Sacramento -- On the day before Roderick Hickman quit his job as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's corrections czar, he bumped into the lead lobbyist for the state's prison guards union, who was walking out of a meeting with Schwarzenegger's chief of staff.
Hickman became incensed, and the next day he fired off an angry e-mail to Cabinet Secretary Fred Aguiar announcing his resignation and suggesting the governor's office had lost the political will to make big changes in the state's dysfunctional prison system. Hickman, several sources close to him say, was concerned that the union was beginning to have more clout than he had among the governor's top aides.
After two years of frosty relations, the Schwarzenegger administration has reached out to the politically powerful prison guards union as the governor faces a difficult re-election bid and as negotiations begin on a new labor contract to replace a lucrative deal the union struck with former Gov. Gray Davis.
The closer relationship has been one reason behind the resignation of Hickman in February and the announcement this week that acting corrections secretary Jeanne Woodford also will quit, according to multiple sources familiar with the corrections system.
At the same time, the department seems to keep sinking deeper into trouble -- administration officials announced Thursday that they will need an extra $370 million from the state's budget to pay for improvements associated with three lawsuits related to the health care of inmates.
And Schwarzenegger's top prison medical administrator said costs would continue to grow in the future.
Meanwhile, top administration officials, including Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy, have grown increasingly concerned that overcrowding throughout the prison system could lead to violence or other major problems. The system is housing more than 170,000 inmates -- nearly double the amount it is designed to hold. Kennedy met with union representatives Tuesday to discuss what to do about the state's packed prisons.
Woodford was upset because she believed that the union had persuaded the administration to side against her recommendations regarding who should be appointed a warden, according to a corrections employee who asked not to be named.
Administration officials denied that the union was influencing any decision but acknowledged that they have extended an olive branch to a union with which they have clashed previously. But they said holding more meetings was simply a way to communicate with a group that represents much of the prison workforce.
"It's important that the governor's office communicate with the prison guards because of the role they play in the system," said Adam Mendelsohn, Schwarzenegger's communications director.
Mendelsohn noted that the governor's top staff had been trying to meet this year with groups he has battled previously, such as the California Teachers Association.
Schwarzenegger and the prison guards have had an on-again, off-again relationship.
During his run for governor, Schwarzenegger invited union officials to a set where the film "Terminator 3" was shot and took them to dinner. But soon after taking office, Hickman angered the group when he said at a legislative hearing that a code of silence was pervasive in the prison system, and the prison guards joined the coalition of labor unions that worked against the governor's special election agenda last year.
Schwarzenegger criticized the state's prison system in his 2005 state-of-the-state speech as being overly influenced by the union, and union officials rarely set foot in the governor's offices during the past two years.
That has changed, and political observers note that it's not surprising.
The union has long been a powerful force in gubernatorial politics. Commercials they paid for promoting Gray Davis and attacking Dan Lungren helped Davis win the governor's race in 1998.
The group has not endorsed a candidate for governor yet this year.
According to campaign finance records, political action committees controlled by the union have about $6.2 million to spend this year.
"They have resources they are perfectly willing to spend," noted Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University.
Ads reminding voters of a recently slain prison guard "is not something you want when you're running for re-election," O'Connor said.
Union officials did not return phone calls for comment, but have insisted in the past they are not opposed to making changes in the prison system.
The administration and the union are just beginning negotiations on a new labor pact, as the current agreement expires in July. The current deal, reached with Davis, has been heavily criticized because it awarded raises to prison guards that have so far totaled 23 percent and was signed two months before the union gave $251,000 to Davis' campaign committee in one of the biggest single contributions the former governor ever received.
Woodford's resignation this week is part of an exodus of the department's upper leadership. In addition to Woodford and Hickman, Joe McGrath, who had been third in charge, is retiring effective this week.
All of the administrators have faced intense pressure during the last few years to correct multiple problems: Legal settlements surround many areas, from juvenile justice to dental care to the parole system, and prison reformers in the Legislature and elsewhere have demanded a better effort to help inmates change their habits.
Administration officials announced Thursday that Jim Tilton, a longtime corrections administrator who has been working in the governor's Department of Finance, would become acting corrections secretary.
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