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Senate Committee Backs 2 Top Corrections Appointees

The panel's action all but assures their confirmation to run the state's troubled system.

June 24, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The two leaders picked by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to turn around California's scandal-plagued prison system won unanimous confirmation by a key Senate committee Wednesday.

The Rules Committee action means Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Roderick Hickman and Department of Corrections Director Jeanne Woodford are all but certain to win endorsement by the full Senate soon.

At the close of the packed confirmation hearing, Senate Leader John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) wished the pair well but warned, "You two have a job to do."

Burton added that the two officials may be taking power at a fortuitous time, "because any improvement is going to look like great improvement."

Reflecting the months of federal investigations, lawsuits, scathing watchdog reports and other troubles that have rocked the prison system recently, Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) summed up her thoughts this way: "It's good luck to you."

Hickman, 48, is a former warden and 24-year corrections veteran who began his career as a prison guard. He is the first agency chief to have worked inside a prison and the first African American to hold the job.

As secretary, he will earn $132,412 a year for overseeing a $6-billion system that includes adult and youth prisons, more than 50,000 employees, the state parole board and the Board of Corrections.

Hickman said his goals included changing the culture of corrections and abolishing a "code of silence" among employees that has thwarted investigations of rogue guards and other employees who engage in misconduct.

Shortly after his appointment, he issued a memo declaring "zero tolerance" for the code of silence, noting that those who foster it can be fired.

On Wednesday, Romero asked Hickman about a dozen employees who were questioned in a recent case involving the death of an inmate at a state prison in Corcoran but who refused to provide answers -- apparently adhering to the code of silence.

Acknowledging Romero's concerns, Hickman said, "I cannot sit here before you and vow perfection.... We will acknowledge our errors. We will hold people accountable and we are going to be transparent."

Woodford, 50, was serving as warden of San Quentin State Prison when Schwarzenegger picked her to run the Department of Corrections. With about 160,000 inmates and 32 prisons, the adult system is larger than that of any other state.

Woodford said one of her priorities was to better prepare inmates for parole.

In the past, inmates were provided a three-week, voluntary pre-release program that focused on nuts and bolts, such as how to obtain a driver's license. Now, Woodford said, convicts will begin working with parole experts six months before their release date, planning where they will live and work and what support services they may need.

"This is a great improvement," Woodford said. "Do we need to improve on that? Absolutely. We want inmates to work on their release plan from the day they come in."

As director, a job that pays $123,000 a year, Woodford must deal with the prison guards union, which has been an influential force in California politics.

When Schwarzenegger appointed Woodford, the union -- the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. -- applauded the move.

Hickman, meanwhile, has irked union leaders, who say his comments about the code of silence have demoralized the officer corps.

Union leaders took no position on Hickman's confirmation Wednesday. Leaders of several other groups, however, supported the secretary, praising his candor and experience.

"He says what he means, he means what he says, and there's no in between," said Suzanna Aguilera-Marrero of the Chicano Correctional Workers Assn.

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