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Prison Guard Turned Boss Presses for Reform

Taking over an agency mired in scandal, corrections chief Rod Hickman is targeting misconduct within the state's penal system.

March 18, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

GALT, Calif. — Rod Hickman stands on a flag-draped stage in a crisp blue suit, gazing out at 310 men and women ready to swear an oath to become prison guards.

A quarter-century ago, Hickman was one of them, a correctional academy cadet, trained and eager to patrol the cellblocks of California. Now he's the big boss, and on this bright February morning he arrives from Sacramento with a message for the rookies:

Beware, or this job will rot your soul.

For Hickman, that sober warning cannot be trumpeted enough these days. Since his appointment four months ago as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's secretary of youth and adult corrections, Hickman has preached a rousing gospel of reform for an agency battling scandal on multiple fronts.

"This is a challenging time in corrections," he said after the graduates had dispersed to swap hugs. "We need to restore our integrity and regain the public trust.... It's daunting, but we can't go anywhere but up."

Proof of that grim assessment abounds. Over the past several months, California's $6-billion-a-year penal system has been hit by a wave of troubles that most describe as unprecedented.

In November, an independent watchdog agency said the state's prisons amount to a "revolving door" for criminals, with parolees so ill-prepared for freedom that two out of three wind up back behind bars.

Soon afterward, a federal court investigator reported that a "code of silence" condoned by top prison management allowed rogue guards to go unpunished for abusing inmates and other misdeeds.

In mid-January, concern erupted about the California Youth Authority, the state's juvenile prison system. Two teenagers hanged themselves with bedsheets in their cell, and a flurry of reports lambasted the youth system as overrun with violence and plagued by substandard medical and psychiatric care. Now, a scuffle between counselors and inmates at a youth facility in Stockton is also under investigation.

At one time, such disclosures would have roused little public notice. But a combination of forces has suddenly landed prisons -- and those who work and live within them -- squarely on the Capitol agenda.

Hickman, 47, took the helm amid this turbulence, and was quickly summoned to testify before lawmakers who were holding hearings on the troubles. Rather than defend the system, the plain-spoken secretary delivered a disarming admission: California's prisons are dysfunctional institutions ripe for reform.

"So far, he is saying and doing all the right things, and that is a refreshing change," said Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the oversight committee on corrections. "But can he turn this ship around? We'll see."

The hurdles are many and formidable. California's prison system -- the nation's largest -- is vast and far-flung, with 32 adult lockups and 13 juvenile facilities and camps. Altogether, corrections employees number about 50,000, many of them represented by a labor union with tremendous sway over decisions large and small.

Beyond the legislative scrutiny and a governor who wants quick action, Hickman faces pressure from a U.S. district judge, who has threatened to place the Department of Corrections in federal receivership if it does not refashion its employee discipline system.

"Talk about multi-tasking -- this is a very, very big job," said Haunani Henry of Sacramento, a retired warden who spent 35 years in corrections. "And with all the agendas and the politics, it's going to be difficult."

Henry, who hired Hickman as her second in command at Mule Creek State Prison, is among many who believe he may be the right man for the times. They describe him as a nimble communicator with a can-do style, a passion for corrections, an ethical core and extensive knowledge of the system.

Oddly, that insider perspective is a novelty for the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, founded in 1980. Hickman, who earns $131,412 a year, is the first African American corrections secretary and the first who has worked inside a prison.

For a man who entered corrections somewhat on a whim, landing on top of the heap has felt downright surreal. At the recent academy graduation, Hickman shared those feelings of awe: "In June of 1979, I sat where you sat," he told the hushed cadets. "And I never would have thought -- I never would have thought."

Hickman's steely gaze and imposing physical presence -- he's a lifelong weightlifter -- belie a softer center. Onetime foster parents, he and his wife, Gloria, a corrections captain, now have an adopted son, Roderick Jahid. Hickman strives never to miss his turn to escort the third-grader to Cub Scouts, and loves to recount how Jahid, nervous about meeting Schwarzenegger at his father's swearing-in, practiced his handshake repeatedly in the family's kitchen.

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