The West

Kamala Harris wants answers about understaffed California prison. She isn’t getting them

The federal prison in Mendota, California opened in 2012.
The federal prison in Mendota, California opened in 2012. The Fresno Bee

California Sen. Kamala Harris sent a stern letter to the Department of Justice this summer raising questions about a hot and under-staffed federal prison in the San Joaquin Valley with a chronically broken air conditioning system.

“As you know, staffing shortages place inmates and staff alike at greater risk of harm. These shortages must be taken seriously and redressed as quickly as possible,” Harris wrote on July 9.

She didn’t get a reply.

Now the Democratic presidential candidate is considering other actions she can take to get answers about Federal Correctional Institution Mendota, which is undergoing its third consecutive summer with a faulty cooling system, her office says.

Her letter follows a series of visits to the prison by U.S. Reps. Jim Costa and TJ Cox, as well as representatives from Harris’ office and Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office. Prison employees told Harris’ staff about “severe staffing shortages,” Harris wrote.

The union that represents correctional officers there says guards must pull 16-hour shifts — multiple times per week — to staff the prison adequately. Employees have also complained about leaks and toxic mold within the prison. It’s struggling with an a spotty air-conditioning system despite expensive repairs two years ago.

Union leaders at the prison say it’s an unsafe working environment for officers.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation puts out recruitment videos. This 2015 video explains the jobs available within the state's prison system., boasting good pay, good benefits and possibility for career advancement.

Harris’ letter, sent to Bureau of Prisons Acting Director Hugh Hurwitz, recounts media reports of the issues and demands answers on the recommended number of staff, how many employees the prison currently has, a plan to increase staffing and the status of and plan to fix the air conditioning.

She gave a deadline of July 17. By the beginning of August, she had not received a response.

Cox, D-Fresno, also sent a letter about similar issues with the prison to the Bureau of Prisons in April, and also did not receive a timely response.

“Sen. Harris will continue to press for answers to these important questions,” Harris spokesman Chris Harris said. “We are weighing options to determine the next step.”

The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment, saying it does not share any correspondence with members of Congress with the media.

Aaron McGolthin, leader of the correctional officers’ union at Mendota, said prison executives have been trying to address employees’ complaints, particularly since lawmakers have gotten involved.

“Since we’ve seen action on the legislative side, we have seen positive movement,” McGlothin said. “But the biggest issue we have is we can’t just wave a magic wand and have people show up, because the process just takes so much time.”

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One example, McGlothin said, is the warden hired an additional human resources employee to try to speed up the hiring process. But in an illustration of the current problems, the new HR employee was a former correctional officer, which created another vacancy among rank-and-file staff.

“If a person has zero issues with the background process, it still takes 100 days,” McGlothin said. “And if something happens, a credit issue pops up, it could take six months to get someone hired.”

In 2011, California was ordered to reduce its prison population. Since then, California's Central Valley inmate murders have tripled and suicides have risen 23%. Our investigation, OverCorrection: Crisis in California jails, publishes April 23.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
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