This weekend, Matthew Cate will be leading 20 runners from his office on a 120-mile relay from the Southern California town of Baker to Las Vegas, where Cate plans to complete the race's final 4.5-mile leg across the finish line.
And then Cate will turn his attention to another grueling team- building task: running California's troubled prison system.
Cate, 41, was named secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Tuesday by Gov. Schwarzenegger, which is a little bit like being named skipper of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg.
The department Cate is about to lead is under siege from every direction. Lawmakers are upset about cost overruns. The federal courts have taken over the health care system and threatened to cap the number of inmates jammed into the overcrowded prisons. The correctional officers who guard the inmates are working without a contract and seem to be at constant war with management.
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Some credit the outgoing secretary, James Tilton, with at least stabilizing the operation and beginning to move it in the right direction. But the 60,000-employee, $10-billion-a-year department still has a very, very long way to go.
Cate can't say he wasn't warned. In fact, he is the one who has been doing the warning. For the past four years, he has been the inspector general, the independent watchdog investigating management and practices inside the prison system.
That makes him the equivalent of the dog who has caught the car. Now what is he supposed to do with it?
"It's a wholly different role," Cate told me. "It's easier to find the problems than it is to actually fix them."
And Cate did find problems. Most famously, he concluded that $1 billion the state had spent on drug treatment programs was a "complete waste of money."
His report on those programs found that inmates who had undergone drug treatment behind bars actually fared worse when they got out than inmates who had received no treatment.
His reports also ripped San Quentin prison for mishandling the release of a dangerous inmate who then stabbed a 15-year-old girl in a San Francisco bakery; found that the state's largest youth prison isolated its wards in unsafe conditions; and determined that parole administrators had lied about orders they gave that appeared aimed at concealing the presence of high-risk ex-convicts near schools.
Given everything he knows about the department's dysfunction, why would Cate want to lead it? Apparently, he is just wacky enough to think that all of the forces converging on the prison system can be channeled in one direction to produce momentum for serious, fundamental change in the state's criminal justice policies. He looks at the deluge from a perfect storm and sees not a flood but a great opportunity for some really fun whitewater rafting.
"I want to get in the middle of it and see if there are some solutions out there," he said.
Cate's first goal will be to chip away at the prison system's 70 percent recidivism rate, which means that seven of every 10 inmates who leave prison are back behind bars within three years.
If that rate could be reduced just 5 percentage points, he said, the effect would be tremendous. Such a reduction would require reaching just one additional inmate in 20, or 6,000 of the 120,000 who are released each year. If each of those 6,000 would have committed five crimes before getting caught and returning to prison, that is 30,000 crimes prevented, millions of dollars saved and untold personal anguish that victims will never have to experience.
Cate believes the key to making that sort of progress is to use scientifically proven methods to give education, training and drug treatment to inmates who can benefit from it.
"Right now, 50 percent of the people who leave prison have never done anything but sit on their bunk and walk the yard," he said. "That number has got to change."
He says the state's new re-entry prisons, where inmates will go just before release to get help with housing, treatment and counseling to ease their adjustment to the community, also will be crucial.
Cate, a former prosecutor, says he never really saw himself as a prison administrator. He was working on public corruption cases in the attorney general's office when a former boss who had gone to work for Schwarzenegger recruited him to be inspector general. From there, with a front-row seat on the biggest mess in state government, he couldn't resist the chance to take responsibility for fixing all the problems his office helped expose.
"I kind of caught the bug," he said. "I am interested in it. The more I've worked in it, it's become kind of a passion for me."
Actually putting changes in place as head of the prison system rather than its chief critic, he said, "is going to make a bigger difference for California than if I write another report saying the department isn't accomplishing X, Y or Z."
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