Guards in Danger
Staff infection kills California prison guard
Thursday, March 20, 2008
(03-20) 17:18 PDT Calipatria, Calif. (AP) --
Imperial County health officials say a guard at Calipatria State Prison has died from a staph infection.
A health department spokeswoman says Alma Zavala died Saturday at El Centro Regional Medical Center.
The 45-year-old woman worked at the prison for 12 years and oversaw a minimum security dormitory.
It is not clear where she became infected with what is commonly called MRSA, or methicillin-(meth-ih-SILL'-in)-resistant staph infection.
Lieutenant Jorge Santana, a spokesman for the prison, says the prison has had no other cases and is taking no special precautions.
Staph bacteria are common and usually cause little harm, but sometimes the infections can turn deadly. Some bacteria have grown resistant to antibiotics.
Posted on Thu, Mar. 24, 2005
Reports on prison death may spur state shakeup
By Mark Gladstone
SACRAMENTO - Investigations into the first death of a California prison guard in 20 years describe a dilapidated state prison on the verge of chaos and send a wider message that change is needed for the troubled Department of Corrections.
The inquiries, released last week, focus on the California Institute for Men at Chino where Manuel A. Gonzalez Jr., a 16-year veteran guard, was killed in January. The reports spell out a series of problems in chilling detail: broken windows and piles of trash, the use of convicts to manage the prison and a disregard for the warden's orders.
And while the reports focus on the mess at Chino, some say the findings reflect deeper management problems at all 32 state prisons in the $6.5 billion-a-year Department of Corrections.
``This goes beyond Chino,'' said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles. ``I think it really shows a culture of negligence and failed leadership.'' Romero, who has chaired prison oversight hearings, frets that ``if it happened there, it could happen somewhere else.''
The scrutiny of Chino is nothing new for the department, which for the past decade has lurched from one costly crisis to another. Even as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to improve conditions, he has confronted mounting prison spending, unexpected population increases and the continuing influence of the prison guard union. Last summer, a federal judge frustrated with trying to improve the way the department investigates abuse of inmates and disciplines rogue officers threatened to take over the system.
What's different is that state authorities seemed to move more quickly after Gonzalez's slaying to catalog what happened and make the findings public -- a disclosure that is rekindling the debate over the direction of the prison system. The major findings underscore a key question that state politicians have been wrestling with since the massive growth of California prisons in the 1980s and 1990s: Despite spending nearly $30 billion in the past five years, are prisons any better run or safer for officers and inmates?
`All but impossible'
With thousands of inmates moving through reception centers like Chino every week, ``it's all but impossible to manage those institutions consistent with safety and security,'' said Steve Fama, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, which has brought numerous lawsuits against the department.
The office of Inspector General Matthew Cate, however, cautions that although similar findings might be seen at other prisons, his report does not address those facilities. Still, Cate found a cascading set of circumstances that resulted in the death of Gonzalez. ``If the myriad of problems that created this `perfect storm' had not existed, it is very likely that officer Gonzalez would be alive today,'' Cate said.
Administration critics say the shortcomings outlined by Cate can be found at other prisons, especially at reception centers like Chino, crammed with newly sentenced inmates. Moreover, they contend, the findings cast doubt on the success of Schwarzenegger's fledgling prison reform plans, including his proposal to merge the youth and adult prisons into one super-agency headed by Corrections Secretary Roderick Hickman.
Hickman embraced Cate's report and similar findings of another panel of experts he appointed. ``The two reports,'' Hickman acknowledged, ``made it very clear to me that we as a state must do more -- better training and supervision -- to ensure our staff is safe.'' The warden and two chief deputies at Chino have been placed on administrative leave with pay.
Hickman's detractors are using Cate's report to suggest that the secretary is struggling to control the adult system, which has been beset with rising health care costs, a heavy reliance on costly overtime, overcrowding and a culture that fails to reward officers for reporting guard brutality.
Calls to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association seeking comment on the reports were not returned.
The killing of Gonzalez at Chino, east of Los Angeles, has turned into a rallying cry for the officers union, which has lost much of the political access it had under former Gov. Gray Davis. Even though another guard warned him of the danger, Gonzalez ordered the prisoner out of his cell in an effort to calm rising racial tensions. Gonzalez then walked onto the high-security tier alone to chat with the violent felon -- in direct violation of state policy.
That breach in security climaxed the morning of Jan. 10, when Gonzalez died after being attacked by an inmate and stabbed three times. It was the first such slaying since Sgt. Dean Burchfield was stabbed to death with a prison-made spear at San Quentin in June 1985. The suspect in Gonzalez's death, Jon Christopher Blaylock -- serving a 75-year sentence for trying to kill a police officer -- was improperly housed in a general population unit, despite being violent toward other prisoners, investigators said.
The Chino stabbing is a good example that Hickman already has too much to handle, said Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, D-Norwalk, a former parole agent who remains a member of the prison guard union.
``He rushed down there after the slaying, but where was he before this occurred?'' Bermudez said. He said the inspector general's findings should warrant Hickman's sacking as Schwarzenegger's corrections secretary and might slow or thwart legislative approval of the plan to merge the adult and youth prisons.
Last month, Bermudez chaired hearings that focused on whether Gonzalez should have been issued a protective vest. According to Cate, the Chino prison failed to issue vests to officers and instead stored them in a warehouse. A vest designated for Gonzales was in a warehouse when he was stabbed.
Bruce Bikle, a criminology professor at California State University-Sacramento and a onetime Oregon prison official, said he expects Cate's report to stir things up in corrections. But he said it remains unclear to him what it will take to get control of the system.
``The truth is that prison operations are underfunded and overcrowded and unless the administration can get out from under this dual burden, change for the good will be hard, if not impossible, to achieve,'' said Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo.
``Unfortunately, much of the funding problem is due to poor management,
so it is just not a question of more money, but money spent wisely.''
Contact Mark Gladstone at mgladstone@ mercurynews.com or (916) 325-4314.
Chino prison warden, top aides put on leave
The Department of Corrections placed the warden on administrative leave Wednesday after an inspector general's report found a laundry list of security failures that led to an officer's stabbing death at the California Institution for Men in Chino.
Corrections officials also placed Warden Lori DiCarlo's two chief deputies on paid leave in the wake of the harshly critical report issued by the independent Office of the Inspector General. The names of the two chief deputies were not immediately available late Wednesday, a corrections spokesman said.
None of the prison managers placed on leave was available for comment Wednesday, and the department also declined to discuss the management move. But at a press conference earlier in the day, Youth and Adult Correctional Secretary Rod Hickman said the inspector general's report "confirmed my worst fears" about institutional security at Chino.
Officer Manuel Gonzalez, 43, was slain Jan. 10 when he let Jon Christopher Blaylock out of his cell. He wanted to talk with the inmate - a reputed gang leader - about easing tensions in the housing unit. The report said Gonzalez and other staff members at the prison, by allowing the inmate to interact with the officer one-on-one, did not follow security protocols at the prison.
But chief among the security failures, the inspector general said, was housing the suspect in a general population housing unit at the Chino reception center even though he had just been sentenced to 75 years in prison for trying to murder a Los Angeles police officer.
Moreover, Blaylock, 35, had been confined in a security housing cell at Corcoran State Prison when he had been paroled just four months earlier - and should have gone into a similarly restrictive environment once he came back, the report suggested.
"Many of the other reception centers report that - as a returning inmate who had most recently been paroled from a security housing unit - he would have been automatically placed in an administrative segregation unit," the Office of the Inspector General's report said of Blaylock.
The inspector general's other findings criticized the prison for lax security procedures that allowed inmates to fashion weapons from tools and other items and for not conducting more searches of cells to find them. After Gonzalez's death, a search of the housing unit where the officer died turned up 35 stabbing devices in the inmates' cells, the inspector general said.
Prison authorities also failed to distribute more than 300 protective
vests to officers that were being stored in a warehouse, the report said.
And the prison medical center where Gonzalez was taken after the stabbing
"was poorly equipped and ill-prepared to handle the emergency."
About the writer:
Posted on Wed, Mar. 16, 2005
Inspector general criticizes prison in murder of officer
SACRAMENTO - The first prison guard to die in an inmate assault since 1985 was among officers who routinely ignored procedures set in place after a December race riot at California Institution for Men in Chino, leading to the guard's murder less than a month later, the state prison system's inspector general said Wednesday.
The prison's veteran warden, Lori DiCarlo, and her two top deputies were immediately placed on administrative leave pending a full review of the report and a review to begin Monday of security practices at all the state's 11 reception centers for new inmates.
"A host of security problems at the prison led up to the attack," said Deputy Inspector General Brett Morgan. "We call it the 'perfect storm' in terms of everything going wrong."
Correctional Officer Manuel A. Gonzalez, 43, violated the rules Jan. 10 when he released Jon Christopher Blaylock from his cell and then went in to talk with him alone. Blaylock, 35, is now charged in Gonzalez's murder. The rule was among those instituted after a Dec. 19 riot between black and Hispanic inmates, but Gonzalez hoped Blaylock could help calm tensions among black inmates and return programs to normal, the inspector general found.
Officers during Gonzalez's shift also did a poor job of searching for weapons - 35 were found after the slaying - and routinely violated other procedures including segregating inmates by race and keeping inmate workers out of the cell block, the report found.
Yet Blaylock shouldn't have been at the Chino prison at the time of the murder: "He should have been in much more secure housing, based on his history," Morgan said.
Blaylock was serving a 75-year term for the 2002 attempted murder of a police officer, an incident that occurred less than four months after he was paroled from California State Prison, Corcoran. There, he had been segregated from other inmates due to his violent behavior.
Yet he was kept in the general population at the Chino prison for all but seven weeks, when he was segregated for assaulting another inmate. At any other prison he would have been in segregation all along, and he should have been transferred to a more secure prison within 60 days of his arrival at the Chino prison's reception center.
The inspector general's report also faults prison administrators and the Department of Corrections for not distributing 362 stab-resistant vests that were locked in a prison warehouse at the time of Gonzalez's death, including a vest assigned to the slain guard. And it says the prison's medical unit was ill-prepared to handle stabbing injuries of the sort Gonzalez sustained.
But the report stops short of saying either the vests or better medical care could have saved Gonzalez's life. He was the first officer to be killed in an adult prison since 1985, though an employee at a youth facility was murdered in 1996.
The prison staff responded poorly after his murder, failing to secure the crime scene or take other emergency steps in the confusion, the inspector general found.
The report "confirms my worst fears," said Youth and Adult Correctional Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman, who said he personally observed security and operational failures when he arrived in the wake of the slaying. A spokesman for DiCarlo declined comment.
Hickman said he has not seen the same problems at other prisons, which, for instance, handed out the stab-resistant vests as soon as they arrived.
Nor were the prison employees deliberately negligent, said Hickman, the inspector general's report, and a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
While attempting to do a good job under difficult circumstances, "people were trying to cut corners," Hickman said. "We paid a tragic cost for it."
Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who heads two prison oversight committees, said the "scathing" report demonstrates "negligence, lack of leadership, failure of leadership. The Titanic is full of holes and maybe sinking faster than we thought."
Hickman should have sacked top prison employees weeks ago, said Romero, who has supported Hickman's leadership with other lawmakers of both parties.
"This indicates a failure of a key department under his direction," Romero said. "There has to be a very strong response."
She was troubled the report blames Gonzalez in part for his own death, when she said it appears he was dedicated and trying to do his job.
"We don't pull any punches," responded Morgan.
Lance Corcoran, vice president of the union that represents most prison guards, called that conclusion "insulting and disgusting" and disputed the report's finding that Gonzalez and other employees would have acted on their own.
"It's unfortunate that only the leadership at the institution is being blamed," Corcoran said. "This is a failure of the administration from Mr. Hickman on down."
The report comes a day before a second report on the incident and prison procedures is due from an expert panel appointed by the Board of Corrections. Hickman said the report reaches similar conclusions.
ON THE NET
Read the inspector general's report at http://www.oig.ca.gov
REGION & STATE
January 12, 2005
SACRAMENTO — The director of corrections is expected to declare a state of emergency today at the Chino prison where a guard was stabbed to death, a move that would allow officials to suspend normal operating rules in order to focus on the investigation.
In a memo Tuesday, Warden Lori DiCarlo said she was asking for the emergency declaration because the Monday attack — the first killing of a guard in 20 years — was resulting in extraordinary demands on her staff.
A prison spokesman said Director Jeanne S. Woodford of the state Department of Corrections probably would approve the request.
Meanwhile, Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman has asked counties not to send new convicts to the California Institution for Men in Chino while investigators sort out what led to the stabbing of Officer Manuel Gonzalez.
"At this point, we're asking the counties to divert them to other prisons or hold on to them," said Todd Slosek, director of communications for the department.
"We're trying to maximize resources and focus on the investigation," he said.
Gonzalez was stabbed three times shortly before 11 a.m. in the prison's Sycamore Hall housing unit.
A 16-year veteran of the department, Gonzalez is survived by his wife and six children, ages 3 to 22.
Officials suspect Jon Christopher Blaylock, 35, who was out of his cell at the time. He has been transferred to another prison, along with two inmates who were nearby when the attack occurred.
Blaylock began serving a 75-year sentence in June for attempted murder of a peace officer and had served two previous terms in state prison.
Although his offense should have landed him in a high-security prison, officials said, he had remained at Chino — a reception center for incoming inmates awaiting transfer — because a mental condition made him difficult to place.
Neither Gonzalez nor a second officer in the unit was wearing a stab-proof vest, and some officials with the prison guards union have criticized the department for being slow to distribute that gear.
Slosek said officials had been trying to obtain vests for all officers but that "there are 30,000 of them, and it takes time. We have purchased vests for officers at several institutions and are trying to deploy them quickly."
Officials said that a state of emergency permits a warden to suspend numerous regulations, particularly those that set deadlines for inmate transfers and hearings on disciplinary citations and appeals. They did not say how long the special status might last.
On Tuesday, investigators continued their inquiry into the killing, as trauma specialists provided counseling to Gonzalez's co-workers.
A lockdown at the prison remained in effect, meaning that inmates were fed in their cells and denied all privileges.
A lockdown imposed Monday at the state's other 32 prisons will be lifted today, officials said.
January 11, 2005
SACRAMENTO — A state correctional officer at the men's prison in Chino was stabbed to death Monday, marking the first time in 20 years that a guard has been killed while on duty in one of California's adult prisons.
All 32 state prisons were immediately put on "lockdown" status, with inmates stripped of all privileges and confined to their cells for at least 24 hours as officials sought to determine if the attack was part of a broader, orchestrated action against staff.
Manuel A. Gonzalez, 43, was stabbed three times about 10:50 a.m. in the Sycamore Hall housing unit at the California Institution for Men, officials said. Gonzalez, who was married with five children ages 6 to 17, died en route to a hospital. He had worked for the Department of Corrections since 1988.
Three suspects were questioned, but officials identified the alleged assailant as Jon Christopher Blaylock, 35, a convict from Los Angeles County who in June began serving a 75-year sentence for attempted murder of a peace officer.
Blaylock had been incarcerated twice before, for attempted burglary convictions in 1990 and in 1993. He was last paroled in April 2002. Prison sources said he suffers from a mental disorder.
Inmates Keith White and Henry Riley, who also were convicted in Los Angeles County, were being questioned. The three suspects are being transferred to other prisons. The three allegedly are members of the East Coast Crips street gang, officials said. In recent years, investigators have focused on the gang as a source of assault plots against staff at prisons statewide.
Roderick Q. Hickman, secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, traveled to the prison from Sacramento on Monday to meet with staff. In a statement, Hickman said, "There is no greater loss than to lose a brother officer killed in the line of duty.
"I know as professionals we will pull together to help Officer Gonzalez's children and parents deal with this loss, and all of us throughout this state will pull together to help heal the wound that has been inflicted on our agency and state," he said.
Leaders of the labor union that represents prison guards, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., called the killing devastating.
"We're stunned," said union Executive Vice President Lance Corcoran. "We don't have much information at this point, so we can't point fingers. The institution is just in turmoil."
Though assaults on officers are not uncommon, the last slaying of a prison guard in an adult facility occurred in 1985. Sgt. Howell Dean Burchfield, an officer at San Quentin, was stabbed with a crude spear as he was walking the tier and counting inmates. Since then, improvements in prison design, screening of incoming inmates and policies governing inmates' lives have increased officer safety.
"But the risk is always there that we could be subjected to severe injury, or as in this case, give our lives for public safety," said Corrections Director Jeanne Woodford.
Officials released few details of the incident. But prison sources, who asked not to be named, said Blaylock was considered a spokesman for African American inmates and was released from the cell he occupied alone about 10:10 a.m. to talk with prisoners who had complaints.
About 10:30 a.m., the sources said, an officer in the 17-cell unit saw Blaylock attacking Gonzalez, who was up against a wall. When the second officer yelled for Blaylock to get down, the inmate walked away and Gonzalez slumped to the floor.
Officials said that they had not recovered a weapon but believed that it was a crudely made knife. Neither Gonzalez nor the other officer was wearing a protective vest.
The unit is a reception center, where inmates are housed as they await transfer to other prisons.
Gonzalez worked at the state prisons in Corcoran and Lancaster before transferring to the Chino institution in 1996.
Woodford described him as "a consummate professional who was well-respected … reliable and approached his responsibilities with a spirit of teamwork. He was friendly, went beyond his duties to assist other staff, communicated well with inmates, and worked to make our facilities safer."
Since 1952, inmates have killed 19 male employees in adult prisons. Sixteen were custody officers and three were employees who were supervising inmates on work projects. Most of the deaths were from stabbings. Two were from gunshot wounds and two from bludgeoning. One victim was thrown from an upper prison tier.
Calling Gonzalez' death "a tragic loss," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered flags at the Capitol flown at half-staff in his memory.
Posted on Tue, Jun. 29, 2004
Ex-warden cleared of abuse
Soledad: Hamlet says retirement stemmed from public pressure on charges
By DAN LAIDMAN
Herald Staff Writer
The former warden of the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad has emerged from his year-long odyssey in the criminal justice system with a new view of the law.
"I have a different perspective on the court system now than I ever did before," James Hamlet said. "A little more jaded now."
Hamlet's second trial on misdemeanor domestic violence charges ended Friday with the jury acquitting him on all counts. His first trial in March ended with a deadlocked jury.
Hamlet, 54, reflected on the verdict, and how the ordeal has changed his life, in an interview Monday at the Salinas office of his attorney, Tom Worthington.
"It was a total relief," he said of the case's resolution. "It was something horrible to be accused of."
Hamlet's ex-girlfriend, Linda Guzman, testified that Hamlet had kicked her in the back in a moment of anger, exacerbating an existing injury and seriously hurting her. Hamlet had been in a long-term relationship with Guzman, a fellow prison employee. He denied that the assault occurred.
Prosecutor Elaine McCleaf said Monday that she does not regret bringing the case to trial a second time, despite the jury's decision.
"Certainly I disagreed with their verdict because I think it did happen," she said.
Both trials were contentious affairs, and Worthington said Monday he is researching potential legal action. He says important evidence was withheld from him, and he accuses the District Attorney's Office of having a conflict of interest.
Worthington wanted local prosecutors off the case because at the same time Guzman was the key witness in the Hamlet trial, the District Attorney's Office was investigating her for alleged worker's compensation fraud. She was eventually cleared in that probe.
"This isn't the end of this," Worthington said. "We're very concerned."
McCleaf, the prosecutor, called allegations of a conflict of interest a "smoke screen."
"Certainly our office investigates all different kinds of crimes and it happens that we have investigations into people who are witnesses," she said. "It wasn't anything new or unusual."
The district attorney's fraud division is separate from the criminal unit, McCleaf said. She added that Worthington brought up the conflict-of-interest issue but never filed a formal motion seeking to disqualify the prosecutors.
Worthington said he discussed doing so with his client, but decided the time and expense would be prohibitive so he asked the prosecution to bow out voluntarily.
Worthington said the treatment the defense received in the case reeked of a "personal vendetta," and that it was unlike anything he had seen in his 35-year legal career.
Asked if he was extending his criticism to Judge Lydia Villarreal, who denied many of his motions, Worthington declined to comment.
In the interview Monday, Hamlet said he felt the system worked against him but that he was fortunate to have a good attorney.
"When you're the warden, you're the person in corrections at the top, like a police chief," he said. "Then to go from that to being accused of this horrible crime and go through the court system... it makes you quite humble."
The experience was also cause for fear and embarrassment, he said. While the California Department of Corrections stood by him, he felt that his situation was putting undue pressure on the agency, so he retired early.
"I did retire because of pressure from the publicity," he said, in contrast to statements at the time from prison public relations officials that his retirement was unrelated to the domestic violence charges.
When Hamlet left the Correctional Training Facility in July 2003, it marked the end of a career that spanned three decades and an affiliation that lasted a lifetime.
A Salinas native, Hamlet was the son of a prison employee and his first job out of college was at the Soledad facility. He worked his way up from canteen manager to the top ranks of the administration. In 2000, then-Gov. Gray Davis tapped him to become warden.
Hamlet had hoped to remain at the prison for another two years. His early retirement has been fraught with uncertainty and fear, but he said that now he can finally start to enjoy it.
"It's like a heavy weight has been lifted," he said.
Dan Laidman can be reached at 646-4346 or dlaidman@ montereyherald.com .
Posted on Mon, May. 31, 2004
Soledad guard sues inmate over attack
Marshall Denning had been a correctional officer at Salinas Valley State Prison for nine months when he was assaulted and stabbed while patrolling a maximum security cell block.
An inmate at the Soledad prison thrashed him with a crude metal shank, gouging his neck and slicing his hands in June 2003.
"It kind of split the skin open like a little window into the bones of the hand," Denning said. "When I moved my fingers I could actually see the metacarpal bones moving back and forth."
Violent attacks are nothing new in California's prisons, but Denning's response is novel. He has filed a lawsuit against three inmates in Monterey County Superior Court, seeking civil damages.
A growing number of correctional officers are turning to lawsuits to punish violent inmates, draw attention to the hazards of the job and squeeze out whatever monetary compensation they can. It is a new tactic that has energized many correctional officers while disturbing Department of Corrections management and prisoner advocates.
While several such cases have been filed throughout the state in recent months, they were all small claims matters. The Denning lawsuit is the first such case in California to be filed in a Superior Court, according to the California Staff Assault Task Force.
"We know that most inmates don't have any money," Denning said. "It's more of just a statement that you have to be accountable for what you do."
Criminal charges are pending against the inmates accused of assaulting Denning, but the lawsuit goes a step further by seeking monetary damages. While no amount is specified, Denning's lawyer, Rob Parris of Lancaster, said his client's injuries were so extensive that he could seek hundreds of thousands of dollars. He does not expect to get much money, though, given the likely financial status of the defendants.
Parris echoed his client's contention that the lawsuit is about "accountability." The word is practically a mantra for the California Staff Assault Task Force, a Lancaster-based group that formed last fall. The group encouraged Denning to bring the lawsuit and paid his filing fees.
Charles Hughes, a correctional lieutenant at a Southern California prison and the task force's executive director, said membership has skyrocketed to 4,000 people in just a few months. The group's ultimate goal, he said, is to reduce the average of 9.8 assaults per day against staff members at California prisons.
"We didn't start in the Department of Corrections to get stabbed or to have urine or feces thrown in our face," Hughes said. "We didn't sign on like officer Denning to get stabbed in the neck."
Not everyone within California's troubled prison system thinks the lawsuits are the best way to deter violence, however.
Edward Caden, acting warden of Salinas Valley State Prison, thinks the officers who sue inmates may have noble intentions but their efforts could backfire.
"I think these types of lawsuits do have a potential for creating some serious problems," he said.
Caden worries that the cases will spark more violence by angering inmates or creating awkward situations where officers are involved in litigation with prisoners they monitor. There are legal complications as well, he said, especially regarding transporting inmates to appear in small claims and civil court.
"It just creates tremendous, tremendous logistical problems for the department," Caden said.
Hughes counters that he expects such criticism from administrators because his task force is "exposing their failure."
"I wish there wasn't a need for a group like ours," he said. "I wish the department, the DAs and everybody would stand up and hold these guys accountable and there would be no issues. But of course that's not the case because the assault rate is just going through the roof."
Some outside the Department of Corrections are concerned about the obstacles prisoners confront when defending themselves against such lawsuits.
Courts have found that inmates have the right to due process but their ability to mount a defense is limited by their circumstances, said Steve Fama, a lawyer with the Prison Law Office, a Bay Area organization that offers legal services to prisoners.
"It's limited, especially when you can't come down to the courthouse or when you can't easily arrange for the deposition of witnesses against you," he said.
There are already administrative and criminal penalties for violent inmates, Fama said, and the number of prisoners who assault staffers is relatively small compared to the 160,000 people in California prisons. Add to the mix the fact that many prisoners are indigent, and Fama wonders if the correctional officer lawsuits are designed merely to make a statement.
Lisa Northam, head of the Southern California-based California Correctional Crime Victims Association, said such lawsuits do have symbolic value, but that the symbolism is important.
"Sometimes it's just the satisfaction of knowing that what the inmate did was wrong," she said. "Having someone else say to this inmate, 'You cannot attack staff, that is not good behavior.'"
Fama sees the upsurge in violence as part of the larger history of California's correctional system. Educational and vocational programs have been scaled back as the population has boomed.
"Some of it results from the fact that prisons are crowded," Fama said. "And the opportunities to engage in activities that might reduce the anger that otherwise builds up in prison have been cut back pretty drastically over the last 15 years."
Caden, the acting warden at Salinas Valley, said the Department of Corrections is currently undergoing a major upheaval. The top administrators have changed as legislative scrutiny has focused on reforming the system. The union that represents correctional officers enjoyed remarkable political clout during the Gray Davis administration but has seen its influence slip dramatically in recent months.
State legislators are now contemplating rolling back hefty raises the previous administration had promised to the guards.
With all the attention it is receiving, the department now has an unprecedented opportunity to change its procedures, Caden said, including how it disciplines inmates and protects the staff. He hopes such reform will eliminate the need for officers to sue prisoners.
"I think they're working out a frustration right now," he said.
Dan Laidman can be reached at 646-4346, or email@example.com .
Ex-guard sues over Folsom Prison riot injuries
A former correctional officer who was injured during a riot at Folsom State Prison is seeking more than $25,000 in damages from the state and the Department of Corrections.
In a suit filed Wednesday in Sacramento Superior Court, Patrick O'Dea asserts that the April 8, 2002, fracas between two rival gangs was "orchestrated" by three prison officials who no longer work at Folsom.
The three - then-Associate Warden Michael Bunnell, Capt. Oliver Acuna and Lt. Allen Baber - are named as individual defendants.
"The riot orchestrated by Bunnell, Acuna and Baber created a dangerous condition for both inmates and staff who were put in harm's way and required to 'put down' the riot and break up fights," the suit said.
The 90-second altercation between warring Latino inmates from Northern and Southern California resulted in 25 injuries.
Margot Bach, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said Thursday, "We haven't seen the suit, so it would be premature to comment."
Bunnell, Acuna and Baber could not be reached for comment.
The suit cites a state investigation, which concluded that the riot began after management blunders.
For the previous 12 weeks, the rival gangs had been separated at the prison, following a Jan. 4 fight between the factions, according to state investigators.
On April 8, the inmates were unlocked in large groups. The riot began minutes later when one gang attacked the other in the main yard.
O'Dea was one of about 20 officers who attempted to subdue about 80 inmates.
"When it was over, I spent the rest of the day picking inmates up off the ground, escorting them to interviews and medical attention," O'Dea told The Bee in November.
Only later did he realize that he had been seriously injured, O'Dea said.
Doctors diagnosed him with a herniated disc in his neck. He later underwent surgery. He says he still suffers from neurological problems in his arms and legs, injuries the suit describes as "permanently disabling."
O'Dea, acting as his own attorney, is demanding a trial by jury. The suit seeks punitive, compensatory, special and general damages.
The Bee's Edgar Sanchez can be reached at (916) 321-1132 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Posted on Sun, Jan. 25, 2004
Breaking down the Green Wall
Donald "D.J." Vodicka's journey from rock solid prison guard to rock-and-a-hard place whistle-blower started three years ago on a spring day at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.
The corrections veteran felt like a football player as his team prepared for the dangerous process of prying an uncooperative inmate from his cell. He wore a padded chemical suit and a helmet on his shaved head.
Each officer carried a different tool: a shield, handcuffs, a baton and leg irons. Vodicka was handed a video camera. The guards lined up and introduced themselves, one by one.
In the midst of their straight recitations of name and rank, Vodicka spied something through the lens that would change his life. One of the guards threw his hand up over his chest, his thumb holding down the middle digit to make a crude "W" with his fingers.
In testimony before the state Senate this past week, Vodicka explained that it was one of the tribal signatures of the "Green Wall," a clique of Salinas Valley State Prison guards who turned the traditional code of silence into a phalanx of misconduct and intimidation.
"Every place I've worked at there is some type of code of silence," Vodicka said in an interview. "But at Salinas Valley State Prison it was very strong."
In the interview, as well as in his testimony and a lawsuit against the state, Vodicka lays out a disturbing picture of the rogue group. Some members of the Green Wall apparently even infiltrated the prison's Investigative Services Unit, an internal affairs operation that probes crimes committed within the prison walls.
"That's probably the scariest part of it," said Lanny Tron, Vodicka's attorney.
State inspectors confirmed the existence of the Green Wall at Salinas Valley, according to a legislature document prepared for the hearings.
"The (Inspector General) reported that the warden at SVSP appeared to favor certain internal affairs investigators, some of whom belonged to the Green Wall," the report says. "And that this favoritism created a hostile work environment."
Eloy Medina, spokesman for Salinas Valley State Prison, said that Warden Anthony Lamarque would have no comment.
Bob Martinez, director of communications for the Department of Corrections, said he could not comment on the investigation into the Green Wall at Salinas Valley or any follow-up actions taken by the department.
However, Martinez noted that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's newly appointed secretary of youth and adult corrections, Roderick Hickman, mentioned the Green Wall and the code of silence at last week's hearings.
"It's something he acknowledges and has pledged to eradicate," Martinez said.
Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who chaired the hearings and is pushing for more independent oversight of prisons, said Vodicka's experience was "very representative" of the environment inside California's correctional facilities.
Assemblyman Simon Salinas, D-Salinas, whose district includes Salinas Valley State Prison and the Correctional Training Facility-Soledad, said the former guard's tale shows that "You've got to create the environment that anyone who comes forward has to feel they're protected."
Right now, Vodicka, 41, feels anything but protected. He wore a bulletproof vest throughout his testimony last Tuesday.
Now on disability leave, the 16-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections is in hiding as he waits out his legal case. Being a whistle-blower has been financially devastating, he said, and he has received threats both subtle and overt.
"I've lost everything except the people I've got supporting me," he said. "CDC turned their back on me, and I don't want to see this happen to anyone else."
Vodicka began his career at Corcoran State Prison in 1988. He worked at the facilities in Calipatria and Pelican Bay before arriving at newly opened Salinas Valley State Prison in 1996. His track record of positive performance reviews helped propel him to the Investigative Services Unit, his lawyer said.
Vodicka traces the birth of the Green Wall at Salinas Valley to the aftermath of a November 1998 scuffle known as the Thanksgiving riot. As part of the investigative team, Vodicka was on the wrong side of the bond that "caught like wildfire" among some of the guards who were involved, he said. When Vodicka followed procedure and photographed the inmates to document any injuries, he was accused of protecting them.
The Green Wall, named for the hue of the guard's uniform, developed its own set of symbols. Members wore turkey pins to commemorate the Thanksgiving riot and greeted each other with an unusual hug or handshake, according to Vodicka's lawsuit.
The guards wrapped their arms in green bands and signed their names with green pens. They adopted 7/23 as a slogan, because "G" is the seventh letter of the alphabet, "W" the 23rd. The numbers showed up engraved on dog tags, knives, and a motorcycle license plate. The clique reportedly held Green Wall parties in Soledad.
All the solidarity enforced the essential code of silence, Vodicka said. Members of the Green Wall allegedly kept quiet about incidents of brutality against inmates.
After the "W" hand gesture showed up on the cell extraction video, a supervisor, Lt. Greg Lewis, asked Vodicka and his partner to document what they knew of the Green Wall.
"As a peace officer it is our duty, you cannot say no," Vodicka said. "If you do, you're part of the code of silence."
Shortly thereafter, some guards started treating Vodicka coldly, he said. The officer who made the "W" sign allegedly threatened him at a training session.
Lt. Lewis, meanwhile, conducted his own probe into the clique. Old colleagues from their days at Pelican Bay, he and Vodicka shared a mutual respect. They met one night in September 2001 at Lewis' home and the lieutenant said he was frustrated by the prison's lack of action.
A week later, Lewis was transferred to another prison.
When state investigators showed up at Salinas Valley to investigate the Green Wall, an agent walked around asking questions accompanied by a guard's union representative who had ties to the Green Wall, Vodicka said. He and his partner were never interviewed.
Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, could not be reached for comment.
With Lt. Lewis gone, another supervisor asked Vodicka to write up their conversation. Vodicka wrote the memo with trepidation under the assurance of confidentiality, the lawsuit says. When he handed the document to his supervisor, two red stamps marked it "CONFIDENTIAL."
"He told me that nobody's gonna see this memo, it's going straight to Sacramento," Vodicka said, his voice breaking into sobs. "I trusted him."
But soon a guard accused Vodicka of getting him transferred with his latest Green Wall memo, the lawsuit says. Information from the confidential report seemed to spread quickly and soon a sergeant warned Vodicka that guards were calling him a snitch.
The label is considered so dangerous in prison that if a guard calls an inmate a snitch and the inmate is hurt, the officer can be held criminally liable. Vodicka was transferred for safety to Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga. The circumstances behind the move were supposed to be kept confidential, but his trials apparently continued.
A Pleasant Valley captain said he recognized him as "the one that was on the victim witness protection program," Vodicka said. A sergeant at the new prison repeatedly called him a "snitch" and a "rat" in front of inmates and guards, the lawsuit says. At one point a lieutenant banged a phone receiver against a window to get Vodicka's attention.
"He says, 'Hey, I've got the FBI on the telephone, who you tellin' on now?'" Vodicka said.
Isolated and overcome with stress, Vodicka went on disability and left the prison in February 2003. He tended to his health and pursued legal action against the state and numerous Salinas Valley State Prison employees.
Vodicka's troubles continued on the outside. A prison sergeant allegedly confronted him last summer while he was at the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles with his family. He lost his workers' compensation case, even though the judge said his decision was merely procedural, and he respected Vodicka as an imperiled whistle-blower.
Now Vodicka is proceeding with his lawsuit against the state, but his main focus is safety. He wears body armor most times he goes out and he fears for his family. He has been moving between safe places and communicating through intermediaries.
Vodicka's appearance in Sacramento was a rare foray into the heart of the institution he has clashed with, but he felt he had to do it.
"Will it make a difference? You bet," said his attorney, Lanny Tron. "Whether or not Don knows it now, he's gonna know it. He looks at himself every day in the mirror and knows he's doing the right thing, as painful as it is."
Dan Laidman can be reached at 646-4346.
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 Thu, Feb. 10, 2005
Budget chair may hold prison money in guard's murder dispute
SACRAMENTO - An assemblyman who oversees corrections spending said Thursday he will withhold the prison system's entire administration budget unless he gets more answers about the stabbing death last month of the first corrections officer to die in an inmate assault since 1996.
Two days of legislative hearings this week by the subcommittee led by Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, D-Norwalk, and a news conference Thursday all centered on whether correctional officers at the California Institution for Men in Chino should have been issued hundreds of warehoused stab-resistant vests before the Jan. 10 slaying of 43-year-old Manuel A. Gonzalez Jr.
"I want to know who's responsible for the death of Manuel A. Gonzalez" by not distributing the vests, said Bermudez, his voice trembling, flanked by a portrait of Gonzalez and by members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Unless those individuals are identified and fired, the administration budgets for the Department of Corrections and Youth and Adult Correctional Agency will be eliminated, Bermudez said.
He didn't know how much money was at stake. Previous efforts by budget committees to punish individual agencies over various disputes have generally failed in final budget negotiations.
Administration officials contend Bermudez is doing the bidding of the powerful guards' union, of which he remains a member despite taking a leave of absence from his job as a parole officer.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, rejected a demand from Corrections Director Jeanne Woodford that Bermudez be removed from chairing his budget subcommittee because of what Woodford contends is "a glaring conflict of interest" because Bermudez is a Department of Corrections employee.
The prison system's inspector general and a special expert panel will examine distribution of the vests and other issues after the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office decides whether to file criminal charges, said agency spokesman J.P. Tremblay. Prison officials have identified inmate Jon Blaylock, 35, as the prime suspect in the slaying.
"We want answers as well," said Tremblay, but "let's get the facts before we start jumping to conclusions."
Bermudez and guards' union President Mike Jimenez disparaged prison officials' contention that negotiations with the prison union slowed the distribution of $1.7 million worth of protective vests.
Jimenez, speaking at Bermudez's news conference, criticized as a "bullying tactic" Woodford's demand this week that the assemblyman be removed from his committee post or quit his corrections job.
"You don't remove the critic that's holding you responsible," Bermudez said, denying any conflict.
As a parole officer on leave, Bermudez is in a position to negotiate a union contract and pension benefits that will affect him personally, said Woodford and Tremblay.
But the prison union's contract permits members to take a leave of absence to serve in the Legislature, and the Legislative Counsel advised in October that there is no conflict of interest, said Nunez's spokesman Vincent Duffy.
Prison officials were particularly upset with Tuesday's hearing that
they said turned Gonzalez's murder into "a political issue." They threatened
to boycott future hearings unless they are focused on budget issues.
Code of Silence
Three Strikes Legal - Index