Sacramento - Can a onetime counselor who launched yoga and gardening classes for inmates turn around the state's rough-and-tumble prison system?
Jeanne Woodford was hardly a typical California warden when she ran San Quentin State Prison. She preached education for felons in a corrections agency that has been more human warehouse than classroom. She was a beacon for community volunteers in a system that is mostly shuttered from society. She oozed compassion for inmates and guards in a grim setting.
"She's the only warden I ever hugged,'' noted state Sen. Gloria Romero, a prison reformer who has visited many lockups and met dozens of corrections officials.
Earlier this year, Woodford left San Quentin, where she worked for 25 years and rose from jobs as a guard and counselor to take the top spot. Picked by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to be the boss of the state's 32 wardens, she is expected to win confirmation from a key state Senate committee this week, a major step on her way to officially becoming director of the Department of Corrections.
Her task is to revamp the most troubled operation in state government.
Months of legislative hearings, federal investigations and blistering watchdog reports have led lawmakers, criminal-justice experts and corrections officials to agree: state prisons cost too much, produce career criminals who threaten public safety and are so rife with scandal that a joke memo recently posted on a prison guard's Web log seemed almost believable.
The memo announced the creation of the Pending Indictment Division in corrections, where employees under investigation would be sent to work until their court date.
"Jeanne Woodford was exemplary as a warden,'' Romero, D-Los Angeles, said. "But it ain't Kansas anymore when you get to Sacramento. She has a hell of a job ahead of her.''
"Let's Make This Happen.''
Woodford's legacy at San Quentin can be seen in the prison's H unit every Tuesday.
Twenty or so inmates, many covered in tattoos, gather to do sun salutations and other common yoga moves. The class is taught by James Fox, a Marin County volunteer who believes yoga can play a part in lessening the rage and addiction that has dominated many inmates' lives.
Inside H unit, about 200 inmates live in what Woodford dubbed "Success Dorm" when she initiated the program two years ago. Prisoners work at jobs in the institution during the day and take classes in the evening. They each keep a journal, as required by the dorm's program.
The classes, mostly taught by volunteers, offer a little bit of everything.
Inmates learn about the "Fatal Peril,'' or the moment just before anger can lead to violence. They read Dr. Seuss to learn how to read with children in a parenting class. They have planted a 1,200-square-foot garden that includes native California plants, as well as mint, lavender and roses.
"Prison was the best thing that ever happened to me,'' said Darin Ray, a 37-year-old Santa Cruz man who spent 27 months in San Quentin and lived in Success Dorm.
Ray is out now and has switched occupations from cocaine dealer to truck driver. He finds himself meditating for a few minutes a day when things don't go his way.
Success Dorm is a testament to both Woodford's prison philosophy and can- do personality.
"True public protection is making sure we send inmates out of our prisons in better shape than when they come in,'' Woodford said in an interview.
But having a vision and actually getting something done within the slow- moving corrections bureaucracy are two entirely different things.
"Her accomplishment was this: She was the one who said, 'Let's make this happen,' " said Beth Waitkus, who teaches the gardening class in the Success Dorm.
Waitkus noted there were all kinds of concerns about a garden on prison grounds. Guards worried tall plants would block visibility or become an easy place to hide a weapon. Woodford spent considerable time working out a compromise; now only small, non-bushy plants grow in the San Quentin garden.
On The Brink Of Bankruptcy
Most state prisons don't have anything like the Success Dorm.
California prisons seem to be best at perpetuating criminal behavior: two out of every three inmates return to custody within 18 months of release, either for failing conditions of parole or for committing a new crime. California has the unwelcome distinction as a national leader in recidivism.
The reasons behind the recidivism aren't all that complex.
Mounting evidence suggests convicts who change their ways in the outside world participate in educational and vocational programming in prison. They also stay in touch with their families.
California's penal system makes it difficult for inmates to do either. The state spends only about $163,000 out of a $5.7 billion annual budget on classes. Only about 30 percent of the state's 162,000 inmates have access to education, vocational or rehabilitation programs. And corrections significantly reduced visiting hours at all prisons this year.
A steadily increasing population has shifted most prison money to pay guards and for things like health care. In addition, politicians decided nearly 30 yeas ago to remove rehabilitation as a department mission.
Woodford has an interesting take on that move, perpetuated in part because of political rhetoric centered on cracking down on criminals. She says removing education and vocational programs from prison isn't tough on crime.
"The problem is we haven't expected much of our inmate population at all, '' she said. "We've expected them to do their time. I think we need to raise those standards.''
Sky-high recidivism has taken a back seat this year, however, as lawmakers like Romero and Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, have hauled corrections officials into more than a dozen public hearings to explain several scandals and budget mishaps.
Whistleblowers from Chino, Folsom and Sacramento have recounted their tales of being punished for trying to right a wrong in the system. A corrections analyst who presciently warned his bosses years ago that overtime and sick leave costs would lead to bankruptcy was reassigned to a do-nothing job where he read 170 books, according to testimony given at one legislative hearing.
In another, Schwarzenegger administration officials appeared almost boastful as they described plans to hold wardens accountable for spending within their means until one Republican lawmaker noted that their reforms sounded like basic business practices used by even the tiniest corner deli.
Simply put, Speier says corrections is "an out-of-control system.''
Woodford "is akin to a CEO taking over a company that is on the brink of bankruptcy,'' she said.
'The System Can Change'
What Speier wants in a new corrections director is a strong manager. Whether Woodford will succeed is a question mark, she said.
Woodford's time at San Quentin wasn't without some of the same problems that have attracted headlines this year.
San Quentin had some of the highest overtime costs in the system, doling out more than $8 million on overtime in 2003, when 40 prison guards earned more than $100,000 thanks largely to overtime.
Woodford is expected to testify soon at a State Personnel Board hearing in the case of Kathy Deocampo, a San Quentin employee who tried to blow the whistle about shoddy management practices there that she says led to a dangerous mixing of inmates of different security levels. Deocampo's lawyer will interrogate Woodford about why she didn't help Deocampo and whether she did anything to address Deocampo's concerns.
And lawmakers have complaints about how some things have been handled since Woodford began her new job in February.
She is opposed to legislation proposed by Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, that would require the department to develop a plan for each inmate. Woodford feels it will be too expensive, but Vasconcellos said she's taking a "stupid position that seems to go against what I thought she believes in.''
Speier noted that a memo from Woodford and corrections agency secretary Roderick Hickman announcing zero-tolerance for the code of silence in prisons was followed by dozens of guards in Corcoran refusing to help a district attorney investigate a case involving an inmate who bled to death.
And while Woodford says she wants to replicate the Success Dorm in prisons throughout the state, there are many doubters. It's one thing to build a squadron of volunteers for a prison in the Bay Area, where inmates-rights groups thrive and generations of Marin County residents have volunteered at San Quentin.
How many yoga volunteers are there in Blythe (Riverside County) or Crescent City (Del Norte County)?
But many who worked inside the walls of San Quentin with Woodford say if anyone can remake the department, she can.
"She believes people can change,'' said Barry Zack, who
runs Marin County's Centerforce, which provides services for
inmates and their families. "And she believes the system
can change. I know she wouldn't have taken the job if she didn't
E-mail Mark Martin at email@example.com.
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