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Leaves for Prison Guards Criticized

Times Staff Writer

As many as 109 prison guards and other corrections workers have been placed on paid leaves that have gone on for months and sometimes years as authorities investigate alleged misdeeds ranging from having sex with inmates and selling drugs in the prison to spousal abuse and manslaughter, officials said Thursday.

One guard has been on paid leave from a Southern California institution since Oct. 30, 2000, as the FBI investigates allegations that he had been associating with inmates or parolees who are suspected gang members.

Meanwhile, the officer -- like every other state employee accused but not yet convicted of a crime -- has been collecting his full pay -- about $55,000 a year -- plus all benefits due to prison guards. The benefits include paid vacation and sick leave. The officer also is accumulating pension benefits.

Department of Corrections officials described the “administrative time off” program during a legislative oversight hearing, as lawmakers demanded to know why the employees weren’t fired or suspended without pay pending the inquiries. The explanation prison officials gave -- that due process and complicated investigations required that the accused be given paid leaves -- left lawmakers agape.

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“It is an absolute embarrassment and a taxpayer boondoggle,” Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) said.

“This is unbelievable,” said Sen. Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood), a former county probation officer. “You’re rewarding misbehavior.”

Prison authorities did not defend the system, except to say that the internal unit that investigates each case needs more officers, given the amount of wrongdoing alleged.

“We recognize we have to become more efficient in our discipline process,” said Kathy M. Kinser, Corrections’ chief deputy director.

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Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who along with Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), presided over the hearing, placed the cost of the paid-leave program in “the millions.”

She pressed prison officials about what responsibilities employees have when they are on paid leave. The answer: They are supposed to remain at their homes during business hours, unless they receive a pass from bosses at their prisons. But other than making a telephone call every week or so to the employees’ homes, prison authorities don’t check on them.

“They could have their phones forwarded to their cell phones and they could be out on the golf course,” Speier said.

Although all state departments place workers suspected of wrongdoing on paid leave, the Department of Corrections has suspended more of its employees than all other agencies combined.

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Department officials acknowledged that they do not know the depth of the problem; a computer crash last year destroyed many case records.

Corrections identified 77 guards and other prison workers who were on paid leave for at least 30 days between July 2002 and February of this year. The Department of Personal Administration, which tracks state workers who have been on paid leave for 30 days or more, places the number at 109.

Whether the number is 77 or 109, it represents a fraction of 1,000 instances a year in which authorities investigate wrongdoing or take disciplinary action against prison employees, officials said. The department has about 48,000 employees.

All other departments reported 60 employees on paid leave for a month or longer. A dozen of them are employees of the California Youth Authority, which houses juvenile offenders.

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Altogether, the prison system reported that between July 2002 and February of this year, there were 20 prison officers and other workers placed on paid leave of 30 days or more because of drug offenses.

Trafficking within prisons, theft of drugs from prisons and possession of rock cocaine were among the allegations.

One prison nurse was placed on paid leave in February 2002, charged with drug use and possession of drug paraphernalia. She remains on paid leave -- and under criminal investigation for being part of a ring distributing drugs in the prison, officials said.

At least nine cases involved guards allegedly having sex with inmates.

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In one instance, a guard at R.J. Donovan Prison in San Diego County allegedly forced an inmate into having sex.

Although that led to his arrest, the officer was not placed on paid leave until authorities concluded that he was acting “crazy” and began to fear that he might harm others at the prison, an official said Thursday.

Other alleged offenses that resulted in paid leave include loading pornography onto a prison computer, robbery, vehicular manslaughter, child pornography, vandalizing state property, having sex with a minor, brandishing a weapon, spousal abuse and assaulting a police officer.

A prison psychologist was placed on leave because the employee lacked proper credentials, and a prison locksmith was placed on leave for tampering with locks and creating a security breach.

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