Ed Caden’s lament

Another whistleblower insists the prison system’s deadly code of silence remains unbroken

Former prison warden Ed Caden says a prison guard sought to have him murdered by inmates.

Former prison warden Ed Caden says a prison guard sought to have him murdered by inmates.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It has been almost a year since Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stormed into office promising to “blow up boxes” and dramatically reform virtually every aspect of state government. On the first day of his administration, the movie star-cum-politician hit the ground running and named Rod Hickman to lead the charge to transform the state’s massive correctional system. Hickman was formally appointed director of the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency (YACA), which oversees all of the state’s prison and correctional programs, including the California Department of Corrections (CDC) and California Youth Authority (CYA).

Some observers questioned the governor’s judgment in appointing a former prison guard who attended, but never graduated from, California State University, Long Beach, to what amounts to the position of chief executive officer of a nearly $6 billion organization—roughly equivalent to corporations the size of Apple Computer, Harley-Davidson or Southwest Airlines. It was the first time in history the agency was led by an insider who came up through the ranks, and Hickman claimed that his on-the-job experience gave him unique insight into “what it takes to make a prison, juvenile facility or county jail work.” In keeping with the theme of Schwarzenegger’s government revolution, Hickman promised to restructure the system from top to bottom and aggressively address long-festering problems. “As the old saying goes, we’re going to have to break a few eggs to make this omelet—and I’m not afraid to crack a few eggs,” he told the media.

One of the first eggs Hickman publicly promised to break was the code of silence. The code of silence is an unspoken, underground policy among correctional employees that has been in place for at least 20 years. Under the code, employees tacitly agree not to report co-workers who abuse prisoners, file falsified reports, doctor official statistics—such as overtime and sick-leave pay abuse—or engage in other misconduct. Employees who break the code and report wrongdoing are ostracized by peers and subjected to retaliation that can include involuntary job transfers, bogus disciplinary charges, physical and mental abuse, and, in some cases, death threats. Under the most barbaric provision of the code, the family of a whistleblower also can be subjected to harm or threats.

In February, Hickman issued a stern memo to every correctional employee in the state, proclaiming that there would be zero tolerance of the code of silence. “Any employee, regardless of rank, sworn or non-sworn, who fails to report violations of policy or who acts in a manner that fosters the Code of Silence, shall be subject to discipline up to and including termination,” he wrote.

Skeptics point out that Hickman’s assault on the code of silence was actually less altruistic than it may have appeared and, in fact, was motivated primarily by self-preservation. Although he was appointed by the governor, two additional forces would decide whether he would get to keep the directorship he had worked 25 years to obtain. The executive appointment was first subject to final approval by the state Legislature, which had been intensely scrutinizing the state correctional system and demanding substantive reforms. In addition, a federal-court judge in San Francisco had reached the end of his rope in a long-running civil-rights case against the CDC and was threatening to put the entire system under federal control. If that happened, Hickman essentially would be stripped of any real say in how the agency was run. So, to keep his job and his power, Hickman had to placate the Legislature and the federal court, both of whom identified ending the code of silence as the top priority.

Hickman made it over the first hurdle at the end of June, when a legislative committee voted to formally approve his appointment by the governor. Before he received the official blessing of the committee, Hickman gave an opening statement reiterating his commitment to eliminating the code. “I speak out against a code of silence and corrupt individuals because abuse of power and failure to speak out against it is a cancer that is threatening this agency that I have sworn to protect,” he said.

But less than a month later, a new scandal erupted at Salinas Valley State Prison that called into question Hickman’s competence and commitment to eradicating the code of silence, and, by implication, the wisdom of the governor’s appointment. An alarming chain of events culminated with at least one prison guard soliciting inmates to murder the acting warden and other top administrators at the prison, according to then-acting Warden Ed Caden.

Caden had been trying to eliminate the code of silence and other problems at the prison. He implemented mandatory ethics training and referred three cases of employee misconduct to the Monterey County district attorney. But Caden’s reforms were bitterly resisted by at least some of the staff, resulting in the death threat and Caden being required to wear a bulletproof vest while on the job.

Caden, who since has moved back to the Sacramento area, is adamant that the problem is attributable to Hickman’s mismanagement and failure to effectively follow through with meaningful reforms.

Rod Hickman in a lighter moment at his legislative confirmation.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Hickman isn’t about change. He’s part of the problem, and he’s been part of the problem,” Caden said. A 28-year corrections veteran, Caden asserts that Hickman has been the “lackey” of previous directors and has helped to cover up department misconduct in the past. “When investigative issues were brought to him in previous positions in headquarters, he looked the other way,” he said. “Now he says he’s this honest guy who is going to bring about change. Well, that’s so much horseshit.”

Citing Schwarzenegger’s appointment of Hickman, Caden also questions the governor’s commitment to correcting the problems in the correctional system. “If Schwarzenegger was serious about wanting to bring change to the department, he would not have picked Hickman to do that. He hired the girlie man to take care of this job. And that’s going to bite him in the ass,” he said. Caden attributes part of the blame for Hickman’s appointment to bureaucratic insiders bent on maintaining the status quo. “[Schwarzenegger] was sold Hickman by some power brokers who had been part of the administration that brought about the culture that resulted in scandals on scandals on scandals. This is not the guy they should have ever brought in,” he said. The governor’s press office declined to comment on Caden’s allegations.

The Salinas Valley debacle began shortly after Caden was installed as acting warden earlier this year and began addressing long-running problems at the facility. One of those problems involved several gangs of correctional officers, one known as the “Green Wall,” who were engaged in brutalizing prisoners and planting weapons or other contraband on inmates, as well as other misconduct. The issue was exacerbated by a rampant code of silence throughout the prison. Caden said the previous warden essentially had turned a blind eye to the problems, which further emboldened the wrongdoers and made cleaning house difficult.

A power struggle ensued between Caden and the outlaw factions, and the friction escalated after Caden successfully sought criminal charges against prison guard Leon Holston. Holston was charged with felony assault for setting up the beating of an inmate by an inmate gang, as well as filing a false report. Holston also was charged with four counts of street terrorism under the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, because the other crimes were committed “for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with the Kumi Organization,” a Bay Area-based black street gang, according to the criminal complaint filed by the Monterey County district attorney’s office. Although Holston was the only employee criminally charged, Caden says it would not have been possible for Holston to coordinate the assault without the active or passive cooperation of co-workers.

Caden felt he was making progress and believed he had the backing of Hickman and Jeanne Woodford, director of the CDC. “They were very supportive of everything I had done in the place,” he said. But in early August, Tony La Marque, the former warden, waltzed into the prison from an extended medical leave and sat down in the warden’s chair, claiming he had received approval from Woodford and Hickman to resume his post. Caden was dumbfounded. “We honestly did not anticipate he was going to return, based on all of the publicity that arose related to the Green Wall and the fact that he had been found to be culpable for some misconduct related to the Green Wall investigation by the inspector general’s office,” Caden said. “The office of the inspector general was adamant about their desire that La Marque not come back to work for a variety of reasons, including the fact that he may impede investigations,” he added. Caden said he also had previously been reassured by CDC headquarters that La Marque would not be returning.

In addition, Caden said he had seen internal documents that showed La Marque was investigated for giving preferential treatment to staff, failing to take appropriate disciplinary action, failing to institute investigations into staff misconduct, and being deceptive or lying to investigators in connection with the Green Wall investigation conducted by the inspector general. The documents, Caden said, dramatically contradicted what La Marque previously had told him. “He had claimed that … the Green Wall didn’t exist, that it was thoroughly investigated and that there was no basis for it,” he said. Caden says that when he asked La Marque if he was aware of the investigation, La Marque said he was told by his boss not to worry about it. “The inference being that someone in headquarters was going to take care of this investigation,” said Caden. He said La Marque seemed amused that, after such a short tenure as warden, Caden already was having to wear a bulletproof vest to work. “We were kind of joking, and he taps me in the chest a couple of times, poking at the vest, making lighthearted remarks about it,” Caden said.

The return of La Marque, according to Caden, came as a shock to the employees at Salinas Valley. The renegade cliques were elated, while the vast majority of the staff members, who supported Caden’s reform efforts, were apprehensive. Caden described a tense staff meeting that was convened upon La Marque’s return. “You could have heard a pin drop in there. The look of shock on people’s faces,” he said. The news also spread quickly to the surrounding community. Within days, the Salinas Californian ran a front-page story about La Marque’s unexpected homecoming. After La Marque returned, Caden was recalled to Sacramento and demoted. Caden also was informed that misconduct charges had been made against him, but he said he was never told what they were, although he attributed the problem to La Marque. “There was a pattern and practice of trumped-up charges being leveled against anybody who went up against La Marque,” he said. Disillusioned by the ordeal, Caden elected to retire and blow the whistle. “I believe there was serious misconduct afoot there, which I believe was going to be covered up by the department as part of a continuing pattern of covering up misconduct, and so I retired,” he said. Caden won’t give specifics, but he said the state hasn’t heard the last from him. “I’ve been talking to another law-enforcement agency. I’m quite frankly not done with this,” he said.

In another strange twist to the story, within a week of returning to Salinas Valley, La Marque again went out on medical leave. A new interim warden, Anthony Kane, was assigned to the post.

As in the past (“The code of silence,” SN&R Cover, May 13), Hickman did not respond to SN&R’s repeated requests for an interview. YACA spokesman JP Tremblay said that the agency could not discuss personnel matters. Tremblay did deny that Hickman was involved in approving La Marque’s return to Salinas Valley, and claimed that under civil-service and employee law, the warden had the right to return to his original job. But where La Marque will go when he returns this time is undecided. “When he returns from medical leave, where he is assigned will be determined at that point,” Tremblay said. “There are other positions in the department where he may end up going, but that that has to be determined whenever and if he ever comes back.”

The federal court in San Francisco still hasn’t decided whether reforming the system is a lost cause, requiring a federal takeover. Caden said he wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if that happened, and he inferred that he would be willing to help. “I’ll be very happy to make sure that I’m going to do what I said I would do,” he said. “I’m going to bring professionalism and integrity to this department. I’m not going to take 28 years of my career and have it associated with an organization that’s corrupt. I’m not going to do that.”