Talking with Calif. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matt Cate

Matt Cate has dealt with two hunger strikes, a walloping cellphone epidemic, and a court-ordered realignment of more than 30,000 prisoners

By Carol McKinley

This month Corrections1 interviewed a corrections administrator whose feet are always to the fire. In just the last six months, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matt Cate has dealt with two hunger strikes, a walloping cellphone epidemic, and a court-ordered realignment of more than 30,000 prisoners.

Cate has been Secretary of the country's largest correctional system for almost four years. He was appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008 and retained by Governor Jerry Brown last year.

Cate knows both sides of the law, as he has been a prosecutor in Sacramento County and was formerly with the Department of Justice as a state prosecutor.

Cate oversees 33 adult prisons and four juvenile facilities throughout California, with a budget of nearly 10 billion dollars. Right now, CDCR has approximately 160,000 inmates, 105,000 parolees, and 1,100 juvenile offenders (including in and out-of-state housing). We spoke with Cate about California's latest attempt to eliminate overcrowding, the Three-Judge Court's population reduction order otherwise known as the public safety realignment plan. This is an unprecedented move designed to decrease California's inmate population by 34,000 over the next two years.

Under the plan, inmates who have committed nonviolent, non-serious and nonsexual offenses will be released back to the county probation system rather than to state parole officers. We caught up with California Department Secretary Cate on a day he was chosen for jury duty.

C1: Rate your stress level on the job on a scale of one to ten.

Matt Cate: In terms of stress, I'd rate it a 10.5! It ebbs and flows. Some days are pretty manageable and some days are a ten or eleven.

C1: This historic realignment CDCR is going through must be contributing to that stress. Tell us about that.

MC: The discussion first began because the United States Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding was a contributing factor to what they saw as unconstitutional medical and mental health care. This started in 2006 and wound its way through the courts. So now we have to reduce our population by about 30,000 in two years. It's the equivalent of emptying six prisons into the streets. It was thrust upon us by court order, but there will be a good side because we've been so overcrowded for so long, it's been difficult to accomplish our mission. For example we haven't been able to separate our violent offenders the way we'd like. We want to regain a place of prominence as a state that's safe and does a good job rehabilitating offenders who need to go back in the community.

C1: Ultimately you are having to reduce population safely. What is your approach?

MC: We gave the counties some additional money and they agreed to house our low-level offenders. So we're not transferring anybody. Parole violators, for example, will be housed in jails. Last year we had 47,000 offenders serve 90 days or less in prison. That's the group we're trying to get out with realignment.

C1: And what were their crimes?

MC: Anyone with a sex crime is not a part of this program. These are guys who are mostly drug and property offenders.

C1: Will any of them be going on house arrest?

MC: That's up to the sheriffs. It's going to depend on each situation.

C1: Lots of people are speculating that because of this realignment, your current high profile defendant, Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson's doctor, won't do proper time. Talking heads on the cable shows are saying if he's convicted, the most he can get is four years, and there's a chance he'll be released early on house arrest with an ankle bracelet. Is that true?

MC: (Sighs) It is frustrating because people don't understand the law. I had 20 TV news crews when this realignment happened asking if they could get video footage of buses transferring inmates from prisons to jails...or letting them loose. And I had to explain that nobody gets out early. This is frustrating to hear people who don't understand it try to scare folks, but that's part of the TV business and it is what it is.

C1: And California does have a reputation for show biz news television. Is that frustrating for you?

MC: It's part of the game in big states, but TV is important in California so we try to work with TV stations in the state. It's just more challenging to get complicated issues in a two minute sound bite than it would be in a print interview.

C1: You have a huge cellphone contraband problem in your prison system. As of October 1st of this year, you confiscated 11,400 of them, which breaks last year's record with three months still to collect more! Are you shocked at these numbers?

MC: I'm not shocked. I've seen the numbers go up since 2006. I am troubled and concerned about it. It's obviously a high-tech state and we're usually ahead of the curve on those kinds of issues. That can be good and bad.

C1: How are inmates getting them?

MC: A number of different ways. They're thrown over the fence, through visitors, and even staff in some circumstances.

C1:  I have read that prison staff in California aren't searched, so it's easy to smuggle cellphones in.

MC: We search anything they bring in, like lunch boxes and those kinds of things. We don't have airport style security for our staff and the governor has issued an executive order to do some additional work to find out if we can implement that in California. One problem is our prisons are so large, we have 500 staff in a shift change, and that's a lot of equipment to get through the door in a short period of time. We have to figure out a way to reduce the incidents.

C1: What makes you angry about the crimes prisoners have been able to commit from inside because they're able to communicate, unmonitored, to the outside with a cellphone?

MC: Part of my anger is that there hasn't been a lot of recognition as to the dangers. There's a pretty strong lobby of folks who argue that cellphones should be allowed because inmates use them to contact family and that encourages family unification, but with so many instances of violence against staff and civilians on the outside it just gets really frustrating that people don't recognize it yet. Just recently the governor made smuggling a cellphone into a prison a criminal act in California.

C1: Your prison's latest hunger strike recently ended. How did you deal with these demands by prisoners?

MC: The first time they went on a hunger strike, we had begun to review our gang validation process and our secured housing unit policy and during the hunger strike we received reports from inmates and their advocates. They felt part of the policy was unfair. They made requests for items like cold weather clothing and additional recreational equipment, and we took a look at that and decided that we do need to provide some of those things, so we did that. Then the second strike happened and we basically told the inmates and their advocates and ‘We've given you everything we're going to give you. We're not going to give you anything more. And moreover, we're going to write you up for organizing a mass disturbance. They eventually agreed to eat.

C1: What's the biggest challenge with a situation like this?

MC: Number one, you have to make sure that your house is in order and that your policies are what they should be. If they're not what they should be you need to change them, not because there's a strike, but because it's the right thing to do. Secondly, once you've got that in order if you've got another strike, you have to treat it like any other mass disturbance. That shows the inmates they're not going to get whatever they want.

C1: You have a law degree. How has that helped you?

MC:  In California, it's particularly helpful. We're the subject of 16 different lawsuits in California. You have to manage the prisons with one hand and keep your eye on the courts with the other, so it helps to have a background to be able to speak their language.

C1: Is there anything about this new realignment that you'd like to add?

MC: I want for our staff to know they're not just running a short term mill here. We're actually helping public safety and I know that's why our staff cares and gets involved. We wouldn't have been able to handle the overcrowding as well as we've had in these tough conditions without what I think is the best-trained staff in the country.

C1: Do you have any openings?

MC: No openings right now. We're fighting really hard to save every job we can in California, and we haven't had any openings in about two years. It will be a long time before we're ready to hire again.

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