Prison Guards’ Clout Called ‘Disturbing’
After launching “one of the most productive periods of prison reform” in California history, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has retreated from the cause and given the guards union a “disturbing” level of clout over prison policy and operations, a federal court investigator charged Wednesday.
Special Master John Hagar accused Schwarzenegger of backpedaling and warned that California was returning to an era when union leaders were allowed to “overrule the most critical decisions” of prison administrators.
Hagar, whose findings were spelled out in a 34-page report, linked the turnaround to the governor’s January appointment of Susan Kennedy, a one-time aide to former Gov. Gray Davis, as his chief of staff.
Within four months of her hiring, Hagar said, two of Schwarzenegger’s handpicked Corrections Department chiefs had resigned amid concerns that union officials were being given too much say over appointments and other management moves.
After their departures, Hagar said, prison leaders were “confused, understaffed, dispirited, and most important, uncertain who is really in charge” -- the head of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or the president of the union, known as the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
Hagar’s draft report is ultimately intended for U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who presides over two ongoing cases involving California’s severely overcrowded and widely maligned prison system. First, however, Hagar will hold a July hearing so the union and state can raise objections.
Hagar said he would ask the judge for authority to further investigate the recent resignations of the corrections secretaries and other “disturbing developments,” which he said could wipe out two years of “productive” prison reform. As part of that inquiry, Hagar said he would hold public hearings, at which Kennedy and a second top aide to the governor -- Cabinet Secretary Fred Aguiar -- would be called to testify.
At the union’s West Sacramento headquarters, Executive Vice President Chuck Alexander called the report a collection of “unfounded, inaccurate accusations” and lambasted Hagar for “not vetting these issues before putting pen to paper.”
Alexander also disputed Hagar’s assertion that the union holds great sway with the governor: “Do we now have somebody who is willing to listen to our issues? Yes. Do we have the influence he claims? Let me tell you, if we had that, there would be a lot more people gone and a system that works much better than the one we’ve got.”
In a prepared statement, the governor’s press secretary, Margita Thompson, said “open lines of communication” with all groups, including labor unions, were essential to prison reform. She said Schwarzenegger believes “it is irresponsible and ineffective to solve our prison crisis without communicating with every party involved.”
Wednesday’s report is the latest chapter in a civil rights case that led Henderson to place Pelican Bay State Prison under his supervision and name Hagar his investigator. In 1995, Hagar ruled that brutality by officers at the prison on the North Coast was violating inmates’ rights.
In recent years, Hagar and the judge have expanded their focus to include the Corrections Department’s internal disciplinary system. In previous reports, Hagar has said undue union influence was thwarting efforts by corrections leaders to punish wrongdoing by prison guards across the state.
With 31,000 members, the union is one of the most powerful players in California politics, having contributed millions to candidates and initiative fights in recent years.
At the start of his term, Schwarzenegger distanced himself from the union. Its leaders said the chilly relations -- compared to the friendlier connections of the Davis administration -- meant they were excluded from many decisions that affected their rank and file.
They targeted much of their anger at Roderick Hickman, whom Schwarzenegger appointed Corrections Department secretary after his 2003 election. A one-time guard and prison warden, Hickman was initially viewed with suspicion by those who thought he would be too close to the union that represented him for 20 years.
Instead, he launched an effort to wipe out the “code of silence” that he and others said deterred prison officers from reporting misconduct by colleagues.
Under pressure from Henderson, he also rebuilt the employee disciplinary system and toughened penalties for wrongdoing -- moves that Hagar praised Wednesday. (Hickman quit in February and was replaced by Jeanne Woodford, who left the administration in April.)
Schwarzenegger seemed to fully back the direction. In his 2005 State of the State speech, he said the union held too much sway over management of the prison system.
But recently, the frosty relations began to thaw. Aides to the governor -- who is seeking reelection -- say extending an olive branch is something they also are doing with other groups with which Schwarzenegger has previously clashed.
The aides said that although Kennedy and Aguiar have met with the prison officers union -- including lunching with its president -- it has been mostly to discuss prison overcrowding and construction.
They denied a charge by Hagar that Kennedy and Aguiar had met with the union about a candidate recommended for a job by then-Corrections Secretary Woodford. The candidate was not given the post, and Hagar blamed it on union interference.
Woodford quit soon after, and those familiar with her thinking said she was frustrated that her nominees had been rejected.
In another sign of improved relations between Schwarzenegger’s office and the prison guards union, the governor had a meeting with union President Mike Jimenez as recently as Tuesday. Schwarzenegger and Jimenez spoke for half an hour about prison overcrowding, prison construction and a proposal to relocate female inmates, according to Adam Mendelsohn, the governor’s communications director.
The scathing federal report comes on the eve of the administration’s negotiations with the guards union over a new labor contract. Hagar said the state is in a poor position to negotiate the new pact because of a “quiet purge” that the governor’s office has initiated in the state Department of Personnel Administration, which handles negotiations with employee unions.
In April or May, Hagar said, the department’s director and deputy director were “told to resign,” leaving the state without “experienced labor administrators” to undertake negotiations.
Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the department, said the departures were not coerced. She said that the two had long planned their retirements and that the administration has since hired a private negotiator to lead the union talks.
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.