California State Prisons Chief Retiring

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State Prisons Chief Ralph Diaz, who presided over the final stages of a huge court-ordered prison population reduction as well as the system’s sometimes failed response to COVID-19, is retiring in October, announced Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday.

Newsom said he would name one of Diaz’s top aides, Kathleen Allison, to succeed him.

Diaz, who began working as a guard at Wasco State Prison in 1991 and later served as warden of Corcoran (Kings County) prison, was appointed secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by the Governor Jerry Brown in September 2018.

Seven years earlier, the United States Supreme Court had ordered California to reduce the population of its overcrowded prisons by 40,000 to allow for improvements in a substandard health care system. Brown responded with a legislated plan to sentence thousands of convicted felons to county jail instead of state jail, and voters passed a series of measures to shorten sentences and make some newly eligible inmates on conditional release.

Changes begun under Diaz’s predecessors and continued under his leadership have reduced the prison population to less than 98,000, more than 50,000 below the 2011 level, albeit still about 9% above the capacity predicted by the authorities. institutions. Newsom said Friday that Diaz led the overall population reduction efforts. Crime rates, meanwhile, have remained relatively stable and declined during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am confident that our department’s transformative focus on rehabilitation will continue to result in safer prisons, healthier communities and lower recidivism,” Diaz said in a statement released by Newsom’s office. The department added “rehabilitation” to its name in 2004.

While the department’s image was boosted by its response to the court’s population order, it was clouded by its handling of the coronavirus.

After an outbreak of the disease at California’s Chino Institution for Men in San Bernardino County, court-appointed prison health care receiver J. Clark Kelso ordered the transfer of 121 aging inmates in late May. or medically vulnerable. in San Quentin, where no cases have been reported.

The transfers, approved by Diaz’s office, took place after the inmates tested negative for the coronavirus. But prison officials ignored the fact that some of the tests had been carried out four weeks earlier, giving the men enough time to become infected before leaving.

San Quentin reported its first cases shortly after the transfers and now has more than 2,200 cases and 26 inmate deaths. Overall, the prison system has reported 10,400 cases and 57 deaths among inmates, and more than 2,700 cases and nine deaths among prison staff.

“The spread of COVID-19 in state prisons has been a preventable public health disaster and a failure of CDCR leadership at the highest level,” Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San, said Friday. Rafael, whose district includes San Quentin.

Michael Bien, an inmate lawyer who has advocated for releases on a much larger scale during the pandemic, said there was a lot of blame to be had.

“I think he was put in a very difficult situation,” Bien said of Diaz. “The CDCR remains dangerously overcrowded, as evidenced by its inability to manage the pandemic. It doesn’t control overpopulation,” which has more to do with state sentencing laws.

Newsom did not mention the missteps in his announcement, instead saying that Diaz “has worked tirelessly with public health and law enforcement partners to ensure collaboration and cooperation during these unprecedented times.” . The governor said the number of COVID-19 cases in prisons on Thursday was the lowest since late May.

Allison, 55, Diaz’s designated successor, is a nurse who joined the department as a medical assistant in 1987, later became director at Corcoran and is now the department’s undersecretary for operations. His appointment requires state Senate confirmation and pays $279,216 a year.

“I am confident that she will continue to lead CDCR through innovative transformation, including focusing on rehabilitative opportunities for individuals inside and outside of prison, and continuing on the path to restorative justice,” Newsom said.

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: begelko@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @BobEgelko

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