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April 5, 2004 - The San Jose Mercury News (CA)

[Prison] Reformers' Objectivity Called Into Question

By Mark Gladstone

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

SACRAMENTO - To fix California's strife-ridden prisons, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has turned to some longtime correctional officials who helped create the very system he has vowed to change.

The would-be reformers include two advisers who have been criticized for their handling of violent prison incidents, one who relies on prison officials to pay him for consulting work and a fourth who has strong ties to the politically powerful correctional officers union.

"The people who built the system up are part and parcel of the problem,'' said James Esten, a consultant and former Department of Corrections administrator. If change is what the governor wants, he added, "You need new, outside blood.''

Schwarzenegger hailed his prison advisers as experts on the state's prisons. "The team that I have around me,'' he said recently, "are really the best and the brightest in the field.''

The governor's advisers include:

  • Roderick Q. Hickman, Cabinet secretary for the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. Hickman, a former deputy director of the Department of Corrections, was faulted by a Folsom Prison administrator for failing to quickly investigate a 2002 riot.
  • James Gomez, a Schwarzenegger transition team adviser on prisons. He was director of corrections in the 1990s when shootings of unarmed inmates escalated to unprecedented levels and was accused of hampering probes of the incidents.
  • Robin Dezember, a consultant to Schwarzenegger's prison-reform commission. A former deputy director of the Department of Corrections, Dezember since 2001 has received almost $600,000 in no-bid contracts from the department he is now charged with overhauling.
  • Tim Virga, Schwarzenegger's chief negotiator with the prison guard union. Virga, a former correctional counselor, was president of the Folsom chapter of the politically powerful union, bargained on its behalf in the mid-1990s and has said he might return to the corrections department, where he could receive the benefits he negotiates.

Peter Siggins, Schwarzenegger's legal affairs secretary, said the governor's loose-knit team includes corrections veterans who worked in the 1990s to make the prisons better, but later watched with dismay as the system's reputation was tarnished.

"There's a sense of frustration and a feeling they need to restore a little of the luster to the badge,'' said Siggins, who also has ties to the prisons as a former deputy attorney general who defended them against lawsuits in the 1990s. "The governor has found and selected people with experience in what is a very complicated endeavor.''

To oversee the state's adult prisons, Schwarzenegger also turned to a corrections veteran, Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin. But he tapped Walter Allen, a onetime undercover narcotics officer, to run the state's juvenile detention facilities, making him the most notable outsider among Schwarzenegger's corrections team.

Critics say Schwarzenegger should recruit more impartial voices. "They are recycling people born and raised in the system,'' said John Scott, a San Francisco attorney who sued the department on behalf of whistle-blowers.

In the 4 1/2 months since Schwarzenegger took office, the California Youth Authority and the Department of Corrections have been engulfed in crises.

State-commissioned reports disclosed that California subjects young inmates to the harshest punishments of any juvenile system in the nation, including incarcerating offenders in cages. A video released Thursday showed a guard battering an inmate who had been subdued.

A federal monitor determined the adult prisons shelter brutal guards with a nearly unbreakable code of silence, enforced by the prison guard union with the tacit support of department leaders.


The prisons also chronically fail to control their spending, with prison guard overtime costing $388 million in the past four years, 72 percent over budget. With the state facing a $12 billion budget hole, the corrections department is politically vulnerable.

Schwarzenegger's initial approach to the state's prisons, which came before the monitor's report was released, was to greatly reduce oversight of the system, not expand it. In his first major action, the governor said he would cut back on the independent Inspector General's Office, a key prison watchdog agency, and place it under the control of the very agency it was supposed to oversee.

Four weeks later, embarrassed by unflattering publicity, the governor reversed course, and in March he named Matthew Cate, a deputy attorney general known for handling corruption cases, as the new inspector general.

The incident left prison critics doubting Schwarzenegger's interest in reform. Steve White, Cate's predecessor, also questioned Hickman's credibility because the Cabinet secretary went along with the initial plan.

"If you're committed to fixing the problem, you don't cut deals like that,'' White told a legislative hearing in January.

Hickman has become the most high-profile secretary since the job was created nearly 25 years ago. His allies describe him as a refreshing choice because he's been in the trenches. He's the first former guard to ascend to the No. 1 spot.

Dealing with the guard union will be a major test for Hickman. With the number of inmates growing from 33,000 in 1983 to about 160,000 now, the union's membership and power increased as well. Through lavish campaign donations, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association gained access to Sacramento's power brokers and the ability to influence the selection of wardens.

In his new job, Hickman, who only recently resigned from the guard union, will be required to crack down on correctional officers. A federal court monitor recently declared the department has "lost control'' of its ability to investigate and discipline guards.

Max Lemon, a former Folsom Prison associate warden, questions whether Hickman is the right person for that challenge. He contends that in 2002 Hickman, then a top executive at the Department of Corrections, was among those who played a pivotal role in delaying and narrowing the scope of an investigation into the role guards played in a riot at the prison.

"They talk like he's new to the system, but he is the system,'' said Lemon, now assigned to corrections headquarters. Lemon's complaints prompted an inspector general's probe of the melee that found shortcomings in the way the riot was handled. Lemon himself was accused of using excessive force in the riot when he kicked an inmate but a review determined his action was appropriate.

Hickman denies foot-dragging over the Folsom riot probe he authorized and says his role was limited. If investigators had found issues that required a broadened inquiry, he said, they could have sought it.

Support from Governor

Schwarzenegger dismissed the criticism of Hickman. "He's very knowledgeable,'' the governor said. "I wanted to go and get somebody that has worked his way up the prison system, knows what's going on inside better than a typical politician.''

It was Gomez who approached Hickman about a job with Schwarzenegger.

Gomez is considered the state's most influential modern-day prison decision-maker, after former Gov. George Deukmejian, who presided over a massive expansion of the prison system. Gomez was Deukmejian's chief deputy director. Later, under Gov. Pete Wilson, he was director of corrections. His allies -- some of whom are now back in corrections -- describe Gomez as a tough, professional manager who was without peer when he was in state service.

But, during his tenure, a federal judge ordered the state in 1995 to end what he called a pattern of brutality and neglect at maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison.

Later, Gomez was criticized by lawmakers for an out-of-control department that tolerated officers shooting and, in some cases, killing unarmed inmates during fights. And he was accused by internal investigators of hampering examinations of the shootings.

At the time, Gomez said he was unaware of many of the allegations of brutality and denied that the prisons were out of control.

Gomez volunteered to help Schwarzenegger's transition team. As Schwarzenegger came to office, Gomez ran names of potential appointees past legislative aides and was among those who suggested Hickman as corrections secretary. Administration officials say his role ended when Schwarzenegger was sworn in.

He declined to comment on his work.

Consulting Fees

Dezember, an attorney, was also a top corrections agency official as the prison build-up began and has been in and out of government service ever since. He worked for a firm that provided advice on the prison expansion and later returned to the department as deputy director for health services before opening his own Sacramento consulting firm.

Since 2001, Dezember has been awarded about $598,000 in Department of Corrections consulting contracts. The department confirmed that Dezember had been awarded contracts without a competitive bidding process, primarily to help carry out court decrees aimed at improving health care for inmates.

"I haven't used any connections to win anything,'' Dezember said. "They thought the expertise I had was necessary.''

Department officials said Dezember was well-qualified to help the state, a view echoed by a court master in 2002.

In February, Schwarzenegger named Dezember as a consultant to help the reform panel headed by Deukmejian. Dezember, who is still being paid for an ongoing state contract, will earn $170 an hour to advise Deukmejian.

Robert Stern, president of the non-profit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, questioned whether someone with financial ties to the department can also be impartial when examining its shortcomings.

"When you are receiving substantial money and continuation of that depends on goodwill,'' he asked, "can you be fair and unbiased when you are evaluating what's going on there?''

A similar issue came up last month when Virga, Schwarzenegger's prison labor negotiator, acknowledged that he had served as a bargainer for the prison guard union.

"There's an ethical problem, and if he was an attorney he couldn't do it,'' Stern said.

It will be Virga's job to cut labor deals with the guard union, which has used its political power to win lucrative contracts for its 31,000 members. But Virga has said that he might also return to work for the corrections department, which could make him eligible for the benefits he negotiates with the union.

Schwarzenegger's aides say they were aware of Virga's and Dezember's histories and consider their seasoning an asset.

But consultant Esten wonders why the governor's advisers didn't do more to fix the system "when they were part of it.''

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