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Guard Challenges Code of Silence

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Times Staff Writer

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Burned Out

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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.”

Hostile Environment

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.”

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