like that at any time. California, as I talk to my colleagues around the country, is a little different in that our prison gang situation, the Mexican Mafia, started here. It’s a pretty intense gang atmosphere. I think it really underscores the professionalism of our staff that we’ve kept our officers safe. We’ve done our best to reduce the number of injuries to inmates.
I think the other thing it underscores is we need to reinvest in rehabilitation. One of the real negatives from the budget crisis is we’ve had to cut more than anybody was comfortable with from rehabilitative programming. The irony is now that we really know what works nationwide, we are figuring this out and have a plan to implement at the same time we have this enormous budget crisis.
Even officers who don’t really believe in rehabilitation will tell you that they’re much safer if inmates are busy. We’ve doubled the amount of money we have available for opening the prisons up for volunteers to try to make up for it. Ultimately, I think we’ve got to reinvest in education and vocational training and drug and alcohol treatment. For every dollar that goes in, you save so much on the back side if they don’t come back to a $40,000 a year prison bed.
In fact, the Washington Institute of Public Policy did what they call an aggregate of all the prison rehabilitation programs across the country, the good ones, the bad ones, the average ones. They averaged them to see what kind of return you could get. Academic ones produced a five or six percent reduction in recidivism. The vocational one
s, if you can get a certificate in a trade, 12 percent reduction. Drug and alcohol programs in prison are five or six percent. If you can do community-based, it doubles or triples the effectiveness. Those don’t sound like huge numbers, but remember, not all of those people are using evidence-based programs.
In California, let’s say if you just went after the 15,000 illiterate inmates in our prisons, and could do an effective education and job training program, you start talking about five or 10 percent, even just 1,500 fewer inmates, DOJ says they’ll commit 10 crimes before they’re caught if they’re an active criminal. Now you’re saving 15,000 crimes.
So even poorly-run programs pay off?
I think what it says is the good programs pay off really well. But any program that can teach an inmate a trade is valuable as long as you can earn a living wage. You’ve got to be able to read or write to a level where you’re functionally literate or you can’t even get a union card. Then you’ve got to stay clean and sober. We see so many come back on drug-related crimes, property crimes especially.
Tell me about what you’ve been doing to lower the carbon and environmental footprint of some of the facilities.
We’ve had some pretty good progress on greening the prisons. We entered a contract where utilities pay to put in solar panels, and then we pay them back through our payments for electricity. We’ve got solar fields in the Central Valley in Wasco, and we’re building them down in the desert near Blythe. We’ve basically saved about 25 percent of our water usage by converting to what are called flushometers that limit the amount of times you can flush a toilet to two or three times a minute, for example, so that we don’t have the constant flushing to flood a cell or get attention or do your laundry. We replaced all the light bulbs with the more energy efficient bulbs. We’re looking at a hydrogen fuel cell project at Corcoran right now, to take in natural gas and create electricity. I think that’s an area we can be proud of.
As you do retrospective thinking at the end of an administration to think about the things you’re proud of, I think we really were on the brink of an overcrowding disaster in the 2007 timeframe when we were up to 174,000 inmates. So the fact that we were able to reduce that to 164,000 now and move 10,000 out of state, means in effect there has been a 20,000-inmate relief in overcrowding. Then to go to a parole system where we base all our decisions on risk, to address the issue of focusing your resources on the most dangerous and not the guys you’re just mad at. I think it has a positive impact on both public safety and the budget, as we’ve seen our budget reduced by $1.5 billion over that timeframe. Being able to reduce crowding and reduce the budget without impacting public safety is the part that I was most worried about when I came in. I think it will be the part that the governor can take some pride in as far as the legacy issue.
You’ll probably be moving on?
Yeah, it’s hard to say. That’s typical. I guess I’ll have to wait for the governor-elect and see.