State Corrections Chief James Tilton Steps Down

The head of the State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation suddenly announced his retirement yesterday. Secretary James Tilton said he's suffering from health problems that could threaten his life. State Inspector General Matt Cate will take over the job in May. He'll become the fourth head of prisons since Governor Schwarzenegger took office. KPCC's Julie Small reports the constant turnover hasn't helped the prison crisis, but it didn't create it either.

Julie Small: Heading up the state's massive prison system is one of the toughest jobs in Sacramento. It pays $225,000 a year, but that salary hasn't kept anyone from quitting. California's had three Corrections Secretaries since 2006. The current one, James Tilton, got the job when his predecessor abruptly quit two years ago. Tilton inherited a prison system in crisis.

James Tilton: When I got here there was no plan to deal with the overcrowding. There was... the reforms were just being talked about, and this department basically had isolated itself.

Small: Overcrowding at California's 33 prisons had pushed thousands of inmates into temporary bunks in dayrooms and gyms. Federal courts had taken control of inmate medical, dental, and mental health care. Last year, federal judges threatened to cap the state's prison population.

So lawmakers in Sacramento passed a $7 billion plan to expand prisons and rehabilitation programs for inmates. Under Tilton, the Corrections Department busily planned for that, but he's had trouble getting the money to put those plans into action.

Tilton: These programs are expensive. The cheapest way to manage the prison system on the short run is what we've done in the state, and that's to overcrowd prisons and put 'em in a dayroom and a gym. The cheapest cost of running a prison is that gym. Two-hundred-and-fifty inmates and two or three staff is a cheap operation on a short-term budget. But it's a very expensive operation in the long term.

Dan Weisberg: The problems that have led to the correctional crisis in California are deep and old.

Small: Stanford Law Professor Dan Weisberg says everyone loves to blame Corrections for California's prison problems. But he says the state's mandatory parole policies make the prisons impossible to manage.

Weisberg: So many people are coming in and out on parole violations that it's very tough to control the inflow and the outflow. The prisons were expanding for a long, long time, but they didn't keep up with the populations, and now the overcrowding problem is terrible.

Small: And Weisberg says legislators won't pay what it takes to lock all those people up. Just this week, the federal receiver in charge of medical care set off an uproar when he asked for another $7 billion to build medical facilities at prisons. Senate budget subcommittee chair Mike Machado wanted Secretary Tilton to say how many inmates California could hold without having to build extra prison beds. Tilton responded by saying it was a policy call the legislature should make.

Senator Mike Machado: You're asking us to consider $14 billion for the receiver, and also for this. And you're here to say publicly, today, "I have a prison population objective, but I'm constrained from revealing that to the public, and I'm constrained from telling how, giving forward options to how we best and more efficiently can use taxpayer dollars?"
Tilton: Senator–
Machado: Is that what your testimony today?

Small: Don Spector, an attorney for prisoners, says he understands why the Legislature doesn't want to spend 14 billion to upgrade prisons.

Don Spector: That's an incredible amount of money to spend on a prison system in a year with a budget crisis, especially when there are lots of other alternatives to punishing people than through prisons.

Small: Spector says California could send some offenders to mental health facilities or drug treatment programs. It could reward nonviolent inmates for good behavior with shorter parole periods, or no parole at all. They're reforms that Corrections Secretary James Tilton supports, but the lawmakers haven't yet approved. So Tilton has focused on what he can do.

He cut the number of people returning to prison for violating parole by ending parole on time. He moved 3,000 inmates out of state. He improved rehabilitation programs in prisons. And he hired dozens of new prison managers and wardens. James Tilton has said he believes the Department of Corrections is ready to put prison reforms into practice. But it'll happen with someone else in charge.

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