DesertExile: Retaliation becomes a way of life

24 July 2006

Retaliation becomes a way of life

By Mason Stockstill, Staff Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

CHINO - It's not just the violent felons who make it dangerous to work at the California Institution for Men.
According to numerous employees of the prison -- correctional officers and other staff members -- co-workers and supervisors can also be a threat to safety and sanity.
Special Section:
Criminal Neglect
(Read Part I and Part II, view videos and photo galleries, links to resources)
At the prison, retaliation is a common response to complaints about unfair treatment. Hence, employees often avoid speaking out because they fear retribution.
"These people take it personally, especially when you expose them," said Gary Clark, an officer at CIM. "I can't think of any other reason why they would single me out."
Clark said he believes he was retaliated against last year for challenging a decision that kept him from working a light-duty assignment following an injury.
Clark's doctor had restricted him from working more than eight hours a day. CIM officials concluded he couldn't perform the duties of a correctional officer, which include the possibility of mandatory overtime, so he was sent home.
When he fought the decision, Clark was asked to take a "fit for duty" examination, which is often a precursor to forcing an employee to retire for medical reasons, he said.
"I've been there 21 years, and I've never seen them actually do a fit for duty on anyone," said Clark, who also believes his involvement with the officers' union made him a target for retaliation. "It was more of a threat."
Several other employees at CIM described in interviews and lawsuits that they faced retaliation from co-workers or supervisors in recent years. Among them:
• Karen Gossom, an employee in the prison's laundry operations, said officers threatened her after she filed a sexual harassment claim in 2004 against her supervisor, who she said assaulted her. "One officer told me he wouldn't help me if the inmates decided to assault me," said Gossom, who has since settled her lawsuit against the department.
• Three nurses in the prison's hospital said after they complained in 2004 about another nurse who improperly brought medical equipment into the staff lounge, they were given heavier patient loads and ostracized by their colleagues.
• Psychiatrist Kenneth Levin filed a lawsuit last year alleging he faced retaliatory discipline after successfully challenging a demotion at the prison.
• One officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said he faced a personnel investigation after he accused a supervisor of dishonesty two years ago. The officer refused to speak about the case, fearing that to do so could endanger him or his family. "These people are just crooks, and they're capable of anything," he said.
Such behavior is not new. In 1990, three officers were fired after CIM managers tape-recorded their phone conversations. The officers sued, alleging the eavesdropping was payback for their union activities.
Retaliation by supervisors can lead to a breakdown in trust in the workplace, said Joni Johnston, CEO of WorkRelationships, an employee relations consulting firm.
"Management behavior is always going to trump policies or procedures," she said. "If managers are subtly encouraging or allowing employees to bully, intimidate, threaten ... people are much more likely to say, ‘I don't care what's written down, I know what I see every day.' "
Warden Mike Poulos said some claims by officers fearing retaliation --specifically those who refused to use their names in interviews with reporters -- don't hold water.
In his 28 years with the department, Poulos said he'd never seen an officer retaliated against for speaking to the media.
But employees who fear payback are evident throughout California's prison system.
From 2002 to 2004, the most recent year for which data is available, the State Personnel Board received 146 complaints of retaliation against whistle-blowers in state agencies. Of those, 40 came from the Department of Corrections -- far more than any other department. Caltrans was second, with 16.
Inside the department, the phenomenon has a name: the code of silence. Officers who break the code by speaking out about wrongdoing can face repercussions, say many who work inside prison walls.
Though some union officials and others deny that any such code exists among officers, former department head Roderick Hickman believed in it enough to issue memos and public statements reminding employees of their obligation to report misconduct.
"The public's trust in this department is ... violated by retaliating against, ostracizing or in any way undermining those employees who report wrongdoing and/or cooperate during investigations," said Hickman and Richard Rimmer, former director of the Department of Corrections, in a 2004 memo.
That memo, sent to all corrections employees, went out just weeks after Officer Donald Vodicka testified at a Senate committee hearing about allegations that officers covered up co-workers' misconduct. Vodicka feared payback so strongly that he wore a bulletproof vest to the hearing.
CIM Officer Robert Spejcher faced a similar situation earlier this year, when he testified against Shayne Allyn Ziska, a former correctional officer. Ziska was eventually found guilty of federal racketeering charges stemming from his association with a prison gang called the Nazi Low Riders and was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.
Spejcher provided key testimony against Ziska, telling the judge that he let white inmates out of their cells and left doors unlocked so prisoners could freely move about the facility.
In court, Spejcher said he feared for his safety and the safety of his family as a result of his testimony.
Why? "Because I still work in California Institution for Men, and Officer Ziska still has friends in the institution," he said.


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