9 prison officers fired over beating, cover-up
In what may be the largest mass firing in Department of Corrections history, nine officers at Salinas Valley State Prison have been terminated in connection with the pummeling of an inmate last year and covering it up after the fact.
Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton would only confirm Tuesday that "several" prison employees "have been served with adverse actions" at the Monterey County prison. But a former Salinas Valley warden and a top-ranking union official both said they were told that the nine officers had been fired recently.
A tenth officer received a demotion as a result of the internal investigation, sources said.
Salinas Valley has been the subject of numerous investigations by the Department of Corrections and the Office of the Inspector General over the past three years. The probes have focused on a small group of employees who called themselves the "Green Wall" and vandalized prison property by writing the group's initials and "7/23" logo - taken from the seventh and 23rd letters in the alphabet -on walls and elsewhere.
The former warden, Ed Caden, said in an interview on Tuesday that the terminations stemmed from a November 2003 "battery" of an inmate, and not from the inspector general's September 2001 "Green Wall" investigation. Three of the officers who were fired, however, had previously been implicated as members of the Green Wall, according to Caden.
The Monterey County District Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the case, according to a Department of Corrections source.
Only two of the officers' identities were available Tuesday, but corrections officials refused to confirm them, and the officers could not be reached for comment. California Correctional Peace Officers union Vice President Lance Corcoran confirmed that the nine Salinas Valley officers had been fired, but he did not have any other details.
"I don't know the particulars," Corcoran said.
Longtime prison observers said the mass firings represent the most ever over one incident. In 1996, eight officers were fired for the rough handling of three dozen inmates getting off a bus at Corcoran State Prison the previous year. All those officers, however, were later reinstated, including an associate warden who was allowed to retire.
"It's the largest I can think of," said former CCPOA President Don Novey, who has worked in the system or otherwise been monitoring it for 35 years. "I've never heard of more."
Caden, in describing the incident that led to the firings, said the trouble started when an inmate refused to come out of a "walk alone" cage in the exercise yard outside the administrative segregation housing unit at Salinas Valley.
The cages are monitored by video cameras operated by officers in a control booth that overlooks the yards, department sources said. But before the officers responded to extract the inmate, one of them instructed the control booth officer to turn off the camera.
Officers then stormed the cage to get the inmate out, at which time the unidentified prisoner was knocked to the ground and kicked, according to Caden. The inmate sustained some red marks to his face as a result of the confrontation, but did not require medical treatment, Caden said.
The nine officers were disciplined both for the alleged excessive use of force on the inmate and for failing to properly document the incident, Caden said. He said none of the officers filed any reports.
Caden was serving as the chief deputy warden at Salinas Valley at the time of the incident, but he said he did not find out about it until this past February, when he was named interim warden of the prison.
"I found out, and we immediately began an investigation," Caden said. "I asked for internal affairs (at Sacramento headquarters) to investigate it, and I wanted the inspector general to get involved."
Caden served as interim warden until August, when he was ordered back to Sacramento and removed without explanation from his career executive status within the department. He went public with his demotion and then retired from his 28-year Department of Corrections career.
He later blasted Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Rod Hickman, accusing the gubernatorial appointee of paying lip service to reforming the state's prison system.
Hickman countered in September that correctional employees "will be held to the highest level of accountability" for any wrongdoing. As for Caden, Hickman said he was removed because he "wasn't meeting the needs" of the prison.
Correctional agency spokesman J.P. Tremblay said Tuesday that the adverse
actions taken against the Salinas Valley employees shows "we will not tolerate
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September 13, 2004
SACRAMENTO — Facing unprecedented warnings from a federal judge, managers of California's teeming prisons are overhauling an internal disciplinary system that consistently fails to curb corruption and rein in rogue guards.
For years, experts have pounded the Department of Corrections for operating a chaotic system that is unfair to employees while allowing abuse of convicts and other crimes to go unpunished.
Now, with U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson threatening to place the prisons into receivership, department officials are unveiling a new strategy for policing their own. Over the last seven months, prison leaders have rebuilt their disciplinary system from the ground up, creating a model they hope will ensure that official wrongdoing is swiftly and justly punished.
"We are committed to creating a disciplinary system that treats people fairly but also holds them accountable," said Youth and Adult Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman.
Anchoring the system is a thick manual that, for the first time, will spell out for wardens what sort of punishment to dispense for lapses such as abuse of sick leave and unreasonable use of force.
In addition, investigators preparing disciplinary cases will from now on be teamed with lawyers to ensure their work is free of errors that can cause a case to collapse on appeal.
Overseeing it all will be a new team of watchdogs — an independent Bureau of Review — charged with ensuring that discipline is meted out free of the cronyism and improper influence that have tainted the process in the past.
Hickman, who has made cleaning up the culture of corrections a priority since his appointment late last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the new approach will bring uniformity to a disciplinary process that has been dysfunctional at best.
"It's spelled out, it's written down, it's clear," he said in an interview. "There's no more negotiation. We'll have the same penalties for the same misconduct across the board."
Skeptics note that this is not the first time the state has pledged to become more aggressive in tackling misbehavior among the 50,000 guards and other workers in California's $6-billion prison system.
In the late 1990s, after tales of officers at Corcoran State Prison setting up inmates in human cockfights and then shooting them dead, the Department of Corrections vowed to change. Among other things, officials promised to expand its internal affairs unit and keep investigations free of interference from guard-union bosses.
Although some changes were made, the culture inside the nation's largest prison system — with 164,000 inmates — has proved resistant to reform.
Last year, whistle-blowers alleged new cover-ups at the state prison in Chino, saying that top department officials had blocked an investigation of beatings of inmates by guards.
And earlier this year, a report by a federal court investigator hammered the department for a "code of silence" that protects rogue officers and is condoned by leaders who "neither understand nor care about the need for fair investigations." The report called the department's failure to clean up such corruption a "deliberate disregard" of a "serious, security-related problem."
Despite the discouraging track record, the system's toughest critics believe the foundation is being laid for real reform. Among them is Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit group that frequently sues the state over conditions behind bars.
"This time," Specter said, "they really seem to get it."
Several factors combine to give hope to Specter and other longtime observers of the department. The first is the looming presence of Henderson. Earlier this summer, the San Francisco judge threatened to place the prisons in receivership because he believed the Schwarzenegger administration had a "business as usual" attitude toward reforming the system.
In addition, Specter said, the new manual — or "matrix" — that spells out every imaginable sort of misconduct and the penalty expected for it, provides a clear standard that wardens would be obligated to follow.
"If they don't follow the matrix, it will be very easy to tell," Specter said. "I think this approach stands the best chance yet of bringing fair and consistent discipline to the department."
Officials hope to begin using the new disciplinary standards by early November. In the last few weeks, they have been meeting informally with the leaders of unions representing prison employees, seeking input.
Mike Jimenez, president of the union representing correctional officers, said he would like to support some sort of reform, but viewed this model as a disappointing, one-size-fits-all approach.
"We look forward to a cleaned-up disciplinary process, but we want just-cause discipline," Jimenez said. "We think each case should be evaluated on its merits, and the penalty weighed against factors like your tenure, your previous behavior patterns, any commendations you received. But what that would require is an employer that gives a damn about you."
Disciplinary cases against prison employees run the gamut, including over-familiarity with an inmate and drug use on duty. In 2003, there were 1,000 investigations. Nearly a quarter — 241 — were declared to be instances of inexcusable neglect of duty, such as sleeping on the job or being evasive or misleading during an interrogation.
There were 128 cases alleging mistreatment of employees or members of the public, and 115 investigations for allegedly driving while intoxicated.
In 19 cases, the charge was excessive use of force on the job, and there were 36 disciplinary investigations centering on drug use.
Prison officials say that under the old system of discipline, wardens had wide latitude in deciding penalties for misconduct, and no training in how best to assess what sort of sanctions to impose.
As a result, a guard who improperly used pepper spray on an inmate at a prison in Imperial County might get a letter of reprimand, while an officer who committed the same offense at a lock-up in Vacaville might be suspended without pay for several days.
An old joke among guards sums up the chaotic system: Beat up an inmate, and nothing happens. Kiss an inmate, and you're fired.
"It was hit and miss and … we were all over the board," said Joe McGrath, a deputy director for the department who was in charge of writing the new standards.
One veteran internal affairs agent, who asked not to be identified for reasons of job security, agreed, but put it more bluntly: "Wardens like to be in charge of their own little empire. Hopefully, this matrix will take some of that power away and tie their hands in terms of favoritism."
McGrath, a former warden at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, said he borrowed from numerous other systems in designing the matrix, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
His goal was to set a range of possible penalties for each offense, allowing wardens to adjust up or down slightly if aggravating or mitigating circumstances applied.
One category, centering on honesty and the code of silence, receives strong attention. For employees who mislead or lie during an investigation, the recommended penalty is dismissal. The same is true for officers who prevent or interfere with the reporting of misconduct.
"We have always expected our officers to be honest and forthright, but that issue has really been brought to the forefront this year," McGrath said. "We are making our expectations, and the consequences, very clear, and that's something the department didn't do well in the past. A lot of it went unspoken."
Other offenses that can make a prison employee subject to dismissal are sexual misconduct with an inmate; the unreasonable use of force likely to cause serious injury; and criminal acts such as the use or sale of narcotics.
Among those applauding the department's progress on employee discipline is state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who has joined Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles in conducting numerous hearings on the troubled corrections department.
One hearing in March showed that 60% of the disciplinary actions appealed by employees to the state personnel board were revoked or modified, a dismal track record for the department.
"I'm delighted with this, because it's critical that people who are guilty of the same misconduct receive the same penalty," Speier said. "Hopefully, this will help restore confidence in a system that was just not doing the job."
The internal affairs agent predicted that it would take several years — and some high-profile penalties — for the new standards to have a measurable effect.
"There is a small minority of officers who think they're untouchable and can beat up inmates and do whatever else they want to do without getting disciplined," the agent said. "So until someone gets fired for that kind of conduct — and stays fired — they won't change their behavior.
"But we're definitely heading in the right direction."
March 23, 2004
SACRAMENTO — When California's corrections agencies try to discipline guards and other employees, they usually are outgunned, state personnel board officials testified Monday at a legislative hearing.
In more than 60% of the cases that corrections employees appeal to the board, the penalties are reduced or thrown out.
The failure rate of cases from the Department of Corrections and its juvenile equivalent, the California Youth Authority, stands out, personnel board President William Elkins said, because the five-member panel generally sustains 90% of all state government disciplinary actions that come before it.
Personnel officials said guards and other corrections employees have been provided with lawyers who often were better prepared and qualified than the state's representatives. Sometimes the agencies pit employee relations officers against attorneys hired by employee unions.
"Oftentimes, the department has not made that compelling a case" for discipline, said board Vice President Ronald Alvarado.
The officials testified at a Senate hearing into state employee discipline and the personnel board, which passes judgment on appeals of disciplinary actions imposed by state departments.
In recent weeks, the discipline of corrections employees has taken center stage in legislative hearings amid investigations into the conduct of prison guards, reports of a guard "code of silence" and court cases alleging mistreatment of prisoners.
As part of a remedial plan for strengthening investigations and discipline, prison officials said, they wanted to add more attorneys to their staffs and involve them at the outset of investigations. Those steps, they said, would allow them to bring stronger cases to the personnel board.
Jeanne Woodford, the state's new corrections director, said the department wanted to improve the training of employee relations officers and provide ethics training for all department employees. "We want to get our house in order," she said.
Also during the hearing, a supervisor at California's prison headquarters testified that he had read more than 200 books after superiors bounced him to a meaningless job in retaliation for blowing the whistle on rising overtime and sick leave costs.
Mark Krupp, a former prison guard who once managed three Department of Corrections computer systems, said he was paid $6,000 a month for 15 months while doing a job that entailed about an hour of work a week.
"I basically did reading and applied to 50 other jobs [within the department] and went to interviews," he said.
State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who led the hearing as chairwoman of the Select Committee on Government Oversight, called Krupp's whistle-blower case a "nightmare" and a "stunning case of what is wrong with the system" for disciplining employees accused of misconduct.
"This has gone on almost three years now," said Speier. "This man read 200 books, not because he wanted to … but because no one would give him work."
The corrections department had appealed findings by the independent inspector general that superiors retaliated against Krupp.
A judge has sent the matter back to the state personnel board for a new hearing, and a lawsuit by Krupp is pending in Superior Court.
Krupp, who now oversees contracts for the department's substance abuse program, said all he wanted was for the department to "stop retaliating against me, a regular job … [and] to repay me for legal expenses" of more than $20,000.
Looking at state officials, Speier said, "This does not add up."
The prison disciplinary system has been criticized repeatedly as being too cumbersome, complex and time-consuming. The inspector general has found that 43% of all cases are dropped because investigations are not completed by a one-year deadline.
State departments took 3,000 disciplinary actions in 2002, the personnel board said, and 1,648 were appealed.
Of those appeals, 913 were settled, 312 were withdrawn and 161 were pending. Of the cases decided by the board, 138 were sustained, 66 were modified and 58 were revoked.
Speier closely questioned Woodford and youth authority director Walter Allen about how they would deal with any employees who shunned other employees or retaliated against them for reporting wrongdoing.
"We will show no mercy," said Allen.
SALINAS, Calif. -- A former correctional officer faces multiple charges for allegedly helping four inmates beat another prisoner unconscious last year at Salinas Valley State Prison near Soledad.
Leon Holston was supervising a cellblock on Aug. 14, 2003, when reputed members of a San Francisco Bay area street gang called KUMI 415 attacked a prisoner authorities have identified only as "inmate Tillis."
Holston "helped the prisoners in some significant way commit the assault," Terry Spitz, Monterey County's chief assistant district attorney, told the Salinas Californian in a story published Thursday.
Charges filed July 27 against Holston include aiding and abetting, battery with serious bodily injury, filing a false report by a peace officer and unlawful communication with a prisoner. He's also charged with facilitating communication between the inmates and their associates outside Salinas Valley State Prison. Prosecutors say Holston did this by delivering mail to the inmates.
Holston could face up to 13 years in state prison if convicted, Spitz
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