Q&A: CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate Discusses Prisons, Health Care and Realignment
By Lisa Kopochinski (01/25/2012)

Matthew Cate has served as secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation since being appointed in May 2008. In this capacity, he and his staff’s mission is to improve public safety through crime prevention and recidivism reduction strategies. The department’s goals are twofold: organizational, which includes workforce excellence, information technology strategy, and risk management; and programmatic: including crime prevention and safety, outreach, partnerships and transparency, and health care delivery.

Cate also serves as chairman of both the Corrections Standards Authority and the Prison Industry Authority. In addition, in 2010, he was elected regional president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

Before his appointment as CDCR secretary, Cate served for four years as the California Inspector General, responsible for public oversight of the CDCR. Since 2007, he has also served on the California Rehabilitation Oversight Board and reports to the state legislature on the department’s progress in fulfilling its obligation to provide effective rehabilitative programs to California’s inmates and parolees.

Cate earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of Oregon School of Law and received a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Linfield College. He is a member of the California State Bar.

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Correctional News recently sat down with Secretary Cate to discuss his role with the CDCR, the status of the state’s ailing correctional system, and the effect of the newly passed AB109, legislation that shifts responsibilities for low-level offenders from the state to the counties.

Q: What have you liked most about your position as secretary for the CDCR?

A: The reason a lot of people are in public service is because of the chance to impact and help drive major public policy changes in my field. Right now Calif. is facing extraordinary change, which brings both its rewards and challenges. Overall, I really have enjoyed the challenge of being involved in a time of great change in corrections in California.

Q: What are you most proud of in the last three years or so? Does one thing stand out as a highlight?

A: Oh sure. It’s helping the governor get the realignment initiative off the ground and under way in California. We have suffered from almost 200 percent overcrowding in the prisons, which has made everything we do extraordinarily difficult. It makes it harder to rehabilitate our inmates. So, to begin a part of a process of not only addressing our crowding problem but also hopefully to show better criminal justice results has been a terrific opportunity. I am really proud of our accomplishment in the administration.

Q: Has getting realignment under way been the most difficult thing so far as well?

A: You know, there’s a couple of difficult things. One of the most difficult parts of realignment is that we are trying to run a prison system at the same we’re trying to change it. We’ve got terrific employees who are concerned about potential layoffs, and we’re working with our stakeholders to make sure we’re still operating the prisons well while we go through this change. And at the same time dealing with the politics in the local governments to make sure they can handle the new responsibilities.

Q: Are things progressing as they should?

A: So far we’ve seen a reduction of about 8,000 inmates from our population during the first two and-a-half months of realignment. We were supposed to get over 10,000 inmates out of our system by Christmas according to the U.S. Supreme Court. So far, the counties have been doing a great job of taking on the responsibility. And my staff has done a terrific job of helping to facilitate the transfer of information and inmate files and working out all the logistical challenges.

Q: You are also chair of the Corrections Standards Authority and Prison Industry Authority and the regional president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. You obviously like this industry.

A: I do. They say once prisons get in your blood, it’s hard to get it out. I’ve developed a passion for effective criminal justice policy in corrections, so a chance to work with my fellow directors in the Western region has been very rewarding. All three of these positions are very rewarding volunteer side jobs. The Corrections Standards Authority oversees standards for both prisons and jails by statute. I decided to take on the obligation as chair of the Prison Industry Authority because I just really have a passion for it, and I also was selected by my colleagues. All of these are just part of the gig.

Q: How will the new $900 million California Health Care Facility (CHCF) in Stockton help both the local community and the state overall?

A: One of the things that the state has struggled with is capacity for our most physically and mentally ill inmates. For those inmates who need the most consistent care, we have a shortage of beds. So this facility will provide a large number of beds, and it’s my belief that once this facility is built, we could find ourselves at that time completely out of our medical and mental health lawsuits. That’s the goal, and if we could do that in California, I think that would be a significant accomplishment.

Q: What has been happening with these particular inmates before realignment?

A: We’ve been providing them with care, but we’ve been doing it within traditional prison beds. What we have are prison health care officials and wardens and their teams who are working extraordinarily hard to provide good health care in less than ideal settings. We’re having to provide pretty high levels of care in settings and in beds that weren’t made for that purpose. It’s also really expensive if you have to overstaff to make up for inadequate facilities.

Q: So, are health care facilities, such as this new one in Stockton, the best way to serve these particular inmates?

A: I think so. It’s going to be the largest facility of its kind in the country. Because it’s been engineered with inmate health care and security in mind from the ground up, you’ll find a really effective setting for providing care to high-level inmates in a secured area. Most prison health care is done either in hospitals, where you have around-the-clock guarding at the bedside, or in prisons, where you have security, but health care has to struggle to find space. Finally, we will have a place to do both simultaneously.

Q: Many jobs are going to be created from this one project — 1,700 construction jobs, more than 5,000 temporary jobs, and 2,400 permanent jobs (doctors, nurses, and correctional staff) with an annual payroll of $220 million. How can the state fund or continue to fund a project like this?

A: The construction itself was allocated through bond funding. We’ll be using bond funds rather than today’s dollars for the construction. For the ongoing costs, it is our hope that we’ll see commensurate reductions at the existing prisons for those expenses, so that will offset some of those costs. The other thing people have to keep in mind is that running a system overseen by three different federal judges in three different areas of health care that has its own complete independent administrative system is expensive in itself. So, getting out of the lawsuits and coordinating all of our sickest inmates in one place, we think, will get some efficiency to offset those costs.

Q: Will there be enough funding for areas such as management and security?

A: Of course, and there will be benefits to the community. Stockton is one of the areas in Calif. that has been hardest hit by unemployment. So, getting those jobs in the Central Valley will be a terrific boon to the economy and will hopefully drive us back into a recovery.

Q: There are some opponents who say we cannot afford this project. What do you say to them?

A: I understand where they’re coming from, and I respect that position. Obviously, every dollar you spend on corrections is a dollar that you can’t spend on higher education, or it is driving the deficiency of something else. On the other hand, I can tell you that our current method of doing business is about as expensive as it gets. I think we should be looking at a long-term investment in appropriate housing. And, again, the ability to return all aspects of corrections, including health care under one roof, will allow us to see efficiencies in the long term that will make it a worthwhile investment.

Q: Then there may be more funding for areas such as higher education?

A: Right. As long as we’re trying to run the prison system faced with 15 different federal class action lawsuits and inadequate facilities, we’re always going to be spending good money after bad.

Q: What do you see for yourself over the next three to five years?

A: I’m on a year-by-year contract with my wife in this job. Around late spring/early summer every year, we sit down and decide together whether we are going to keep up this pace and how long we are going to ride this. So, I’m in my fourth year here in the department, but I can tell you that I still love my job and am still planning on being here next year. Then I’ll have this conference with my wife, and as long as the governor still wants me, then I’ll be staying on. I just enjoy it too much to leave. Now, three to five years from now, it’s too hard to know. There are so many opportunities in corrections. Maybe I’ll still be in this job, but whatever it is, I think I will still have my hands somewhere in this field.

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