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California Limits Prison Appeals

Continuing the agenda of the prison guards union, the California Department of Corrections issued a notice of changes to prison administrative regulations governing appeals of conditions of confinement by prisoners. The changes include doubling the time limits prison staff have to respond to administrative appeals, limiting the number of appeals a prisoner may file within seven days to one, permitting prison staff to reject appeals if they contain "false information, or profanity or obscene language," and allowing staff to suspend a prisoner's right to appeal for up to six months if they determine he or she has "abused" the appeal process.

The guards union claims the restrictions are long overdue and necessary to stem the flood of "unwarranted complaints" filed by people in the world's largest prison system. According to a union spokesperson, more than 40,000 administrative appeals were filed by prisoners in 1996. Prison officials say the changes are designed to streamline the appeal process, to force prisoners to use the appeal system more responsibly, and to allow staff adequate time to "address and resolve the appeal issue at hand," according to Bonnie Garibay, the prison system's chief of appeals.

In Lancaster, a maximum security prison in California's southern desert, an appeal at the informal level may take staff nine months to answer. Administrative law provides for an answer in five working days. But, there are no sanctions for violating the time limits. Consequently, staff routinely ignore appeals or answer them months late. "There is no effective administrative appeal process in the state of California any longer," said Pete Silverbrand, a lifer and jailhouse lawyer at Lancaster. "The appeal system was mandated by the federal courts in the 1970s. But prison officials know, under recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the federal courts will no longer intervene to protect prisoners from the day to day abuses of guards and prison staff."

Garibay said prison officials completed investigations into 40,796 appeals in 1995-96, an 11% increase from the previous year. Thousands of additional appeals were filed, she said, but dismissed out of hand because "they did not meet regulatory criteria for acceptance." More than 70% of the appeals filed were granted at the informal level. CDC headquarters in Sacramento received 9,409 appeals during that time. Those appeals were processed by 23 employees working out of a special office with an annual budget of more than $1 million, according to Garibay.

Karen Stewart, a longtime prisoner rights activist, fears the appeal restrictions will keep misconduct by prison staff from the attention of CDC administrators and the public. "These 602s (the CDC form number on prisoner appeal forms) are sort of a thermometer of what's happening in your prison," she said. "If you're seeing a type of behavior that comes across your desk that's inappropriate, it means staff may need a little assistance, a little employee counseling, some training. If you're seeing a pattern, you need to look a little deeper."

The CDC has already implemented the new appeal restrictions without waiting for approval by the office of Administrative Law. The OAL is the agency responsible for insuring the administrative regulation process goes according to state law. Under Republican Governor Pete Wilson, a frequent recipient of donations from the state's prison guards union, the OAL's budget has been slashed and they are no longer able to fully investigate complaints about violations of the regulatory creation process.

"This is just another stick of dynamite to an already growing bundle," said a lifer who wished to remain anonymous. "Bit by bit, the guards union has taken every small program, privilege, or improvement prisoners won in court and through bloodshed in the 60s and 70s. And the saddest part is that these younger prisoners don't even know what's going on, or what's going to happen."

Sacramento Bee

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