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State Chief of Prisons Says He's Resigning

February 26, 2006|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman, who embodied Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's vow to turn around California's violent and scandal-plagued prison system, said Saturday night that he was resigning the post he has held for more than two years.

Hickman, reached by telephone, said that he was calling it quits because he lacked political support for his efforts to create a correctional system that was more than a revolving-door warehouse for felons.

Hickman, 49, said the governor would receive an official letter of resignation Monday.

"I think we've built an excellent foundation, but I just don't see the courage and will we need to get it done across the board in the government of California," Hickman said.

While he believes Schwarzenegger remains interested in prison reform, Hickman said "the special interests we're up against are just too powerful to get much done in the current environment."

He said he had grown increasingly frustrated by legislators who attacked the department -- often during public hearings -- for "small mistakes" that were portrayed as a "massive failure of leadership."

But he also said the influence the powerful prison guards' union wields in Sacramento had nudged him toward the door.

The union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., has battled with Hickman from his first days as secretary -- even though he began his career as a prison guard and was a union member for 20 years.

Recently, that battle had intensified as Hickman was approaching a confirmation hearing in the Senate this spring. Though he was confirmed once, legislation that restructured the department last year required he pass a second test.

Hickman, the administration's highest-ranking African American, said he felt confident he could muster the votes to survive, and Schwarzenegger has professed support for the secretary in the past.

But it was unclear whether the governor's advisors were behind Hickman.

The departure will leave the governor with an enormous hole in his Cabinet and the daunting task of filling what experts say is the toughest correctional job in the nation.

Hickman is responsible for a sprawling $8.2-billion penal system that incarcerates more than 171,000 youth and adult convicts and employs 59,000 people throughout the state.

He was brought in as a reformer and, from the start, faced immense problems, including severe overcrowding, an aging inmate population that has driven up healthcare costs and an entrenched gang problem that has defied easy solution.

Because of a series of lawsuits, Hickman also was forced to navigate in an environment where large portions of his domain were under court supervision.

Last week, a federal judge appointed a receiver to manage medical care, declaring that outside intervention was essential to solve a long-brewing crisis in which inmates died because of incompetence or neglect at a rate of one a week.

Hickman and Schwarzenegger had attracted national attention, however, for their pledge to reemphasize rehabilitation as a way to increase the odds that parolees would stay crime-free.

As part of a restructuring of the Department of Corrections last year, the governor elevated inmate rehabilitation to equal standing with other prison operations -- a major departure from the past -- and even added "rehabilitation" to the agency's name.

Hickman also sent deputies around the country to find the most effective inmate programs to determine which would best fit in California.

Those moves were part of his response to criticism of the system as an operation that, while adept at incarcerating convicts, did little to ensure they would not get in trouble again.

With a recidivism rate that was highest in the nation, California was lambasted by experts time and again for a system that wasted tax dollars and, in effect, provided poor public safety because so many parolees committed new crimes.

To help figure out a new approach, Hickman opened the department's doors to academia, inviting some scholars, such as UC Irvine's Joan Petersilia, to sit in on meetings with him and his top deputies and offer advice.

More recently, Hickman had attracted attention with new thinking on female offenders, who are housed in expensive, high-security prisons even though most are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. He was pushing a proposal to move 40% of the state's female inmates out of prison and into community correctional centers closer to their families.

A physically imposing man with a charismatic style, Hickman has faced criticism from one source more than any other throughout his tenure: the union representing the majority of his employees, the correctional officers. Some say the secretary would have gone further with his reforms had he found a way to work with the union.

Union spokesman Lance Corcoran agreed.

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