Code of Silence
Corrections officer calls firing retaliation
10:00 PM PDT on Thursday, July 13, 2006
A former corrections officer filed a lawsuit against the state department of corrections this week, alleging he was fired for speaking out about misconduct within the state prison system.
Charles Hughes, a former lieutenant at California State Prison in Lancaster, says in the suit that he was targeted by prison officials after he was quoted in a Jan. 19 article in The Press-Enterprise accusing state leaders of lying to the U.S. Supreme Court about the state's racial segregation practices in prison.
On the day the article appeared, prison officials began investigating Hughes in connection with an inmate's death several months earlier, he says in the suit.
State officials, who said they have not seen the lawsuit, said the decision to fire Hughes in October of 2005 had nothing to do with retaliation and everything to do with his own misconduct.
Brian Parriot, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said it's not the department's practice to retaliate against employees.
Parriot said the department has a matrix in place that strictly defines the disciplinary action required for each type of misconduct.
Hughes was accused of being discourteous to prison officials and of preventing a medical technician from giving CPR to a Eddie Arraiga, a dying inmate who had been strangled and beaten by his cellmate.
The allegations were trumped up in an effort to get rid of Hughes, who had filed several complaints alleging misconduct within the department, said his attorney, Stephen J. Horvath.
Hughes said he didn't interfere with efforts to resuscitate Arraiga. He said he secured the crime scene only after allowing two medical technicians to administer CPR.
While Hughes was a representative for the officer's union, his chapter filed 3,800 grievances against prison officials within six months during a particularly contentious period between the union and the warden.
One complaint alleged racial discrimination and sexual harassment stemming from a raunchy stand-up comedy routine put on for inmates in 2005. He also a filed an internal complaint accusing Warden Charles Harrison of condoning a code of silence by displaying a toy rat taped to the bull's-eye of a shooting target in his office.
Rat Trap Triggers Fears About a 'Code of Silence' by Guards
Prison guards group displays the device after a captain alleges mistreatment
of inmate. Corrections officials point to 'code of silence.'
April 22, 2005
SACRAMENTO — Leaders of the guards union at a state penitentiary in Imperial County hung a rat trap on a prison bulletin board after a captain filed a report accusing three employees of using excessive force on an inmate.
The trap was accompanied by a flier stating that the union wanted to "catch" the captain and the prison's acting warden to confront them about the allegations.
Corrections officials say the trap — suggesting that the captain was "ratting" on his colleagues — underscores the "code of silence" that has discouraged some officers from reporting misconduct. Last year, state Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman issued a memo proclaiming "zero tolerance" for the code and warning that those who foster it could be fired.
The rat trap "is exactly the type of intimidation practice" that Hickman had in mind, said Todd Slosek, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. "This type of activity is entirely unacceptable — completely unprofessional — and will not be tolerated under his leadership."
The union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., has since removed the trap from its bulletin board at Calipatria State Prison in Imperial. Replacing it is a two-page memo from chapter President Chris Trott, who insisted that the display was "misinterpreted" and was not intended to perpetuate "any type of code of silence."
In the memo, Trott said he decided to remove the trap after an internal affairs agent told him that it was hindering an investigation of the excessive-force episode.
Trott also said union officials had "absolutely no issue with the captain reporting what he believed was misconduct," but that they thought he acted prematurely, before all reports on the incident were submitted.
"The facts contained within these reports could have eliminated the basis for these allegations of misconduct," Trott said.
He added that the rat trap was a "tactic" used with another goal in mind: alerting prison leaders in Sacramento to management problems at Calipatria. Trott's memo did not identify those problems, and he did not respond to a telephone message left at the prison Thursday by The Times.
The employees — a sergeant, an officer and a medical technician — have been placed on paid leave while Department of Corrections internal affairs agents investigate.
Lt. Ray Madden, a prison spokesman, would not discuss what sort of excessive force was used against the inmate, Adron Cowains, 24, who is serving a 25 years-to-life sentence for attempted murder.
Madden said the April 6 incident followed an assault by Cowains on a medical technician just before the inmate was to be seen at the medical clinic in the prison's Facility B.
The technician, whose name was not disclosed, was searching Cowains when she found what turned out to be a crudely fashioned knife in his pocket. The inmate then spun around and hit her in the face, leaving her with a laceration and black eye, Madden said.
A sergeant and an officer helped restrain Cowains and escort him to a holding cell area. The alleged unnecessary force occurred at the clinic and near the holding cells, Madden said. The inmate had scratches on his wrist but no other visible injuries.
Among those responding and helping to restrain Cowains was correctional Capt. Serschel Leapheart, who is in charge of Facility B. Leapheart reported, orally and in writing, the possible use of excessive force to Acting Warden Stuart Ryan, who made the decision to place the employees on leave, Madden said.
That action, Madden said, "upset" union officials, who have been openly critical of Ryan. In addition to the rat trap, the union also posted a display that read, "2005: The Year of Shame," and had the warden's picture.
Madden said reaction to the rat trap inside prison walls was mixed: "Some people felt it was unprofessional, that while they may not like what the administration did, that action was not appropriate." Others, he said, "are very pro-union and like the direction they're taking."
The rat trap is not the first provocative posting on a guards union bulletin board. At Calipatria and other prisons, the union in recent months has displayed material critical of Hickman, whom the group's leaders have called a disgrace to their profession and nicknamed "Spud."
Among the actions that have irked union members was Hickman's declaration of "zero tolerance" for the code of silence.
At state Senate hearings last year, three current and former corrections employees testified that guards who witness abuse and other misconduct in California's prisons rarely report it for fear of isolation by fellow officers and reprisals from superiors. One whistle-blower wore a bullet-proof vest and requested protection from the California Highway Patrol.
Later, Hickman ordered training for all employees on the code of silence.
Union leaders, meanwhile, have insisted that there is no code of silence.
Public-be-damned attitude, badges seem to go hand in hand
By Dan Walters -- Bee Columnist - (Published September 17, 2004)
California has two very large state agencies whose tens of thousands of employees wear badges and greenish uniforms and are empowered to carry weapons - the Highway Patrol and the Department of Corrections - and superficially, they would seem to have little in common other than their attire and armament.
Highway Patrol officers cruise the state's roadways, handing out tickets to errant motorists and investigating accidents, and provide security for top officials. Correctional officers keep more than 150,000 felons under control (with bullets, at times).
Curiously, both agencies appear to have contracted the same cynical virus, a public-be-damned, grab-all-you-can-get mentality that violates the spirit of law-abiding public service that we should expect of our men and women in uniform.
The rotten atmosphere in the Department of Corrections has been well documented in journalistic accounts, legislative hearings, federal-court proceedings and the report of a blue-ribbon commission appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Repeatedly, they have described a "code of silence" that prevents wrongdoing from being reported, a weak management structure that's subservient to the politically powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, threats against those who refuse to get along and go along, sweetheart labor contracts that cost taxpayers billions of dollars and provide $100,000-plus annual incomes to ordinary line officers, and so forth.
A few days ago, Sacramento Bee reporters John Hill and Dorothy Korber laid out how huge numbers of Highway Patrol officers, including those in the CHP's highest ranks, routinely seek and gain hefty payments for supposedly job-related illnesses and injuries, and tax-sheltered disability retirements. The outgoing CHP commissioner, Spike Helmick, was sharply critical of the syndrome in one Bee interview, questioning why seemingly healthy officers suddenly develop job-related maladies as they near retirement - but then applied for those benefits himself, only to change his mind again after the Bee articles appeared.
The atmospheres in the Highway Patrol and the Department of Corrections are not confined to those agencies, unfortunately. They can be found in local police agencies as well, especially such large urban departments as the Los Angeles Police Department. And whether state or local, they stem from the same corrosive forces.
One is the widespread us-and-them mentality in law enforcement. Those in uniform, by the nature of their work, see the worst of humanity, whether it's a child molester, a feces-throwing prison inmate or a drunken driver who's wiped out a family. Thus, they often see themselves as a clan apart, performing work that ordinary citizens cannot comprehend. And those who work inside prisons unconsciously might adopt the twisted moral code of their fellow inhabitants of that world-unto-itself, valuing group (gang?) solidarity above anything.
Policeman-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh once observed that the greatest danger in being a cop was psychological impairment, not being shot. Divorce and alcohol abuse among cops and ex-cops are relatively common, researchers say, and their suicide rate is high.
The cloistered attitudes that develop from spending too much time dealing with miscreants are deepened by politicians' equally cynical relationship with the unions that represent badge-wearing civil servants. The unions trade their political endorsements, allowing endorsees to claim to be tough on crime, for tangibles such as special pension programs, union-friendly contracts, and lax management oversight, a practice that reached its zenith - or nadir - during the Gray Davis governorship.
And if anything, the mutual back-scratching with grasping politicians reinforces the rampant cynicism among the badge-wearers. If it's all just a dung heap, why not grab everything you can get and head for the retirement ranchette in Idaho, a state known as "Blue Heaven" in law-enforcement circles?
If - and when - we begin reconsidering some of the special benefits that politicians have extended to badge-carriers, maybe we should also address their widening cultural segregation from the larger society.
Posted on Sun, Mar. 28, 2004
Silence Harms Calif. Prison Abuse Policy
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Authorities investigating California's troubled prisons say they are confronting a stubborn "code of silence" among employees who have lied or refused to share information about inmates who were beaten or neglected by guards.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration promised last month to implement a "zero tolerance" policy for anyone suppressing wrongdoing in the corrections system or retaliating against whistle-blowers. But uncooperative witnesses have continued to stall investigations.
"The code of silence exists to cover up wrongdoing. It's a conspiracy to lie," said Tip Kindel, spokesman for the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.
A series of scathing reports and hearings have described California's prison system as overrun with violence.
The most recent allegations are contained in an internal report on the videotaped beatings of two youths by two employees at a correctional center in Stockton.
Four employees who witnessed the Jan. 20 beatings gave information that was "misleading, factually false and contradicted by witness statements and the videotape evidence," according to a confidential report obtained by The Associated Press.
They reported that the two employees acted in self-defense, but evidence showed the youths were beaten after they had been subdued.
All six have refused to speak with investigators, citing their right against self-incrimination. They remain on leave pending disciplinary action.
In another case, only 12 of 50 prison employees would talk to authorities about the death of Ronald Herrera, a dialysis patient who bled to death in his cell last month after Corcoran State Prison guards reportedly ignored his screams for hours.
"It's tough to get to the bottom of what happened in the face of that," said Kings County Chief Deputy District Attorney Patrick Hart.
Employees refused to cooperate in Herrera's case because investigators would not let them record the interviews, said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union representing guards.
At least one legislator says state law and labor contracts may need to be changed to end the code of silence.
"I absolutely support due process, but we're talking about witnesses here," said Democratic State Sen. Gloria Romero, who plans a hearing on the issue as early as this week. "We're talking about employees of the state of California. We're talking about peace officers."
Romero said prosecutions for prison misconduct may need to be transferred from county prosecutors to the state attorney general. A bill that would have made that change failed in 1999.
The union opposes transferring prosecution powers unless the state also pledges to prosecute inmates for assaults against guards, which occur nine times a day on average, Corcoran said.
Monday, March 29, 2004
Guards' silence challenges new 'zero tolerance' policy
By: DON THOMPSON - Associated Press
SACRAMENTO ---- Dozens of prison employees have refused to cooperate in recent weeks in probes of inmates who bled to death or were beaten as they lay prone on the floor.
Investigators say they're running head-on into the "code of silence" that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's corrections secretary promised last month to end with a new "zero tolerance" policy for anyone shielding employee wrongdoing or retaliating against whistleblowers. That promise helped persuade a federal judge not to put the state prison system under federal control.
California may need to change state law and labor contracts to put an end to it, said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who plans an oversight hearing as early as this week on a problem she characterized as "an octopus with many tentacles."
"These are probably some of the more extreme examples," said Tip Kindel, spokesman for Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Roderick Hickman. "The code of silence exists to cover up wrongdoing. It's a conspiracy to lie. It's especially bad for peace officers."
The most recent allegations are in an internal California Youth Authority report on the videotaped beatings of two youths, ages 19 and 21, by two employees at Stockton's N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility Jan. 20.
Four employees who witnessed the beatings gave information that is "misleading, factually false and contradicted by witness statements and the videotape evidence," says the confidential report obtained by The Associated Press.
They reported that their two colleagues acted in self-defense, when the evidence showed the youths were beaten after they had been subdued. Two of the four said they shot both youths with pepper spray and one with a pepper spray gun because they were fighting, when the video showed the youths were shot at point-blank range while they were face down and not resisting.
All six have since asserted their right against self-incrimination. All remain on leave pending disciplinary action and a decision by the state attorney general whether the San Joaquin County district attorney abused his discretion by not filing criminal charges.
Meanwhile, only about 12 of 50 Corcoran State Prison employees would talk to investigators about the Super Bowl Sunday death of Ronald Herrera, a dialysis patient who bled to death in his cell last month after guards reportedly ignored his screams for hours.
"It's tough to get to the bottom of what happened in the face of that," said Kings County Chief Deputy District Attorney Patrick Hart, who last week summoned several guards to testify before a grand jury.
The state attorney general currently is limited to reviewing whether county prosecutors abuse their discretion in charging decisions, said spokesman Nathan Barankin, despite a San Joaquin County prosecutor's suggestion last week that the state should have primary responsibility in cases at state facilities.
A Senate-approved bill that would have transferred prison prosecutions to the state died in an Assembly committee in 1999. But Romero said it may be time to revive the proposal if local prosecutors won't act, and to consider changes to state law and labor contracts that can shield employees from reporting wrongdoing.
"I absolutely support due process," said Romero, "but we're talking about witnesses here; we're talking about employees of the state of California; we're talking about peace officers."
She agreed with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association that the prisons' internal disciplinary process also needs to be fixed because some witnesses who have come forward have found themselves the subject of investigations or retaliation themselves.
Employees refused to cooperate in Herrera's bleeding case because investigators wouldn't let them tape record the interviews, said CCPOA Vice President Lance Corcoran. Contractual safeguards such as requiring 24-hour notice of interviews are necessary so union attorneys can sit in, he said.
The union fought the 1999 bill and opposes transferring employee prosecution powers to the state attorney general unless the state also will prosecute inmates who assault guards an average nine times a day, Corcoran said.
He accused Romero of "political grandstanding" by planning a hearing of her Senate oversight committee before there is a final prosecution decision in the Stockton beating case.
Employees have a constitutional right against self-incrimination in criminal cases but can be compelled to testify in administrative investigations, Corcoran said: "They're being lazy; I'm talking about investigators who say they can't investigate because of the pesky Bill of Rights."
Guards' Silence Is Questioned
March 25, 2004
SACRAMENTO — New evidence of a "code of silence" that protects rogue prison guards from punishment emerged Wednesday in a confidential investigative report about the beating of two inmates at a state youth facility in Stockton.
The report obtained by The Times shows that descriptions of the beatings by four employees are in conflict with a videotape of the Jan. 20 incident at the California Youth Authority prison.
"The reports were misleading, factually false and contradicted by witness statements and the videotape evidence," according to the report, prepared by a team of six special agents for the Youth Authority.
Given such discrepancies, CYA investigators are pushing Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to file criminal charges against the four staff members — and the two correctional counselors involved in the beatings. All six employees also could face disciplinary sanctions — including firing — once an internal CYA inquiry is complete.
Corrections officials would not discuss details of the Jan. 20 incident at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility, citing the investigations.
But privately, authorities say the episode illustrates the challenge of reforming a prison culture in which officers are willing to distort facts to protect themselves and their own.
Last month, Youth and Adult Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman sent a memo to all prison employees, declaring "zero tolerance" for the code of silence.
An assistant secretary at the agency, Tip Kindel, said officials did not want to prejudge the staff members involved in the CYA incident.
He added, however, that when investigators tried to question the employees, they refused to answer, invoking their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
"We find it unfortunate that they felt the need to invoke that privilege," Kindel said.
Critics of California's prison system said they had hoped the Schwarzenegger administration would send a message by pushing hard for prosecution in the CYA beatings.
"This incident makes it clear that all our concerns about the code of silence were justified," said Sue Burrell of the Youth Law Center, which often sues the state over its treatment of young offenders.
"People who can't refrain from hitting wards 23 times — and people who think it's OK to protect them — don't belong in these jobs."
The report obtained Wednesday says the videotape, which has not been made public, clearly shows the use of inappropriate force by the two correctional counselors, Delwin Brown and Marcel Berry, on inmates Vincent Baker, 19, of Stockton and Narcisco Morales, 21, of Madera.
Though the scuffle started when Morales punched Brown during a meeting in their housing unit, the counselors continued pummeling the inmates for about 30 seconds after they were face-down on the floor and offering no resistance, the report said.
Brown, his nose bleeding, straddled Morales' back and struck him in the head and face 28 times with his fists, the report said, at one point lifting the inmate's head off the floor "in what appeared to be a conscious attempt to get a better angle for his punches."
Berry, the videotape showed, dropped himself — knee first — onto Baker's neck and back several times while the inmate was no longer resisting. After handcuffing him, the report said, Berry kicked Baker in the face, leaving a bruise on his cheek.
The report includes interviews with 35 other wards in Pajaro Hall, 22 of whom agreed to talk and who viewed all or part of the episode through the windows of their cells. Their descriptions of the fight are similar and, in many cases, consistent with the videotape.
One inmate said "Brown was so mad he looked like the Incredible Hulk." Another youth said Brown "lost it" and that Berry was "out of pocket," or unprofessional, as he kicked Baker, kneed him in the head and "jabbed him in the ribs and face," the report said.
The accounts of the four other employees — two correctional counselors and two officers — were provided in writing soon after the incident and paint a different picture. They suggest a more volatile situation in which the counselors and inmates were mostly exchanging blows, and the force used by Brown and Berry was in self-defense.
In addition, two of the employees suggest that it was necessary to fire a "pepperball launcher" — a device that shoots a ball filled with pepper spray — at Morales, striking him in the arms, because he was "noncompliant."
The report, however, said the videotape showed the three pepperball rounds were fired after Morales was face-down with his hands on his head and Brown on his back.
Investigators also were critical of the onlookers for failing to intervene and stop the beating until security arrived from elsewhere in the prison. Until that time, there was no attempt to handcuff either of the inmates, which is standard procedure after an assault.
Lance Corcoran, vice president of the union that represents the employees, said he had not seen the videotape or the investigative report.
"I don't know the totality of the circumstances, but I will say that when you're assaulted, your thinking is not as clear as it can be," Corcoran said. "Some people think the force was excessive. But for whatever reason," he continued, the San Joaquin County district attorney "decided not to file charges, and he had the benefit of seeing the tape."
The altercation in Stockton follows a series of reports portraying juvenile prisons as overrun with violence and plagued by numerous other problems. The CYA's new director, Walter Allen, has pledged to turn around the youth system. Last week, Allen called the videotape of the beating "very troubling."
Aside from some welts and scratches, the inmates — now housed in San Joaquin County jail — were not injured in the beating.
The CYA's Brown suffered a cut on his lip that required stitches, and had bruising on his nose. Berry had swelling near his temple, a nurse said in the report, and had sore hands.
A spokeswoman for Lockyer said no decision had been made on whether to take the case. Previously, the San Joaquin County district attorney had declined to file charges, saying it would not be possible to persuade a jury that the conduct had amounted to criminal assault.
New Prisons Chief Says Corrosive 'Code Of Silence' Must End
LOS ANGELES -- The new chief of the nation's largest prison system says it will take years and wholesale ethics retraining to end a corrosive "code of silence" that she has experienced within the California Department of Corrections.
Director Jeanne S. Woodford blamed the prison system's chronic overspending on unrealistic underfunding by the previous administration as costs soared to meet federal and state laws and the requirements of running an around-the-clock operation.
But Woodford defended the controversial overtime and sick leave provisions in a union contract negotiated by former Gov. Gray Davis during a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press in her second week on the job.
While critics say the California Correctional Peace Officers Association had extraordinary power within the department and Davis' administration, Woodford said the union never tried to influence her while she was warden at San Quentin State Prison, nor does she expect such attempts while she is director.
Woodford, 50, has spent a career at San Quentin, starting as a prison guard there in 1978 and working her way up to become the first female warden at the 152-year-old facility.
She becomes the state's second female Corrections director, overseeing a system of 33 state prisons, 38 conservation camps and 16 community correctional facilities.
"Being with the department for 25 years, I have experienced the code of silence first hand," she said in her first print interview since becoming director. "I think there's no question it exists."
A federal court monitor in January alleged such a code protects wrongdoers and punishes whistleblowers within the department. He recommended Woodford's predecessor be charged with contempt of court for prematurely shutting down inmate abuse investigations.
Youth and Adult Correctional Secretary Roderick Hickman, Woodford's boss, responded by promising a "zero tolerance" policy for employees who could be fired if they don't disclose wrongdoing.
"That is one my highest priorities," Woodford said. "For me, it's really about changing the culture" of the department. That's the only way to finally stamp out a problem she said has plagued the department for years despite periodic attempts at eradication.
Changing the culture means ethics training for all employees, and not only protecting but rewarding those who step forward.
It means establishing "fair and consistent" discipline so employees know where they stand and whistleblowers don't themselves become the targets of retaliatory investigations.
That's one reason the independent Office of Inspector General is being revived, she said, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed his plans to sharply trim internal investigators and merge them into the very agency they are supposed to oversee.
In addition, Woodford said a single prosecutor will oversee investigations from start to finish to ensure fairness and minimize errors that can ruin disciplinary cases.
Employees must learn to work through a mental checklist to systematically review the ethical, legal and financial consequences of their actions.
That's a trick Woodford said she learned from her 10-year-old son's DARE anti-drug program, one she's since used with San Quentin inmates who have spent their lives making poor and often illegal decisions.
Changing illegal behavior also is the goal of the department's new parole program, which aims to keep more inmates from quickly returning to prison by easing their return to the streets.
"We need to remember that the door of the prison swings both ways," she said, so inmates need to be provided with more training and education inside and out that will help them in the community.
The parole program began only in January, but is showing early promise, Woodford said. The number of parolees returning to prison has dropped by 4,248, from 24,696 at the end of February 2003 to 20,448 this year.
If it works as projected, there will be 15,000 fewer inmates and hundreds of millions of dollars in savings for the prison system.
That means closing several prisons, but Woodford said San Quentin, the state's oldest prison, likely won't be among them: the Bay area needs a prison, and by law San Quentin is site of the state's death row. No other county has been lobbying to host executions, she noted, and the state is building a new condemned unit at the Bay-side prison.
Saving money has become a priority, as Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers push to renegotiate a lucrative five-year contract Davis signed with the guards' union, one of his key political backers.
An AP analysis in January found the department overspent its budget by nearly $1.6 billion since 1999, with much of it going for overtime and sick leave.
But Woodford said the department was chronically underbudgeted for spending over which it largely had no control.
Sick leave, for instance, is largely governed by state and federal laws that also are reflected in the much-criticized union contract.
Guards don't necessarily abuse it anymore than employees elsewhere, she said; the difference is the department has no choice but to pay someone else overtime to work the shift.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Guard Challenges Code of Silence
January 20, 2004
Among the ranks of prison guards, only the most trusted are chosen to open a new penitentiary and lay down the law to the first busloads of inmates.
Three times in a 15-year career, D.J. Vodicka got the call. He helped inaugurate Corcoran, Calipatria and Salinas Valley — not a country club lockup among them, he liked to say.
At 6 feet 6 and 280 pounds, with a head shaved clean, he was a guard's guard. "Vodicka was one of the most professional guys I ever had the privilege of supervising," said Joe Reynoso, a longtime corrections investigator. "Just a stand-up, straight-up officer."
Today, Donald Joseph Vodicka will stand before a state Senate committee on prison reform not as a guard but as a whistle-blower. Instead of a career marked by commendations from wardens and prosecutors, the 41-year-old Vodicka is set to testify about how he had to put away his green uniform after breaking what he calls the cardinal rule of guards: Keep quiet in the face of officer brutality and corruption.
Some of his old co-workers now call him a "rat," a "snitch," a "crybaby." The state correctional officers union, a strong advocate for guards, won't have anything to do with him.
The code of silence, he says, isn't simply a way to instill a fraternal bond among men who come face-to-face with California's most violent criminals. Rather, it remains a bigger-than-life force that nurtures rogue guards, feckless wardens and a union that holds too much influence over the state's prison system.
"The code of silence among correctional officers is a way of life," Vodicka said. "It's everywhere. It was strong at Corcoran and Pelican Bay, and it even took hold at Salinas Valley.
"A whistle-blower has no place to hide. Why should someone come forward when he knows he's not going to be protected by the Department of Corrections or his union?"
For years, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. has denied that the code of silence is a form of institutional intimidation. It isn't some malice lurking everywhere, union officials say, but the modus operandi of a few bad officers.
But state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who will head the committee's hearings on prison reform over the next several weeks, said the Department of Corrections, despite a call for change in the late 1990s, still thwarts whistle-blowers. As a result, the impulse to keep silent is deeply ingrained.
"We have a system so sinister and powerful that it is able to muzzle people who want to tell the truth," Speier said. "Those who do come forward like Mr. Vodicka find themselves sent to a job in the prison's Siberia or fearing for their lives."
In a lawsuit filed against the state, Vodicka alleges that he blew the whistle on a gang of officers known as the "Green Wall" at Salinas Valley State Prison and was the subject of retaliation by co-workers and superior officers. The lawsuit contends that the Department of Corrections failed to shield Vodicka under the state's whistle-blower protection act. The department, citing the lawsuit, declined to comment.
"Instead of following up on his memos, high-ranking officers leaked his information to guards and talked about him being a 'rat' in front of inmates," said Lanny Tron, a Camarillo attorney representing Vodicka. "He fears for his life."
Vodicka grew up in Camarillo, the middle son of a power company executive. He wanted to become a cop, but the waiting list was too long. Corrections was a temporary fill-in, or so he thought.
After his superiors chose him to open Corcoran State Prison in 1988
and Calipatria State Prison in 1992, Vodicka took a job at the troubled
Pelican Bay. Several guards there were directing a group of inmates to
stab and beat other prisoners, many of them convicted child molesters.
The prison's internal affairs team, despite intense opposition from the
union and high-ranking corrections officials, pursued the rogue officers
with the help of Vodicka.
The Del Norte County district attorney's office, which won convictions against the ringleaders, cited Vodicka for "meritorious service." Pelican Bay Warden Steven Cambra said he regretted seeing Vodicka transfer to a new state prison in Salinas Valley. "I am certain you will become a valuable asset wherever you go," he wrote.
Vodicka focused on inmate crimes as a member of Salinas Valley's Investigative Services Unit. Then in 1998, he found himself burned out. "I decided to leave ISU and return to the line," he said.
The transition wasn't easy. He was an internal affairs guy, and line officers viewed him with distrust. The suspicion grew after an incident on Thanksgiving Day 1998 in the D yard, in which a gang of inmates attacked and injured several officers.
Lt. Greg Lewis was assigned to oversee the yard that day, Vodicka said in an interview. Lewis suspected that some officers would seek revenge against the inmates, Vodicka said, and he assigned Vodicka to handle the crime scene. Vodicka photographed the inmates to document any injuries suffered in the initial fight.
"The officers were upset at me for doing that," Vodicka said. "They already knew they were going to beat them up. They didn't want my photos to establish a baseline."
As the inmates were taken to a segregated cellblock, Vodicka said, they were roughed up. In the weeks that followed, a group of officers began wearing turkey-shaped pins on their uniforms as a symbol of the Thanksgiving beating. Word then spread that some of those same officers and others had formed the Green Wall gang.
Numerous attempts to contact alleged members of the Green Wall, other guards named in the lawsuit and the assistant attorney general representing the state were unsuccessful. Repeated phone calls seeking interviews were not returned. A spokesman at Salinas Valley State Prison referred all questions to the corrections press office in Sacramento, which also declined to comment because of the pending litigation.
In an internal memo attached to the lawsuit and obtained by The Times, Lewis wrote to superiors that the Green Wall reached deep inside Salinas Valley's investigative unit. Some ISU officers were signing in with green ink. One officer wore a green band on his left wrist, according to the memo, and his motorcycle license plate reportedly contained the symbol "7/23." The seventh and 23rd letters of the alphabet — G and W — stood for Green Wall.
Officers were throwing parties in Soledad with green beer and green attire. A group photo showed several officers flashing the same sign: three fingers extended with thumb and middle finger held down — in the shape of a W.
Officer gangs can be vehicles to strengthen the code of silence and cover up wrongdoing. But Lewis had a hard time getting anyone above him interested, the internal memos show. And when a state corrections investigator finally did show up, he walked around with a union leader, ensuring that no officer would talk about the gang.
Frustrated, Lewis approached Vodicka and asked him to write a memo on what he knew about the Green Wall, according to the lawsuit. Vodicka hesitated at first, knowing the retaliation that whistle-blowers had received at Corcoran. Vodicka said Lewis pressured him some more, and he relented.
"I put in all the little signs I had seen, the stuff that showed a Green Wall existed," he said. "After one officer flashed a gang sign in front of me, I wrote a second memo."
Vodicka noticed that that officer and others began treating him coldly, turning silent whenever he entered the room. He figured word had been leaked of his cooperation. But it wasn't until he wrote a third memo several months later that the hostilities became apparent, according to the lawsuit.
Several officers had violated policy by bringing a green-handled knife into the prison and presenting it to a colleague who had just been promoted. The knife had been engraved with "Green Wall" and "7/23," according to the internal memos.
One night, an agitated Lewis invited Vodicka to his house. He said he had gone to Warden Anthony Lamarque about the knife incident, but the warden refused to deal with the situation.
Lewis was so upset that two days later he abruptly left the prison and transferred to another facility.
That's when Vodicka wrote the third memo, detailing his conversation with Lewis and the knife incident. He submitted the memo to a supervisor, who promised that he would send it as a confidential matter to Sacramento. But two months later, according to court documents and interviews, the memo's contents had been leaked to other line officers.
The consequences for Vodicka were immediate. Steve Archibald, one of several officers who had been removed from the Investigative Services Unit in a housecleaning, confronted Vodicka. Archibald talked about the contents of the confidential memo and blamed Vodicka for his job change.
"I couldn't believe that my memo had been leaked by a captain. A week later, on the yard, another officer came up to me and said that Archibald was bad-mouthing me to other officers."
That a hostile work environment now existed was confirmed in a separate memo written by Sgt. L. J. Gomez, who informed Vodicka that several officers were calling him a "snitch" behind his back.
Vodicka won a transfer to Pleasant Valley State Prison in February 2002, but the intimidation only grew, he says. His lawsuit alleges that one lieutenant revealed the reason for his transfer. "You big old snitch. You big old rat," he quotes the lieutenant as telling him. The lieutenant then repeated the words on the yard — in front of officers and inmates.
"He'd pick up the phone and say, 'I've got the FBI on the line. Who do you want to tell on now?' I knew there was no escaping. No matter what prison I transferred to, this was going to follow me."
Vodicka took a stress leave almost a year ago and filed a workers' compensation claim.
He and his attorney wrote letters detailing each hostile encounter — to internal investigators in Sacramento, Corrections Director Edward Alameida, the inspector general's office and then-Gov. Gray Davis. As one official passed the buck to another, Vodicka sought out the help of the union. He said Mike Jimenez, the union president, refused to talk to him.
It was the worst hurt of all, he said, learning that his union considered him a pariah.
"The CCPOA washed its hands of me," he said. "They wanted no part of an officer who reports wrongdoing. I didn't deserve representation in their eyes."
State Penal System Is Hammered in Report
January 16, 2004
SACRAMENTO — California's $5.3-billion penal system is plagued by a pervasive "code of silence" that protects rogue guards, corrupts recruits and is condoned by leaders who "neither understand nor care about the need for fair investigations," a federal report charged Thursday.
At the very top of California's vast Department of Corrections, officials face unrelenting pressure from the powerful prison guards union and are unwilling to discipline officers who attack inmates or engage in other misconduct, says Special Master John Hagar, a prison expert appointed by a federal judge.
Hagar's report, still subject to review, amounts to a sweeping indictment of the department's ability to police itself, and recommends criminal charges against former Corrections Director Edward S. Alameida and a high-ranking deputy.
Collectively, the department's failure "is more than mere negligence," Hagar said. "It is nothing less than the awareness of a serious security-related problem and the subsequent deliberate disregard of that problem."
He concluded that Alameida was moved by union meddling to improperly close a perjury investigation of two guards at Pelican Bay State Prison, then conspired with others to conceal his actions. Alameida should be charged with contempt, and Thomas Moore, former chief of investigations, should be charged with perjury for lying in federal court, Hagar said.
Prison officials acknowledged some shortcomings and vowed that reforms underway would erect a "firewall" preventing inappropriate influence.
Alameida, who resigned as director in December but remains on the department payroll and will assume an unspecified post after an extended vacation, emphatically denied wrongdoing.
"I am particularly disturbed by allegations that I interfered with an investigation or investigations," he said in a statement. He added that he recently launched an overhaul of the prison system's internal disciplinary process and expressed hope that improvements would restore "public and employee faith" in the department.
Hagar's draft report will be reviewed by state officials and others, who may raise objections before a final document is filed with the federal court. At that point, a judge may refer the matter to U.S. prosecutors or order reforms.
The report comes on the eve of state Senate hearings into any mismanagement and cover-ups in the penal system, the nation's largest with 161,000 inmates and 32 prisons. The senators convening the hearings called the findings proof of a department one described as rotten.
"It's reprehensible, and I think the report shakes the very foundation of that institution," said state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough). "The power of the [union] in dictating to the director of corrections what he will and will not do is chilling."
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Senate's special prison oversight committee, said the department had "lost control of its investigative and discipline processes. It seems to me they are just one step away from receivership, from being taken over and run by a federal court."
The guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., is one of the most powerful players in state politics. It gave $1.4 million in direct and indirect contributions to former Gov. Gray Davis in his first term.
A union vice president, Lance Corcoran, said he agreed with one conclusion in Hagar's report: The department's record on internal inquiries is shameful.
"But our read on that would be 180 degrees opposite of Mr. Hagar's," Corcoran said. "The problem is these investigators are ill-trained, and they are over-charging, and there is a profound lack of perspective as to what's important" in terms of officer misconduct.
As for alleged union influence over internal probes, Corcoran said the organization "absolutely" does what it can to protect officers from "bad investigations, of which there are many."
Hagar's 78-page report is an outgrowth of a court decision placing Pelican Bay under the supervision of a federal judge in San Francisco. In 1995, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson found that poor medical care and brutality by guards at the Crescent City maximum security prison violated the civil rights of inmates.
As part of that ruling, Hagar monitors the prison's progress to ensure compliance with court orders specifying reforms. Last year, he held hearings on allegations that Alameida shelved the perjury investigation of two guards shortly after receiving a phone call about the case from a union official. The guards were suspected of lying in court to protect abusive co-workers.
In November, Alameida testified and firmly denied allegations of union pressure. Rather, he said, a meeting with investigators and department attorneys had convinced him that the case was weak.
Later, when more information became available, Alameida reopened the inquiry. But by then the statute of limitations had expired and sanctions against the officers weren't possible.
Hagar said that Alameida's testimony was "not believable." He concluded that after closing the perjury investigation, Alameida misled him about its demise by directing that he be sent a letter "emphasizing only the negatives in the case."
A few weeks after testifying in Hagar's inquiry, Alameida resigned, citing personal reasons.
Hagar's report included other episodes of what he described as improper union influence, including a department decision to pay for the legal defense of an officer who shot and wounded an inmate at Pelican Bay.
The officer, David Lewis, was cleared of wrongdoing by the prison in the shooting of Harry Long but convicted in federal court. The conviction was overturned on appeal, but Lewis will be retried this year, his attorney fees paid for by the state.
Hagar said top department officials decided to pay the legal costs at the request of union officials, including its president, Mike Jimenez. Their agreement to fund the defense, Hagar noted, contradicted the advice of the department's own legal counsel, who wrote a four-page opinion recommending against it. It also ignored what Hagar called "compelling evidence that Lewis intentionally shot Long."
Alameida testified that the undersecretary of the state Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, Peter Jensen, had made the decision. Hagar, however, said e-mails from the department's legal affairs director indicated that it was Alameida's call.
Despite his findings, Hagar said that "recognition of the seriousness of this problem" has begun to increase, citing the upcoming Senate hearings. He said he has had three positive meetings with the new secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, Rod Hickman.
Posted on Mon, Dec. 22, 2003
Ex-guard says life was put in danger
By Thomas Peele
The knife first plunged into Sgt. Curtis Landa's lower back.
He stumbled through the morning darkness toward his house, dropping the bag of garbage he had carried outside.
He felt his jacket being pulled over his head.
Then the knife thrust into his chest.
Landa said later that he saw his attackers wore black combat-like pants tucked into black boots, just like members of an elite team of guards at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, where Landa worked for the California Department of Corrections.
"Where is it?" one of the attackers asked. "It" was the knife, now sticking out of Landa's chest.
The two men ran.
Landa tried to sit up but couldn't. Moments later, members of his car pool arrived and found him.
"He was trying to pull the knife out. We stopped him," Sgt. Andy Smith said in an interview. As Landa waited for an ambulance, he fixated on something he said a Department of Corrections internal affairs investigator told him the day before: "Be very careful."
Who stabbed Curtis Landa outside his home on East Village Drive in Blythe, Riverside County, on Nov. 7, 2000, remains a mystery. Three years later, police have not made an arrest.
Landa no longer works for the department. He is suing, claiming it failed to protect him even though investigators knew he was in danger.
That danger, Landa charges in the suit filed in Riverside County Superior Court, stemmed from his breaking the "code of silence" that he and others say is the unwritten rule of correctional officers.
Department officials won't comment.
Landa broke the code, he said, because a department investigator pressured him to talk about something other guards did to him. In a correctional system rife with abuses, it was something more out of the movie "Animal House" than the hard-edged cable television prison show "OZ."
A SECRET UNRAVELS
Department disciplinary records and Superior Court documents leave no doubt that on Sept. 13, 2000, correctional Sgt. Jesse Lara and acting Lt. Glenn Barr followed Landa to an isolated area of Ironwood State Prison.
Lara and Landa shared a history. Once before, Lara had attacked Landa, pummeling him the way a fraternity pledge might have been attacked before hazing was outlawed.
It was, Landa said in an interview, the way Lara treated other Ironwood guards. When he didn't get the respect and subordination he demanded, Lara sometimes physically confronted those who defied him, Landa said.
On Sept. 13, Landa made some wisecracks about Lara over the prison's radio system. Lara and Barr went looking for Landa.
They cornered him, punched him in the legs and back, put him on the ground, wrapped him in packing tape,, and doused him with two buckets of mop water. To complete the attack, Lara used a black marker to write "Lara's Bitch" on Landa's forehead and left forearm.
Another officer took Polaroid pictures of Landa, drenched, on the ground, the water having made the ink run on his face and arm.
Lara and Barr were fired.
Both appealed to the State Personnel Board. The day of their scheduled hearing before an administrative law judge, both officers reached a settlement with the department and got their jobs back.
They were demoted, but corrections officials dropped their most serious finding, that Lara and Barr lied to investigators.
The hazing also drew felony assault charges for each, and for a third guard who had blocked Landa from escaping when Lara and Barr came for him.
At a preliminary hearing on the assault charges, a judge called the incident "horseplay" that turned into a serious waste of taxpayer money. He dismissed the criminal cases.
Landa said he never wanted to go to court.
After the hazing, he kept his mouth shut. It was, he said, the "corrections way."
"I just wanted to get through it."
But others had seen him that night, his clothes soaked, the packing tape all over him, the graffiti on his face. There were the pictures, too.
Landa said that on his way to clean up and dry his uniform that night, a fellow officer asked him if he wanted him to make a report. No, Landa said, "I'll take care of this myself."
The lid stayed on for about a month.
Eventually, with the photographs circulating around Ironwood, a report was made, and investigator Lt. Ward Jones confronted Landa.
Landa said Jones gave him an option: Spill what happened or Jones would find out and then take disciplinary action against Landa for failing to report the events voluntarily.
Landa capitulated. He said he was a victim in the hazing. He said they assaulted him.
Landa said Lara and Barr knew Jones was investigating. The phone calls started. Lara and Barr telling him not to talk, Landa said.
The two didn't know Landa already had talked to Jones and two other internal affairs investigators, Laura Kinny and Tom Carr, Landa said.
Then, Landa claims in the lawsuit, correctional officer Jose Ortega "wrongfully provided" Lara and Barr with a memo that Jones wrote detailing Landa's statement.
It was proof that Landa had violated the code of silence.
Barr called him in a rage on Nov. 6, but Landa said he managed to convince Barr that Jones' memo was a lie.
"'You better not have said anything, and keep your mouth shut,'" Barr said, according to Landa's lawsuit.
Landa said he told investigator Kinny what Barr knew.
Kinny, Landa said, told him she had "major concerns" about the case, but didn't go into detail. He also said she told him to be "very careful."
The next morning, Landa decided to take the garbage out before his car pool arrived.
Rumors haunt Landa. He's heard and denied them all: He stabbed himself; he angered a prison gang who put a "hit" on him.
He foundered through testimony about the prison hazing.
On March 29, 2001, Barr, Lara and a third guard who participated in the hazing, Cresencio Alpuche, went before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Christopher J. Sheldon for a preliminary hearing on the assault charges.
Landa testified. His story, according to a transcript of the proceeding, was less than compelling. He quoted Barr as saying, "Don't hit him too hard. You don't want to rupture his spleen or puncture his lung."
He talked about being lowered to the floor, Barr cradling his head on the way down.
Alpuche's attorney noted that Landa never ordered Alpuche, his direct subordinate, to stop.
Michael Wayne Stangle, a medical technician assistant, testified that he saw Landa "laughing pretty good" as he went to clean up after the hazing. A defense attorney asked if the laughing could be described as hysterical. Stangle said yes.
Judge Sheldon ruled from the bench. He said there was an "ongoing pattern of conduct regarding horseplay" at Ironwood "that got out of hand a little bit."
He declined to send the case to trial. The defendants' supporters burst into cheers.
"Don't do that in here," the judge said. "I am not in any way condoning what happened there. You waste my tax money by playing around, and that's baloney."
CASE STILL OPEN
Everett Bobbitt, a San Diego attorney, represented Lara and Barr in the disciplinary case that resulted from the hazing. He also represented Barr in the criminal case.
Landa has no credibility, Bobbitt said. "This guy was completely impeached" at the preliminary hearing.
Bobbitt also said that Lara and Barr had "absolutely nothing" to do with the stabbing.
The Corrections Department took the stabbing very seriously, said Richard Ehle, who was head of internal affairs when the assault occurred.
"You had an attack on a (department) employee," Ehle said in a recent deposition. "We had an ongoing investigation into a matter that might be related," he said of the hazing. "We had no way of knowing."
The Corrections Department gave Landa 24-hour security, pulling together a squad from internal affairs and the staff at Ironwood Prison.
The protection cost "hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars," Ehle said.
The Blythe Police Department investigated the stabbing and considers it an open case, said detective Sgt. Frank Thomas.
Detective John Morrison, who now works for the Riverside County District Attorney's Office, was the lead investigator.
"We talked to him (Landa), everybody and anybody we could talk to. We spent a lot of hours. We couldn't prove or disprove or say who it was. We did a lot of things on that case to try to determine who the assailants were," Morrison said.
The department reassigned Landa to Sacramento work on background investigations of guard recruits. The transfer was "a business decision" based on the cost of protecting Landa, Ehle said in a deposition.
Landa struggled in the new job. "They gave him absolutely no training," said his attorney, John Scott.
Landa eventually took a stress-related retirement. He said he developed a bleeding ulcer from the stress of the new job and from what had happened in Blythe. He knew it was time to retire when he started vomiting blood on his desk, he said.
His lawsuit claims that the department knew before Landa was stabbed that "there was a substaintial risk of harm to (his) personal safety." He seeks unspecified damages.
"Despite knowledge by (department) officials of the existence of a pervasive code of silence, (department) employees continue to be punished for reporting misconduct by their fellow officers. Many of them are threatened, ostracized and transferred to career-ending assignment," the suit states.
Landa now works four hours a day as a high school cafeteria manager. He coaches junior varsity basketball in the Sacramento suburbs.
The Corrections Department transferred Glenn Barr to California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. There he regained the rank of sergeant. In October, he transferred to a probation office.
Jesse Lara transferred to the California Institution for Men in Chino and regained his sergeant stripes March 3.
Correctional officer Jose Ortega, who the lawsuit claims leaked the
internal affairs memo that identified Landa as cooperating in the hazing
investigation, remains at Ironwood.
Staff writer Scott Marshall contributed to this report.
Posted on Mon, Dec. 22, 2003
A question the Roman satirist Juvenal posed 2,000 years ago haunts the California prison system today: "But who is to guard the guards themselves?"
Investigative ineptitude and a code of silence among employees make the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency the most difficult branch of state government in which to enforce discipline and accountability.
The Department of Corrections and the California Youth Authority routinely lose disciplinary cases on appeal because they fail to meet the one-year statute of limitations for disciplining law enforcement officers. An uncooperative work force and union interference often impede investigators.
Department critics say the only way to fix the problem is to give an outside agency the task of policing the prison system.
"It will be impossible for the Department of Corrections to ever check itself given the politics and perhaps the incompetence that exist in certain levels of the department," said John Hagar, a San Francisco attorney, in legal papers. He is investigating the department's personnel practices as part of U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson's probe of civil rights violations in state prisons.
» An administrative law judge's decision revoking the penalties against youth prison guards.
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"I think it is time to take internal affairs and move it to an agency with an investigative bureau somewhere else and not have it within the Department of Corrections," testified Brian Parry, the retired head of internal affairs, in an August hearing before Hagar.
A Times analysis of 110 disciplinary appeals on which the State Personnel Board voted in 2002 illustrates the extent of the investigative ineptitude in the correctional agency. Some examples taken from disciplinary documents:
• Corrections fired Salinas Valley State Prison guard Curtis Sharpes for recruiting female officers for sex parties. The State Personnel Board reinstated him with a 30-day suspension because the department waited too long to act on all but one woman's allegations.
• Corrections suspended Delano Prison Lt. David Nunez for 30 days for not holding inmate grievance hearings. Documents alleged that he worried they might result in revelations of guard misconduct. The personnel board revoked the suspension because the department failed to bring a timely case.
• The Youth Authority gave correctional officer Joe Guglielmo a six-month pay cut for allegedly beating a ward. The personnel board dismissed the penalty because the case wasn't filed within the one-year statute of limitations.
• Corrections demoted Corcoran State Prison Sgt. Paul Suiler after he started a false rumor among prisoners that an inmate was an informant. Experts said such a rumor could have gotten the inmate killed. Because the time limit had expired when department investigators charged Suiler, the personnel board revoked his demotion.
Other kinds of serious mistakes also result in revoked disciplines:
• Corrections fired academic instructor Al Woerly for giving confidential records to an inmate at a Blythe prison. Because the department failed to have the inmate testify, the personnel board revoked the firing.
• Corrections failed to properly store the urine of a guard fired for failing a drug test. The board dismissed the termination.
When the agency beats the one-year limit, the personnel board sometimes still softens the penalty.
• The Youth Authority fired an officer for beating his wife and son. The personnel board modified the penalty to a six-month suspension.
• Two correctional sergeants at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Fresno County and two civilian employees drew lengthy suspensions for running an illegal investment scheme and recruiting co-workers. The personnel board lessened each suspension.
The board also softened penalties of prison employees who clandestinely watched female inmates being strip-searched, misused state vehicles and committed domestic violence.
Discipline cases die
The State Personnel Board reduced or revoked 59 percent of the prison system's disciplinary cases appealed in 2002. The prison system accounted for 40 percent of all disciplinary appeals the board voted on last year, according to records examined by the Times.
The number of disciplinary actions involving guards is difficult to determine because the records become public only if the guard appeals to the State Personnel Board.
The State Controller's Office, which tracks some disciplinary outcomes, has records showing Corrections brought 637 actions in 2002 that affected employee pay through firing, suspension or salary cut. That number does not include demotions, transfers or reprimands, the most common form of discipline.
Corrections runs the nation's largest prison system with a budget of $5.1 billion.
Without effective employee discipline, little else in the massive system can function smoothly, said Don Specter, head of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in San Quentin, which represents inmates.
"I think one of the reasons why the department is in such bad shape and has so many issues is that they don't have an effective way to discipline their staff," he said. "It essentially means there is very little accountability."
A guard union leader insisted that the problem lies in agency policies.
The number of reversals and eased penalties "should be a red flag to the (state agency)," said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Corcoran said the agency investigates too many petty cases, does those investigations poorly, and trivializes discipline.
Just because investigators blow cases doesn't mean that the facts that started the probe are false, said John Scott, a San Francisco attorney. He has represented guards and inmates in lawsuits against the Corrections Department.
The investigatory ranks, he said, "are lazy bureaucrats just looking to get a paycheck. The more I am involved, the more I am convinced that the incompetence explanation may be the answer" to why the department can't enforce discipline.
Enforcement is no better now than when former state Inspector General Steven White reported in 2001 that 43 percent of department disciplinary actions were not filed within the one-year statute of limitations. That report found that the average investigation took 325 days to complete because of the "needless complexity of the disciplinary process."
In a letter to the inspector general in October, Corrections Director Edward Alameida said there are "alarming complaints about the department's investigative processes. Serious management and operational shortcomings" exist in the department's Office of Investigative Services.
Alameida announced his resignation Dec. 11 and will leave office in January.
Testifying in federal court last month, Alameida said he had come to believe that a plan to reform internal investigations following White's 2001 report had failed.
In October, Alameida replaced the head of investigative services with Martin Hoshino, a former member of White's staff. Hoshino has authority to do whatever is needed to reform investigations, including moving them to another agency.
The corrections culture
A code of silence pervades the corrections agency. Critics say it drags down investigators as they race to finish cases before the one-year statute of limitations expires.
Guards and inmates in youth and adult prisons live by the code. Like the Mafia's "omerta," it demands absolute loyalty to the group: All fully expect that their associates will reveal nothing to investigators.
Violators can expect ostracism and vengeance. A deafening silence results.
Scott, the attorney who represents officers or inmates, said he is sure the code of silence makes elusive the truth about officer conduct.
By tolerating the code, he said, corrections officials are "encouraging and condoning more misconduct."
Union leader Corcoran said guards simply protect their own.
"The code of silence. Right after that should be pipe organ music that goes DUHN! DUHN! DUHNNN! It's drama. Whether or not it is real is a matter of perception," he said.
"I don't know where the line is drawn. There is a line. We are reluctant to judge the actions of each other when there is any benefit of doubt to our colleagues."
Others find the department rife with institutional arrogance.
Department personnel think they "are immune to the taxpayer. They are going to do whatever they want," said correctional special agent Joe Reynoso. The department assigned him to help an FBI investigation of guard misconduct at the high-security Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County.
Reynoso's work for the FBI came after the department's attempt to investigate Pelican Bay collapsed under union pressure in the mid-1990s.
He recently testified in federal court as part of Judge Henderson's investigation of the department's disciplinary procedures. Reynoso said that a colleague told him that former Pelican Bay Warden Robert Ayers referred to Reynoso and another investigator as "un-American" for investigating guards.
Reynoso testified that his former boss, Brian Parry, told him his career was over -- "Forget it, pal" -- because he probed officer misconduct for the FBI. He had, as an investigator, broken the code.
Reynoso said that during his work at Pelican Bay, witnesses arrived for interviews with union lawyers at their sides and simply refused to answer questions.
Don Specter of the Prison Law Office sees an even more troubling aspect: More than tolerate silence, prison managers tacitly approve it.
During Pelican Bay and other investigations, the department didn't order the guards to cooperate in the interest of justice, he said.
"Management should have ordered them to cooperate, and I don't understand why they didn't," Specter said.
A strong belief exists that perjury was rampant in the Pelican Bay case, and a criminal investigation is ongoing, but the statute of limitations for departmental discipline has expired.
U.S. District Judge Henderson is investigating the code of silence and how it affects corrections discipline. His inquiry centers on the testimony of a department investigator and an attorney.
They testified that Corrections Director Alameida, under apparent union pressure, killed an investigation into whether guards committed perjury to protect other officers charged with abusing inmates.
Henderson's appointed investigator, San Francisco attorney Hagar, called perjury "the ultimate manifestation of the code of silence."
If the allegations about Alameida are true, such union influence on his decision making "is vastly improper," said J. Clark Kelso, a McGeorge Law School professor at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento. He has been interim head of two state departments under former Gov. Gray Davis.
"You can't turn over the administration of a government agency to people who don't like what you are doing," Kelso said.
If the union influenced decisions in that case, it raises "legitimate questions" about what other disciplinary matters were altered under similar pressure, said Specter, of the Prison Law Office.
Alameida refused to be interviewed for this story. He said in testimony before Hagar that the union does not influence disciplinary matters. He also testified that he believes the code of silence exists.
Hagar soon will file a report to Henderson, who could order the department to take drastic measures to improve investigations.
A state senator who oversees corrections issues says prison system mismanagement and the code of silence are pervasive and that they gravely influence the way discipline is imposed.
"The department needs a change of culture. It needs strong leadership at the top," said state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Oversight Committee.
Hoshino, the new head of the department's Office of Investigative Services, brought six other members of former inspector general White's staff with him.
"Everything is in play," Hoshino said of possible reforms, including the possibility of moving investigations to another state agency.
It takes an investigator "with an independent streak ... a passion for honesty and integrity and a little bit of distance" to break the code, Hoshino said in an interview.
Hoshino said he does not expect to take more than another month or two to decide how best to reform the internal affairs office and fix its weaknesses.
When critics look for where the Corrections Department goes wrong, they often start with the hiring process.
The department spends an average of 11 hours checking guard recruits' backgrounds. That's not nearly enough time for a full investigation, said Cassandra Grout, an internal affairs supervisor who ran the background unit for six years.
She testified in federal court that she was seriously concerned, but that the department could not afford more time for screening. The standard for screening California police officer candidates is a minimum of 40 hours.
The question, Grout said, is "are you introducing people into prisons as peace officers who may have a prior gang history?"
"You are not going to pick that up doing just a criminal history check," which is about all that can be accomplished in 11 hours, she said.
Correctional work draws "a disproportionate percentage of Neanderthals, violence-prone individuals and psychologically disturbed individuals," said Richard Kearney, co-author of "Public Personnel Administration: Problems and Prospects."
"It has to do with getting a job where you can exercise power. Investigating on the front end is real important in terms of the quality of people you're going to deal with over the long term."
Union official Corcoran scoffed at the idea that guards are prone to violence.
He said he is aware of concerns about gang infiltration, but he believes that guards stay away from gang involvement, though some may imitate inmate hair styles and wear the same types of tattoos.
It only takes a few rogue officers "to make it toxic" within a prison, said Brenda Smith, an American University law professor and corrections expert. "One bad apple does spoil the whole barrel, and it does have an impact on the environment, and it does have an impact on other employees."
Two major corrections cases the personnel board ruled on last year involved gangs.
A corrections sergeant in San Diego County, Michael S. Erickson, was fired for plotting to aid the escape of members of a prison gang called the Mexican Mafia.
He appealed to the personnel board. It upheld his firing. State records allege that Erickson told another guard that he had $500,000 in gang money available to him to help gang members break out.
At a prison in Chino, corrections officer Dean C. Edelburg was accused of trying to have inmate gang members arrange the murder of a person who allegedly witnessed the involvement of his daughter's boyfriend in a stabbing. The department fired him. The personnel board upheld it.
Corcoran maintains that prison guards work in a harsh, dangerous environment and, with federal, state and legislative oversight, get more scrutiny than any other employee group in state government.
Yet, prison guard issues draw little public attention because state law prohibits public access to law enforcement personnel records and most state prisons are in remote areas. Additionally, prisoner advocates say the public usually doesn't care intensely about the treatment of inmates.
Elements of reform
If the agency is to police its ranks effectively, say its critics, its leaders have to distance themselves from the guards union. They also have to overcome the code of silence that stymies investigations.
"I am convinced that the influence of the union on investigations and disciplinary decisions in the (corrections) department is pervasive," said Steve Fama, an attorney with the Prison Law Office.
Fama and others point to provisions in the guard's contract that they say hamstring investigators.
One requires 24 hours advance notice before investigators can interview any witnesses to alleged misconduct. The witnesses can have union lawyers present during questioning.
In the prison system, any guard who tells investigators about misconduct during an interview can be charged with having failed to report the misconduct earlier.
Simply put, union leader Corcoran said, witnesses can become suspects, so they should have a lawyer with them when interviewed.
Another provision requires that investigators give the target of an investigation any tapes of interviews with inmate witnesses before the investigation is finished and discipline imposed.
"The union negotiated a sweet deal, a very sweet deal," said Smith, the American University law professor.
"It increases the chance that the person under investigation is going to be in contact with the person giving statements," she said. "There is going to be intimidation and retaliation. I don't understand the public benefit of it."
The situation, she said, leaves unanswered the question of who is to guard the guards.
Coming Tuesday: The slight prospects for reform.
© 2003 Contra Costa Times and wire service sources. All Rights
Posted on Tue, Dec. 23, 2003
Reform civil service
THERE IS A PRESSING need for major reform of California's state employee disciplinary system. It is highly dysfunctional, protecting incompetent, lazy and unruly employees even when their misconduct is well documented.
The flawed disciplinary system is resistant to change because of an inept State Personnel Board that has the support of politically powerful state employees unions.
For decades the unions have used their disproportionate political clout to make it even more difficult to fire or penalize employees who would never keep their jobs in the private sector.
A combination of union power and civil service protections gives state employees virtual lifetime job guarantees regardless of performance or behavior.
Those familiar with state government have little hope that any significant reform will be made. They note that attempts at reforms in the past have failed despite the serious flaws in the disciplinary system and common sense ways to correct the situation.
California is not alone. Only two states, Florida and Georgia, have been able to make major reforms in their state employee disciplinary procedures. But both of those states had weak state employee unions.
It appears that the key to reform is breaking the state employee union's excessive political power in Sacramento.
If the Legislature had the political will, it could enact reforms without violating reasonable civil service protections for state workers, who should have the right to a hearing on major disciplinary disputes.
Some key reforms could go a long way toward correcting the civil service disciplinary system:
• Dismantle the State Personnel Board and turn over its responsibilities to the Department of Personnel Administration, which negotiates union contracts on behalf of the governor. The board overturns far too many management decisions and is union-dominated.
• Make all state managers at-will employees who do not have tenure. This change would make them more responsible for their decisions, which would have a greater chance of being upheld once the personnel board is phased out or greatly reformed.
• Institute an at-will probationary period for rank-and-file employees. This would help weed out incompetent and troublesome workers before they had tenure.
• Streamline the disciplinary rules and procedures so that action can be taken in a much shorter time. At present the system is so complex that it is often difficult to complete a disciplinary procedure within the one-year deadline.
• Limit the reasons why a disciplinary penalty can be overturned by the personnel board, or the Department of Personnel Administration if the board is eliminated.
• Create an alternate dispute resolution procedure for minor disciplinary cases. Currently too many low-level penalties such as reprimands clog the system.
• Allow public access to the personnel and discipline files of law enforcement officers and prison guards.
• Improve screening of job applicants to do more extensive background checks, especially for prison guards, where screening is woefully inadequate.
• Prevent state departments from making deals with fired employees that allow them to seek jobs elsewhere in state government. If an employee deserves to be fired, he or she should not be given another job somewhere else in government.
These reforms, especially elimination or restructuring of the personnel board and permanent at-will status for managers and temporary at-will status for rank-and-file employees would make a huge difference in worker performance and management control and responsibility.
None of the above reforms is beyond the reach of the Legislature, if it has the spine to resist union pressure and to do the work of the people. In Sacramento, however, that's a big "if" -- a very big if.
The primary hope for reform now lies in the hands of a popular and activist
new governor. Gov. Schwarzenegger ran on the promise that he would "shake
things up" in Sacramento. We can't think of a better or more appropriate
way to "shake things up" than to take the action necessary to begin making
the long overdue changes to California's civil service system.
© 2003 Contra Costa Times and wire service sources. All Rights
Posted on Mon, Dec. 22, 2003
NOWHERE IS CALIFORNIA'S highly flawed civil service system more abused and abusive than in the state's Department of Corrections and California Youth Authority. Many incompetent and unruly employees throughout state government escape firing and penalties because of cumbersome disciplinary procedures and an inept State Personnel Board.
But it is in the prison system that the most egregious incidents of employee misbehavior go unpunished.In some instances, one wonders on which side of the prison bars workers who are spared by the personnel board belong. Here are just a few of the cases in which the personnel board made the wrong decision:
• A Salinas Valley State Prison guard recruited female officers for
sex parties. He was fired, but the board reinstated him with a 30-day suspension.
Yet the board revoked the demotion.In all of the above situations, the personnel board reversed well-documented actions against employees who deserved to be fired, not just penalized. The excuse in each case was the department's failure to meet the one-year filing deadline.One might think a year should be enough time to take action, but sometimes cases are delayed because of overly complex and cumbersome procedures.The personnel board's overruling of disciplinary decisions by prison and CYA managers is hardly uncommon.
In 2002, the board reduced or revoked 59 percent of the prison system's disciplinary cases.There are a large number of disciplinary cases, although the exact number is hard to determine because records become public only if the prison guard appeals to the personnel board.However, the State Controller's Office records show that Corrections brought 637 actions in 2002 that involved firing, suspension or salary reduction. That number does not include demotion, transfers or reprimands, which are the most common cases.
Officers investigating misconduct often do a sloppy job. Attorney John Scott, who has represented guards and inmates in lawsuits against the Corrections Department, says investigators "are lazy bureaucrats just looking to get a paycheck. The more I am involved, the more I am convinced that the incompetence explanation may be the answer" to why discipline is not enforced.Incompetence, laziness and a code of silence among prison guards lead to a flawed system in which major abuses go unreported and unpunished even when action is taken.During the infamous Pelican Bay investigation in the mid-1990s, little was accomplished because guards refused to talk, and managers were content with the situation.
Even worse, Corrections Director Edward Alameida killed an investigation into whether Pelican Bay guards committed perjury to protect other officers charged with abusing inmates. Union pressure was the apparent cause of Alameida's inaction.One reason for so much unprofessional behavior in the prison system is the flawed hiring process. The Corrections Department spends only an average of 11 hours checking guard applicants' backgrounds. The standard for California police officer candidate screening is a minimum of 40 hours.Reform of the Corrections Department is hardly enough.
A complete overhaul of the system's hiring and disciplinary procedures
is needed without union interference. That is a tall order for a state
Legislature that can't say no to union pressure. But with a new governor
in Sacramento who says he is determined to clean up state government, this
would seem to be a good place to start. Perhaps the state can at least
begin revamping an overly costly and corrupt Department of Corrections.
Deputies' Code of Silence Targeted
October 30, 2003
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca must try to end a code of silence among some deputies who refuse to report misconduct by fellow officers, a long-standing problem, a department watchdog has concluded.
In too many instances, deputies' powers of observation and recall have failed during investigations of incidents involving use of force, despite training that demands attention to detail, said a report by Michael Gennaco, who was appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to independently review the department's performance.
Gennaco cited the case of a deputy who told investigators that he had been looking for a flashlight and could not remember details of a 2002 use-of-force incident, despite his acknowledged participation in a scuffle with a suspect who had scratched fellow officers and ripped their clothing.
Tackling such issues marks a shift — from creating the mechanism for independent review to identifying troubling patterns within the department and helping craft reforms — in Gennaco's two-year-old operation.
One result has been the department's agreement to resume quarterly reports on the number of disciplinary actions against officers.
The department stopped collecting that data in early 2002. But in its most recent review, monitors found that the number of deputies discharged for misconduct had risen to 11 in the second quarter of 2003, from an average of fewer than three per quarter in 2001.
The number of those disciplined for unreasonable use of force or obstructing use-of-force investigations increased from an average five per quarter in 2002 to seven for the quarter ending in June. Suspensions for moderate misconduct rose to 31 in the second quarter of this year, compared with an average of 16 per quarter in 2001.
The category with the biggest jump involved deputies who made false statements or who falsified documents, the report found. Though such cases averaged five per quarter in 2001, they totaled 17 between last March and June.
Gennaco, former head of the Civil Rights Section of the U.S. attorney's office, warned that it was too early to draw conclusions from the data. The rising number of misconduct cases could be due to better accountability, he said.
The Sheriff's Department is "doing a better job of calling an offense what it is," Gennaco said.
The independent review office was created in 2001 during the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart scandal. Staffed by six attorneys, it is charged with monitoring and recommending reforms to curtail misconduct and reduce civil liability.
In its second annual report, the sheriff's watchdog said that, although the department was working with his office in the initial stages of investigations, a pattern had evolved in which penalties against deputies were later significantly reduced.
"Toward the conclusion of the disciplinary process, we found little or no consultation with our office," Gennaco said. "We expect to be involved in cases from cradle to grave."
But attention to detail or the lack of it was the report's theme. Too often, deputies investigating injuries alleged by jail inmates submitted incomplete reports or none, Gennaco said.
Lawyers in the independent review office said that a civil rights case involving alleged mistreatment of an inmate in the county jail system suggested a wider problem. The investigation included leading questions and biased interpretations of inmate statements, as well as efforts to discourage complaints by inmates and a failure to account for documented injuries.
There also was a financial consequence, watchdog lawyers said. A jury skeptical about deputies' thoroughness awarded the inmate $300,000.
To prevent such problems, the office recommended that supervisors at county jail facilities, which house 20,000 inmates, be trained on how to conduct objective, thorough use-of-force investigations, the report said.
In its first report, the Los Angeles County sheriff's watchdog had said that the department had not investigated more than 800 claims of wrongdoing by deputies over the last decade, missing chances to uncover misconduct and limit liability.
But the watchdog group said that, although the department has issues
to work through, there has been much progress.
Code of Silence
Kinney v. Weaver, F.3d , 2002 U.S.App.LEXIS 15339 (5th Cir., July 31, 2002)
This is a case with great language concerning the Code of Silence. Plaintiffs were instructors at a police academy that serviced a number of agencies. They testified as plaintiff’s experts in an excessive force case, which did not involve any officers or agencies that had used the academy. Subsequently the East Texas Police Chiefs’ Association took the issue up at their quarterly meeting and a large number of police chiefs and sheriffs agreed to boycott the plaintiffs’ classes at the academy. As a result the plaintiffs eventually had to accept other positions.
The court holds that the district court correctly denied the defendant police chiefs and sheriffs qualified immunity on two claims. The court held that plaintiffs had a viable claim under 42 USC § 1985(2) alleging a conspiracy to injure them in their person or property on account of having testified in court. The court found that racial animus was not a necessary element of this action, that “witnesses” as protected in the statute included expert witnesses, and that at-will employees could be injured in their property under Haddle v. Garrison, 525 U.S. 121 (1998). The court found that these rights were well established.
The court also sustains the First Amendment claim by plaintiffs, evaluating it as a retaliation claim by public employees (here, independent contractors). Although the plaintiffs were at-will employees, the court held that they could not be denied employment for impermissible reasons that trenched on First Amendment rights, under the “unconstitutional conditions doctrine.” The court employed a Pickering balancing test and held that the “First Amendment interest in ensuring that individuals working in law enforcement are able to speak freely about police misconduct outweighs the Police Chiefs’ and Sheriffs’ interests in prohibiting their training instructors from testifying in an excessive-force case in another part of the state against a police officer who had never taken courses at the [academy] and a police department that had never enrolled officers in [academy] courses.” The court stated:
The First Amendment interest at stake in this case is extremely strong … As noted above, this court has also recognized the great First Amendment significance of speech regarding misconduct of public officials, ‘especially when it concerns the operation of a police department.’ … Indeed, because individuals working in law enforcement ‘are often in the best position to know’ about the occurrence of official misconduct… ‘it is essential’ that individuals such as [plaintiffs] ‘be able to speak out freely’ about officer misconduct, particularly misconduct that is as serious as excessive force … As the district court pointed out, ‘individuals will have a hard time succeeding in an excessive force case without the assistance of experts who are intimately acquainted with police procedures.’ (citations omitted)
The court rejected the defendants’ arguments that their interests outweighed the First Amendment interests:
In invoking notions of ‘conflict of interest,’ ‘personal loyalty,’ and
‘principles of cooperative responsibility’ under the circumstances that
obtained here, the Police Chiefs and Sheriffs appear to be employing euphemisms
for a ‘code of silence’ prohibiting persons who work in law enforcement
from speaking out about misconduct on the part of others working in law
enforcement. … Enforcing such a ‘code of silence’ is not a legitimate interest
because it does not promote the efficiency of the public services performed
by a law enforcement agency … it undermines that efficiency.
The court noted earlier decisions from this circuit and others identifying
the existence of a Code of Silence in police agencies.
Police Code of Silence - Facts Revealed
Police State: The Patriots Code of Silence
Code of Silence Must Come to an End
Report Bad Cops
Officer breaks LAPD's Code of Silence
Examples of the Code of Silence at APD
The Code Of Silence Antidote
Break the 'Green Wall'
Three Strikes Legal - Index