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State Prison Investigators Sworn Silent

Times Staff Writers

Agents who investigate wrongdoing in state prisons have been ordered not to disclose information about any aspect of their work to legislators, the media or the governor’s office -- and told to sign a pledge committing to follow the confidentiality rules or face possible sanctions.

The directive, contained in a memo obtained by The Times, was issued as two state senators prepare to hold hearings on misconduct and coverups within the Department of Corrections, including a “code of silence” that often protects rogue guards.

On Thursday, both senators expressed concern that the memo might discourage whistle-blowers from reporting troubles within California’s vast and often criticized correctional system.

“I am deeply concerned that the wording ... could create a chilling effect on employees who seek to report wrongdoing, waste, corruption or illegal activities,” Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said in a letter to the official who wrote the memo.

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Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) added that “it was inartfully written and, from my read, violated individuals’ civil rights and the whistle-blower statute in this state.”

The memo was written by Martin Hoshino, newly hired chief of the department’s Office of Investigative Services. In an interview, Hoshino said he never meant to stifle reports of abuse or other improprieties in the penal system. Nor, he said, did he intend to block his agents from responding to inquiries about internal affairs procedures.

Rather, Hoshino said his goal was to protect the integrity of internal investigations from outside influence, a problem that has dogged the department’s disciplinary efforts in the past.

“The point of doing this was to foster more independence and reduce opportunities to influence investigations,” Hoshino said. He said the memo was prompted by employees within internal affairs who were concerned about leaks that were compromising investigations.

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To clear up the confusion, Hoshino said he would soon release a new memo explaining the origin of the confidentiality policy and declaring that it was not meant to limit the reporting of wrongdoing under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

Nevertheless, at least two agents -- both of whom spoke on the condition that they not be identified for fear of reprisals -- said they viewed the policy as an attempt to silence them at a time of intense scrutiny of the department.

“This obviously is an effort to quiet us down and keep us from coming forward,” said one investigator. He noted that the Senate hearings later this month were prompted by agents who divulged stories about the code of silence among prison guards and pressure by the guards’ union to stymie investigations of brutality.

“The hearings are coming up,” one agent said, “and they want to muzzle us.”

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Other frequent critics of the department agreed that the timing of the new confidentiality policy seemed noteworthy. In addition to the upcoming hearings, The Times recently published an article critical of the department’s record of policing itself. The report appeared the day before the memo was issued.

“The timing suggests that the department is interested in managing information by suppressing it,” said Steve Fama of the Prison Law Office, which provides legal services to inmates. “While it’s necessary to protect the integrity of investigations, sunshine is the best disinfectant.... This directive seems to go too far.”

Amid such criticism, others said they were surprised to see such a memo issued by Hoshino, who was hired late last year to revamp and increase the credibility of the department’s internal affairs unit. Formerly, Hoshino worked for the state inspector general’s office, which investigates abuses within the prison system.

Aides to Speier also noted that Hoshino and other corrections officials have been cooperative under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, providing documents and other help in a timely fashion.

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“There has been no attempt to keep us from talking to anyone [within the prison system],” said Richard Steffen, Speier’s top aide and a key organizer of the upcoming hearings. “There is an openness that we didn’t see with the last administration.”

The Office of Investigative Services is charged with examining allegations of employee misconduct within corrections, from guard brutality to workers’ compensation fraud and sexual harassment. Recently, agents have alleged that their investigations have been stifled by pressure from the powerful guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

Last summer, for example, internal affairs agents in Southern California said top department officials had ordered them to turn over to the union their files in an investigation of claims that Chino state prison guards had beaten five inmates in 2002. The agents also said the department had targeted their Rancho Cucamonga investigative office for closure because they refused to turn over the files, charges the union and department officials denied.

More recently, a federal court hearing was held to explore whether former Corrections Director Edward S. Alameida ended a perjury investigation of three prison guards because of union pressure. Alameida, who denied any interference from the union, resigned shortly after testifying in that case in December.

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