Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2004/18 Shevat, 5764

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A promise keeper spooks the pols | LOS ANGELES — "Prison reform" is usually poison politics. All that most Americans want to do about prisoners is to keep them locked up. If prison life is brutish, nasty and short, it's only because the people who live there deserve it.

Politicians avoid poison, and that's why a state prison is often — indeed, usually — a sordid and violent disgrace.

Arnold Schwarzenegger insists he's not a politician, though he has so far given a pretty good imitation of a very good one. He was elected governor in an extraordinarily unusual way, promising to "clean out the stables" in Sacramento. Last week, he set out to clean out the stables called the California prison system, definitely the nation's largest and arguably the nation's most dysfunctional prison system.

He asked the feds to investigate allegations that officials, and particularly the guards, at Folsom State Prison orchestrated a riot two years ago that injured 24 prisoners, permanently disabled a guard and in all likelihood was the direct cause of the suicide of another guard. After that, the allegations go, prison officials conspired to cover it up. The governor said he was "gravely concerned" about corruption in the prisons and vowed to "bring to justice" those who deserve swift and effective punishment.

Tough talk, and from the Terminator to boot, the man who made his bones terminating celluloid bad guys with extreme prejudice. The new governor's swift reaction to the real-life allegations has impressed the pols, and maybe even a few of the people who put him where he is. No one here can recall a governor ever calling in the feds in a such a swift and decisive way. He could have asked the Democratic state attorney general to do it, but the feds have the advantage of greater resources, backed up by sweeping civil rights laws that the state government does not have.

The Terminator might have said, but didn't, that the feds have more incentive to get into it. He didn't have to. Many of the officials suspected of conspiring to start the riot are represented by the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which contributed a lot of money to the campaign of Gray Davis, the former governor ousted in the recall vote that led to the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mr. Davis, whom no special interest ever called an ingrate, delivered goodies to the corrections officers, including the right to review the files of all the investigations of misconduct by their members.

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What happened, in the description of several guards who blew the whistle on the riot instigators, was that members of two rival gangs — the "Mexican Mafia" and the "Nuestra Familia" — who had been locked up to brood, rage and plot in their cells for months were simultaneously released into the prison population. The inevitable inevitably happened. A captain of the guards, who had pleaded against the simultaneous release, urged his superiors after the inevitable riot to do something. He was summarily demoted. As if that were not enough, he was forced, on pain of keeping even the lesser job, to sign a document saying that he accepted demotion "voluntarily." A year later, he killed himself, leaving a note: "My job killed me."

The governor's decision to call in the feds to Folsom — thanks to the late Johnny Cash perhaps the nation's most famous Big House — follows closely on a bizarre incident at Corcoran State Prison, where an inmate on a kidney-dialysis machine bled to death because guards watching the Super Bowl telecast ignored his agonized screams for help. An autopsy showed that the shunt, or opening into his jugular vein, was not fully closed and the machine drained his body of its blood. Pathologists could not determine whether the prisoner, in a fit of anger or panic, had opened the clamp on the shunt, or whether medical technicians who administered a sedative forgot to close the shunt properly. What is not at issue is that he bled to death, screaming for help.

The two or three whistleblowers among the guards insist they must remain anonymous to protect themselves from retaliation. They further insist that the prison system's internal-affairs investigators cannot be trusted.

"If you're good with someone downtown," one of them told the Los Angeles Times, "then they won't look as closely. It's bias, is what it is."

Gov. Schwarzenegger, like any other governor, can't expect to score points with the public merely for treating prisoners in a correct and humane way, but he can demonstrate that he means to keep his promise to clean out stables. A pol who keeps his promises frightens the timid. Just like the Terminator.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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