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The State

FBI Probes Lompoc Warden

Guards accuse the federal prison official of policies that empower inmates at the staff's expense. Higher-ups defend his work.

October 06, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

LOMPOC, Calif. — Stepping into a bitter dispute between corrections officers and the warden of the federal penitentiary here, the FBI has launched an investigation into charges that the prison's top manager has instituted policies that effectively have taken control away from the prison's guards and handed it over to the inmates.

The charges against Warden Alvaro Herrera include allegations by the union representing prison guards that he has "fostered a pattern and practice of discrimination against non-Hispanics" that has emboldened inmates in the high-security prison.

Defending Herrera, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has praised him as a dedicated professional devoted to "the highest standards of correctional management" at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc. In addition to the FBI inquiry, the Bureau of Prisons has conducted its own investigation of charges against Herrera, many of them linked to a riot in June.

"Specifically concerning the allegations raised, the matter is still under review," said Daniel R. Dunne, spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons in Washington. "However, our preliminary review of the issues raised finds no evidence whatsoever to support the allegations."

The simmering feud between Herrera and leaders of the union representing the prison guards has surfaced most dramatically since the June 1 riot. Eight guards were hospitalized and 20 other guards received minor injuries. One prisoner was injured.

Frank Campo, president of Local 3048 of the American Federation of Government Employees, has hired an Ontario law firm called the Administrative Law Group to push for Herrera's ouster.

In an Aug. 28 letter to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, law firm investigator William A. Friedrich said the situation is becoming increasingly serious.

"Drastic action by the bureau is warranted to avert incidents that could result in injury," he wrote.

Calling for Herrera to be placed on administrative leave, the union also contacted the FBI's Los Angeles office. Laura Bosley, FBI spokeswoman, said: "We have received the allegations and have initiated an inquiry into the situation."

The increased friction between prison guards and Herrera comes as the Bureau of Prisons is in the early stages of a plan that would close the high-security area at Lompoc and transfer about 1,430 inmates there to a new federal penitentiary in Victorville. That transfer is expected to begin as early as next February.

The Lompoc prison, stretched across spacious grounds and hidden from most of the agricultural area that surrounds it by a small forest of eucalyptus trees, is essentially two separate correctional institutions. One is the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution, which houses about 1,520 prisoners. The other is the high-security penitentiary. The compound also has two work camps.

Once the high-security prison population is transferred to Victorville, Lompoc will lose its status as a U.S. penitentiary and will revert to the status of federal correctional institution, housing a medium- to low-security population. Replacing the high-security inmates will be less dangerous convicts from other prisons, including Terminal Island in San Pedro.

"I don't think it's breaking anybody's heart that the high-security prisoners will be leaving," said Santa Barbara County Supervisor Joni Gray, who represents the Lompoc area. "But the truth is that nobody around here has ever really been very fearful of the prison population."

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