Could a convergence of changes sink the Calif. system?

A lack of experience at headquarters and a loss of experienced officials at the institution level combined with changes in classification levels will create the potential for a massive blow up

By Bob Walsh

Synchronicity is a convergence of things that, in and of themselves, may not be very important. However, when they come together in a particular place or time, there is a cumulative effect that is far beyond what would otherwise be the case.

It is about to happen in the California prison system.

The California system is not run by a correctional professional. It is run by a lawyer. His "cabinet," his chief advisors, are lawyers.

There is no one at the upper echelons of the administration that has any actual line custody experience. That group accepts most of its input from other lawyers as well as from academic "experts" and has a largely dismissive attitude towards line staff with actual experience doing the job in the field.

The governor and the Attorney General are "true believers;" they believe that the system can easily and effectively rehabilitate offenders if they use the mantra of the week. The agency secretary knows which side of his bread the butter is on: he goes along with the program.

The basic premise isn’t accurate, but that has no effect on true believers. It just isn’t important to them. How you feel about a problem is what’s important. Good intentions are everything, especially if backed by “expert” opinion. Actual positive outcome is not material. 

The custody classification system modification plan I wrote about previously has in fact been implemented. Except for condemned prisoners, a huge percentage of the remaining male inmate population will be eligible for custody level downgrades.

The academics have opined that a dangerous level IV inmate, if rehoused in a level III setting, will become a more peaceful inmate solely by having his custody level downgraded.

Level III prisoners will likewise be moved into level II settings, which are mostly dormitories. In addition, being a prison gang associate will no longer be criteria that will allow Security Housing Unit (SHU) placement.

Being a known, documented prison gang member will also not necessarily get that member placed in a SHU program unless there is documented violent or predatory behavior associated with that particular gang member. 

Furthermore, the Standardized Staffing Package is being implemented in order to save staffing costs with virtually zero attention being paid to local special conditions. The information I have been given indicates that as much as 30 to 40 percent of the custody supervisor positions could disappear, including significant losses of correctional officers in most of the California institutions.

Some of this is connected to the realignment program, which is dumping huge numbers of people who would otherwise be state prisoners into the local system. Some of it is the institutions being instructed to do the job with less people.  

Institution staff feel left out of the decision-making loop. They believe (with significant justification, unfortunately) that they are cannon fodder, of absolutely no importance whatsoever to those running the show. 

The combination of a lack of experience at headquarters and a soon-to-occur loss of experienced supervisors at the institution level will combine, along with the changes in classification and staffing levels, to create the potential for a massive blow up, like that of Attica or New Mexico.

The general feeling on the line is that it will happen, not that it might or could happen. The general feeling is also that the suits don’t care. They are not the ones who will be hurt. 

It’s nasty out there, and it shows no sign of getting better. In fact, it is almost certain to get much worse, and that could happen very soon. I am glad to be out of the fray.

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