By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

Pelican Bay State Prison is shedding its violent image, thanks to a different approach in dealing with inmates, according to Warden Joe McGrath.

On his one-year anniversary as warden, and one day following his California Senate confirmation hearing to continue in that role, McGrath said improvements have been made at the prison and more are on the horizon.

We were so busy in past years just trying to get through the day without violence that we havent had time to focus on programs that will help inmates become more productive, said McGrath.

That has changed. It will still be some time before we are fully integrated and functioning, but managing inmates as individuals instead of as groups has been effective, he said.

McGrath, who has degrees in both corrections and criminal justice, credits much of the non-violent success so far at the prison to this individual-approach philosophy, which he said also makes the inmates more productive and gives them greater self-esteem.

Dealing with group leaders was a mistake and not effective. Their concerns are with power and money, he said. We ask (the inmates) individually if they believe they can be out there and not be violent. If they choose that, its my duty to provide the environment to guarantee they wont suffer any repercussions as a result; that there wont be any fear of reprisals.

About 350 inmates from the general population blocks are currently out of lockdown and interracially mingling in the yards without incident, which is a stride forward after the racially motivated February 2000 riot.

That was a particularly hard time for us, said McGrath. In my 22-plus years working in corrections, that was probably the largest and most traumatic event for the inmates as well as the staff.

The riot last year involved over 200 inmates, 16 injuries and one death.

I am pleased to say the (California Department of Corrections) looked at the riot and determined we handled it well, he said. But weve done a lot of thinking since then: Are there things we could have done differently? How do we avoid that happening again?

With the majority of general population inmates still in lockdown, there is little chance of a melee today. But McGrath said the individual approach he is taking is paying off for the future as well as today.

In the months ahead, educational and vocational programs will be my primary focus, he said. In education, there are a number of inmates who are getting their GED (high school equivalency) diplomas now. These programs can be completed in the cells.

There will also be an increase in vocational programs to give the inmates useful skills, and these can either be used in prison or for those who get out.

McGrath, 46, said he plans on staying on at the prison for at least three more years, which may be about normal for his profession.

Historically, the life expectancy for wardens is about five years, he said. But I have been overwhelmed by support this past year from leaders in this community and the staff at Pelican Bay.

I feel fortunate to be counted in this group of individuals. I could drive off the planet tomorrow and someone else could take my place, so its not just about me. This group is the best Ive ever seen, he said.