Adjudicating the massive volume of charges and grievances by inmates and guards has become central to modern-day prison life.
In a recent 12-month period, California prison officers reported issuing nearly 100,000 rule-violation charges against inmates. They also logged more than 280,000 grievances by prisoners alleging inhumane living conditions or misbehavior by guards and others.
Due-process systems in other states' lockups face similarly back-breaking workloads, according to records and interviews.
Prisoners and some officers called the process in this state so flawed that it dramatically undermines the trust needed to reduce conflict. That creates challenges in California – as in several other large states that use the officers who guard and manage inmates to pass judgment over alleged rule violations.
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"You have to maintain your integrity," said Gerald Edwards, a former correctional lieutenant at Calipatria State Prison. "Inmates are willing to cooperate with us if they see us as fair."
Pennsylvania prisons have not had a riot or major disturbance in more than two decades. There, the system builds inmate confidence by using independent hearing officers to judge rule-violation charges.
Pennsylvania has the lowest rule violation conviction rate among several large states – 65 percent.
New York prisons try to moderate the adversarial nature of incarceration by empowering panels of officers and inmates to rule on prisoner grievances.
Scott Kernan, undersecretary for California prison operations, said independent hearing officers would be costly and unnecessary because the current system "ensures inmates are getting a fair hearing and a reasonable outcome."
Inmates serving on hearing panels, he said, could breach confidentiality and cause inmate unrest.
Jeanne Woodford, who directed the California prison system from 2004 to 2006, blamed heavy workloads caused by overcrowding for some lapses in due process but said independent oversight should be improved.
"You have to design a system of on-site visits by outside people to look at due process," Woodford said. "You need to ensure that people aren't abusing their authority."