Wednesday, May 09, 2007

California's Secret death chamber is subject of hearing

The San Mateo County Times reported today that:

SACRAMENTO — A contrite James Tilton, head of the California prison system, apologized to lawmakers Tuesday for them being kept in the dark about the construction of a new death chamber at San Quentin Prison.

Tilton, who said his own staff also failed to inform him, pledged to improve the management structure within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and implement better checks and balances on construction projects.

"I apologize for this project," Tilton told the Senate Public Safety Committee. "This was one of those issues that should have been communicated to the Legislature."

The informational hearing was ordered by committee chairwoman Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, nearly a month after she and other legislators learned that prison officials had "secretly" ordered construction at a cost just below the threshold that would require notifying lawmakers.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the project halted April 20, shortly after he learned of the construction.

But one of Tilton's deputies, Bud Prunty, said that Schwarzenegger aides were briefed on the project early on, leading Romero to conclude "that this goes much higher up." She said the committee will later "discuss at what point it's appropriate to go that far."

The Schwarzenegger administration and prison officials have said the new chamber was being built in response to a December ruling by San Jose-based U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, who deemed the existing chamber unconstitutional because it was small, poorly lighted and inadequate for use in lethal injections.

Fogel ordered executions be halted. But as several officials and a law professor acknowledged at the hearing, the court ruling never ordered that a new chamber be built.

"There was a misrepresentation," Romero said, "and that's a polite word I'm using, of the judge's order."

Tilton was aware that a new chamber was in San Quentin's future plans, but said he didn't know construction had begun until after it had become public. "There were miscommunications about this project within the department," he said.

Sen. Mike Machado, D-Stockton, expressed doubts about how the prison system's administration, with its damaged credibility, will manage the $7.4 billion prison reform package Schwarzenegger signed into law last week.

"I think it's somewhat inexcusable," Machado said, "for individuals to be taking discretionary action that tends to flaunt the oversight of the Legislature, the transparency to the Legislature."

The complete story may be found here:


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