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Prison Monitor Critical of Guards

Report alleges the state's former corrections chief helped the union quash a perjury investigation.

June 25, 2004|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Exploiting weak leadership in California prisons, the 31,000-member guards union has used its clout and its controversial labor contract to impede investigations into alleged excessive force by correctional officers, a long-awaited federal report concluded Thursday.

"Timely, fair and effective investigations may well be impossible," said Special Master John Hagar, who is monitoring state prisons for a federal judge. He said the contract provided the union "with the ideal instrument to enforce the code of silence" among guards.

In his 150-page report, Hagar asked U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson for permission to examine the impact of the state's contract with the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. on investigations and disciplinary actions involving abuse of inmates. One provision of the pact requires the prison administration to immediately provide guards with inmate grievances against them, which Hagar said could discourage inmates from making complaints and could compromise investigations.

Hagar also asked the judge to consider criminal contempt charges against former state Corrections Director Edward Alameida and a deputy for allegedly quashing a perjury investigation involving several officers after union intervention.

But Hagar said he had decided against trying to place the entire prison system under the control of a court-appointed receiver and had dropped plans to pursue civil contempt charges against the Department of Corrections leadership. He said the current prisons administration appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was making adequate efforts to address the so-called code of silence and to improve oversight of the department's disciplinary system.

Henderson is expected to hold hearings and decide what action to take.

Hagar's report is the latest step in a major civil rights case that led the judge to place Pelican Bay State Prison under his supervision and name Hagar as his investigator. In 1995, Henderson ruled that brutality by guards at the notorious maximum security prison in Crescent City, on the coast near Oregon, violated the rights of inmates.

A draft report by Hagar in January said the $5.3-billion prison system was corrupted by a code of silence condoned by top prison officials under the sway of the guards union.

But Thursday's final report took a stronger aim at the union, which represents guards at the state's 32 prisons. Hagar said the union's recent court filings indicated to him "that the CCPOA will continue to interfere with administrative and criminal investigations of correctional officers who abuse inmates, and that the union will continue to enforce the code of silence" in state prisons.

The report also said witnesses brought several incidents to light "where the highest levels of [prison] officials failed to discipline correctional officers because of their fear of a CCPOA reaction."

The document criticized some union contract provisions as major barriers to reforming the prison disciplinary system.

But union Executive Vice President Lance Corcoran said the report failed to recognize the legitimate rights of a union to represent its members. "If defending the due process and constitutional rights of correctional officers is wrong," he said in a telephone interview, "then we stand unapologetically guilty."

Corcoran said unfair investigations prompted the union to seek contract provisions that provided officers with representation and information about accusations against them. He said department inquiries frequently fell apart because they were conducted incompetently and unfairly, not because of worker protections.

The union leader denied that his organization advocated a code of silence to protect accused officers. "We took an oath to protect people from bullies," he said. "If an officer does not have the wherewithal to report wrongdoing, shame on him."

The guards' contract has been the subject of legislation and hearings. To help dig the state out of its budget problems, the governor and lawmakers want the union to reopen the contract, which calls for an 11% wage increase in July.

State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who has held hearings on the prisons, praised Hagar for taking on a powerful union that donates millions of dollars to state politicians. "I think CCPOA is going to have to reassess how it is going to move forward in an era when you have a special master who is not intimidated by them," she said.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Select Committee on Prisons, which has examined allegations of excessive force, said the federal report showed that "there was a vacuum of leadership and, right or wrong, somebody will move forward to assume the leadership.... I believe there is a role ... for the CCPOA, but it must not be allowed to be the deciding role ... or any kind of corrupting role."

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