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Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who once ruled that Pelican Bay State Prison’s harsh conditions constituted cruel and unusual punishment, is now taking aim at the state’s entire prison system. In a scathing letter Monday, Henderson threatened to put the department of corrections in receivership and pressed to meet with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Henderson was concerned that a recent prison guard contract would undermine the court’s efforts to reform the troubled system. “The special master’s factual findings demonstrate that bad investigations, a code of silence and the failure to discipline correctional officers has been condoned for many years,” the judge wrote. But Special Master John Hagar can’t fix the problems if California Department of Corrections “officials continue business as usual, including entering into a [memorandum of understanding] that transfers management authority to the union,” Henderson said. The letter set up a clash between the governor, who wants to slash the budget by renegotiating the contract, and a judge who was the architect of a landmark ruling that gave him a say in reforms at Pelican Bay. On Tuesday, one state lawmaker and one expert said a federal takeover would be drastic. Meanwhile, the governor’s legal affairs secretary, Peter Siggins, told reporters at a press conference late Tuesday that the governor disagreed with Henderson’s conclusions and ticked off a long list of steps Schwarzenegger has taken to fix the prison system, including replacing the head of corrections and two wardens, as well as overhauling oversight systems. “I was probably the most surprised person on the planet this morning,” Siggins said, with the exception of the head of corrections. Siggins said the governor was willing to meet with Henderson to discuss the concerns, adding that when a federal judge wants to meet with a governor “in any matter of pending litigation, it’s going to be a priority.” Asked what the state would do if Henderson followed through on his threat, Siggins said he would investigate “the extent of his jurisdiction.” Henderson first threatened to impose oversight of the state’s prison system months ago, as part of his effort to bring the system in line with earlier orders related to the landmark 1995 prisoner class action Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F.Supp. 1146. He is also considering issuing a contempt order against Edward Alameida, a corrections department director who resigned last year amid accusations of covering up a prison-abuse perjury probe. The governor recently renegotiated the prison guards’ contract to get back $108 million of the $300 million in pay raises that they were to receive under a heavily criticized contract granted by former Gov. Gray Davis. The new deal �� which cedes some management power to the union — will undermine efforts to overhaul the system, Henderson said. The union has a history of lax discipline and interfering in investigations, according to the judge. “In my view, many of these modifications subtly �� and some not so subtly �� undermine the ability of the court to achieve compliance with its remedial orders.” State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, agreed that the guards’ new contract was “weak” but cautioned that a federal takeover would be overkill. “It’s like going after a mosquito with a bazooka,” she said. “I share the judge’s disappointment with the contract,” said Romero, chair of the Senate Select Committee on the California Correctional System. But given some of the “substantive” problems, like the code of silence, the guards’ renegotiated contract was “small potatoes.” Boalt Hall School of Law professor Malcolm Feeley agreed that a federal takeover would be a drastic step. For all the prison problems across the country, Feeley said he could think of no other state system that’s ever been fully brought under federal authority. Usually, just the threat of receivership — which Henderson has issued before — is enough to get prisons to comply with orders to improve, said Feeley, who has written books and articles on punishment. If Judge Henderson follows through with his threat, the receivership would work like a bankruptcy, with an outsider put in charge of prison administration. Feeley predicts that the governor will listen to Henderson and try to avoid receivership. “Schwarzenegger seems committed to constitutional values, and he appears willing to take on the [California Correctional Peace Officers Association],” the professor said. If the state takes a hard line and Henderson does order receivership, the state could appeal — but it would probably lose, Feeley said. “Generally, appellate courts have allowed trial court judges vast discretion in administering remedial orders,” Feeley said. “It is a complicated process to bring states into compliance. Federal judges know it, but [they're] very firm in reminding people.” An Associated Press report was used in preparing this article.

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