Guards Union Is Giving Prisons Chief Hard Time
A year after he was hired to straighten out the state’s dysfunctional prison system, California Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman is weathering resistance from one source above all others: the labor union that represented him for 20 years.
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Hickman, a lifelong prison guard and manager, correctional officers rejoiced that, finally, one of their own would be running the show. At the same time, skeptics questioned whether he would stand up to the union, a formidable force inside the prisons and beyond.
In a reversal of expectations, it is the union -- the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. -- that is most displeased with Hickman thus far. In speeches, legislative hearings, media interviews and private Capitol meetings, its leaders routinely bash the secretary as, in the words of President Mike Jimenez, “an embarrassment.”
The attacks represent a new style of aggressiveness on the part of the union as it duels with prison managers over the rights and benefits of its 31,000 members. Once a welcome presence in the inner circle of corrections leadership, union officials now say they are increasingly left out of decisions that affect their rank and file.
“There’s a change in the way the Department of Corrections and the union communicate, a chill on our conversation,” said union Executive Vice President Lance Corcoran. “The management team is trying to distance themselves from the stakeholders who deliver the message on the front lines.”
A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said the governor is aware of the union’s criticism and proud of Hickman “for showing courage and moving forward, especially given this much abuse.”
“The governor has told him, ‘If the union wasn’t this upset at you, you wouldn’t be doing the job right,’ ” added Rob Stutzman, the governor’s communications director.
Critics of the union hope the feud portends a waning of its influence on corrections policy and the day-to-day running of prisons. In a January report, a federal court investigator charged that the union’s reach was so pervasive that it had successfully pressured a former corrections director to kill a perjury investigation of two guards, and then to conspire with others to conceal his actions.
“I’ve never seen the union lash out like this,” said Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, a group that tracks conditions in California prisons. “I think it’s symptomatic of an organization being pushed to a place where they don’t want to go.”
Hickman said he is taking the attacks in stride. As a political appointee, he said, “I expect to take shots from time to time.” He added that the union -- like the 17 other bargaining units in state prisons -- “obviously has a role in certain arenas. But they do not have a role in every arena,” he said, “and I think that’s a change from how things operated in the past.”
Hickman made that definition of roles particularly clear recently by appointing a deputy secretary of labor, Brigid Hanson. The move, he said, was a signal to the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. and other unions that when it comes to most labor disputes, “this is the person you call -- not me ... not the 33 wardens.”
Appointed by Schwarzenegger late last year, Hickman has focused much of his energy on purging the prison system of a “code of silence” that he and others say deters prison guards from reporting misconduct by colleagues. Under pressure from a federal judge, he also launched an employee disciplinary system that toughened penalties for wrongdoing.
Adding teeth to such moves, Hickman has approved the dismissal of 15 correctional employees linked to the alleged beatings of inmates. In one case that received national attention over the summer, a videotape showed correctional counselors at a youth prison beating two young convicts. Six prison employees were eventually fired over that incident.
More recently, nine officers at Salinas Valley State Prison were dismissed over a 2003 incident involving an inmate who was beaten after refusing to leave an exercise area and return to his cell, corrections officials said. After the beating, the guards allegedly conspired to cover it up.
“It’s been a rough year for the union on a lot of fronts,” Specter said, “and they’re making Hickman the focal point for their anger.”
Hickman began drawing fire from the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. right from the start. Once an insignificant player in the Capitol, the union has grown over the last two decades into one of the most powerful forces in state politics. A generous donor supporting both Democratic and Republican candidates, the union spent more than $1 million to defeat this year’s Proposition 66, which sought to soften the three-strikes initiative.
Corcoran, the union executive, said Hickman’s testimony describing the code of silence during a January Senate hearing was “particularly demoralizing, because it cast all of us in the same bad light. We’ve never said everyone who’s wearing a badge should be wearing a badge, and we’ve never said that bad cops should be tolerated,” he added. “But we do believe in due process.”
Since then, union leaders have kept up a steady chorus of criticism.
In May, they sent legislators a flier depicting Hickman’s smiling face on a milk carton under the word “Missing,” accusing him of failing to defend the rank and file as criticism -- from legislators and the courts -- rained down upon them.
More recently, a top union official sent a letter to every warden in the state, urging them to “take a stand for the troops” and resist changes underway in the 165,000-inmate system. Drawing a parallel with the tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the Nov. 5 letter urged the wardens not to “passively follow along and remain silent, knowing that it is wrong.”
The most biting barbs have been delivered through an Internet site called “PacoVilla’s CCPOA blog.” While billed as a forum for debate on “all things correctional,” the weblog spends an inordinate amount of space on Hickman, nicknaming him “Spud,” belittling his reforms and depicting him as the Cowardly Lion from “Wizard of Oz.”
One posting slammed Hickman for spending “untold staff resources developing an encyclopedic ‘Mission, Values and Vision’ statement which aspires to do everything short of finding a cure for cancer while ignoring ... public safety.”
Another said: “Spud is asleep at the wheel. He’s out cutting ribbons for convict clinics, posing for CDC ‘Today’ photos and declaring war on CCPOA ... while [officers] are being beaten nearly to death.”
The blog also featured a major union complaint -- that Hickman reneged on a July deal that would have permitted roughly 3,000 prison lieutenants, sergeants and others to dictate to managers which shifts they would work.
“Your actions are inexcusable,” union Supervisory Vice President R.A. Dean said in a letter posted on the site. “Managers are expected to lead by example.”
Union leaders say they have no formal connection with the blog, and do not know who is behind it. But the union has periodically promoted the blog on its telephone hotline and in postings on prison bulletin boards.
Corcoran said that although “some of the stuff on there is troublesome ... it’s good for morale for staff to have an outlet to vent.”
Not all correctional officers take it so lightly. Several dozen African American guards, for instance, wrote letters to union president Jimenez, calling the blog’s contents a racist attack on Hickman, the state’s first black corrections secretary.
Roy Mabry, president of the Assn. of Black Correctional Workers, said he asked the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. president to “put a stop to this stuff, because it’s giving us a bad image.”
“They’ve never attacked other secretaries the way they’re attacking Hickman, and it ought to stop,” Mabry said. “He didn’t create our problems, and he’s taking steps to fix them.”
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) is one of several legislators occasionally mocked by the PacoVilla weblog. The chairwoman of a special Senate committee on corrections, Romero said that though it’s distasteful, the blog “falls under free speech.” She added that she has become so disturbed by the disintegrating relationship between the guards union and prison management that she convened a recent meeting between Hickman and top union officials.
Romero said the meeting showed “there is a lot of hostility in the air,” but that “everyone shook hands at the end,” and progress was made.
Others said it was an angry session, replete with coarse language, accusations by union officials and an early exit by state officials.
In an interview, Hickman said he does not worry about the attacks on his performance, but that he receives many calls and e-mails from officers and supervisors concerned about the criticism and supportive of his work.
Pulling out his hand-held computer, Hickman shared two new e-mail messages -- one from an associate warden, another from a sergeant -- praising a recent videotape he distributed on the code of silence.
“We’re heading in a new direction,” Hickman said. The prison guards union “can get on the train or get left at the station.”