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The Green WallA PRISON GUARD'S STRUGGLE TO EXPOSE THE CODE OF SILENCE IN THE LARGEST PRISON SYSTEM IN THE UNITED STATES
By D.J. Vodicka
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 D.J. Vodicka
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Green Wall
What Joe Reynoso called "The special parking area for law enforcement vehicles" was really just a side street with especially obvious No Parking/Tow Away signs every twenty feet, conveniently close to the California State Capitol Building. It was bordered by busy offices but patrolled vigilantly by the Sacramento Police Department. I followed Joe's unmarked but state-issued cavalier into the little street, then pulled over to park behind it. I felt my ulcer starting up as soon as I turned off the engine. Joe walked back to my muddy vehicle and stated, "You ready to do this?" I guess, I muttered as I got out of the car.
"You can't take your weapon into the Capitol D. J."
I sighed as I removed the Glock and holster from my belt. It was a weapon for someone confident in their ability to handle it and in my case, genuinely afraid for their life-hollow-point bullets, one in the chamber, no safety. I had slept with it for the last six months and practiced every day, firing off a thousand rounds a week at my mountain hideout.
My long time friend and colleague Joe Reynoso and my attorney Lanny Tronstood next to me outside the California State Capitol. I was nervous, and it was written all over my face.
Naturally, my appearance looked like the bad-guy wrestler the crowd loves to hate. At six feet, six inches tall and three hundred pounds, a shaved head and broad frame, I looked and lumbered like a pro-football lineman. From years working in the prison systems, my disposition was solid, emotionless and unreadable, except for today. I had worked for the state of California for sixteen years but had never been inside its Capitol building before. Together, the three of us set off toward the Capitol.
Near the southeast end of the building, a dozen TV news vans and crew members hauled equipment into the senate chambers. I figured this was standard, as there must regularly be important news to report from the Capitol. Reynoso and Tron new differently, but kept their silence.
At the entrance, I was thoroughly searched for any weapons I could have been carrying, while Reynoso-who was heavily armed-showed his credentials and entered through a discrete, separate gun port. Even with heightened post-9/11 security, there was nowhere in California that Joe wasn't allowed to carry his concealed weapons. For this reason, he accompanied me to court.
I stopped just short of the tall double doors of the governor's office, where a group of California Highway Patrol troopers in tailored uniforms stood at attention. I fantasized for a moment about dropping in to share my story with Schwarzenegger, who promised during last fall's campaign to put a lid on runaway prison costs. I thought the "Governator" might be interested in my grim story.
The hearing was scheduled for nine o'clock that morning and a large crowd was already waiting outside the courtroom, which surprised my attorney Lanny. He had expected something more private like the other administrative hearings-lawyer-like arguments around a conference table. Instead, there was a rude scramble for seats as soon as the bailiff opened the doors. My trial turned out to be the day's hot ticket in Sacramento; a joint session of the Senate Select Committees on Government Oversight and the California Correctional System. It was chaired respectively by Democrats Jackie Speier of San Francisco and Gloria Romero of Los Angeles. There were other members of both committees but none with much enthusiasm for looking closely at my prison situation, so they only made perfunctory appearances. It was basically a two-woman show.
Once inside the prestigious Burton Room, I was overwhelmed with its massive size and the people rushing through the doors. There were two hundred theater-style seats rising up from the floor with another two hundred on a wrap-around balcony level. All were filled in ten minutes after the doors were opened.
Speier opened the proceedings by waving a copy of that morning's Los Angeles Times, the state's biggest newspaper.
"Much of the testimony we will hear today will be startling and even unbelievable," she proclaimed. "Whistleblowers who speak under oath fear for their jobs and their lives."
I squirmed unnervingly; beneath a bold headline on the front page of the paper was a massive photo of me followed by an article:
Guard Challenges Code of Silence: Today, Donald Joseph Vodicka will stand before a state Senate committee on prison reform not as a guard but as a whistleblower. Instead of a career marked by commendations from wardens and prosecutors, the 41-year-old Vodicka is set to testify about how he had to put away his green uniform after breaking what he calls the cardinal rule of guards: Keep quiet in the face of officer brutality and corruption.
In a lawsuit filed against the state, Vodicka alleges that he blew the whistle on a gang of officers known as the "Green Wall" at Salinas Valley State Prison and was the subject of retaliation by co-workers and superior officers. The lawsuit contends that the Department of Corrections failed to shield Vodicka under the State's Whistleblower Protection Act. The Department, citing the lawsuit, declined to comment.
As I looked around the room my eyes met the faces of people I had worked with over the years-the people who refused to support me when it mattered. The idea of testifying in front of them, most of them senior to me in the chain of command, not to mention the senators and all the cameras, terrified me. I have always been a loyal, by-the-book kind of officer, respectful of the chain of command. To expose my profession's dirty laundry in public offended me.
Television networks would carry my hearing into every prison in the California system, everyone I had ever worked with would be watching. I knew from experience that the prison family paid close attention to news about itself. I would certainly be labeled "Snitch Vodicka".
I waited nervously to testify. For sixteen years, I tried to bring order and enforce the law in places where lawless chaos came naturally to the residents. I been proud of my job and believed I was good at it, with a file full of recommendations to support that belief. I didn't understand how I came to this point, getting ready to testify against my old partners, my peers, my fellow officers, my friends.
I stared at the empty witness chair; the room packed with eager spectators waiting to hear what I had to say. How could they possibly begin to understand my story? To understand The Green Wall you needed to know what prisons were really like and that took years of experience to learn.
"You okay there, partner?" asked Joe.
I was breathing fast, stressing out. I wasn't ready for this.
"Just tell them the truth, that's all you got to do. It's that simple."
Four hundred pairs of eyes fixated on me as my name was called by the bailiff.
"Come on," said Lanny, "We're up."
I stepped through the low gate into the well of the Burton Room. I looked up at the bailiff.
"Raise your right hand," he ordered.
I raised my hand.
"Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the testimony you will give today before this committee will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
Chapter TwoThe Rookie
As part of its rapid expansion and new, highly acclaimed status, the Department of Corrections opened a training academy in Galt, in the San Joaquin Valley, in 1987. I entered with its third class in the spring of 1988. For the first time, guards were given badges, real uniforms, and professional training. The old-timers still called themselves prison guards, but the department and the union began pushing the title "Correctional Officer". Thus, the line between old school and new school was pretty clear.
For someone with military experience like I had, the academy was a piece of cake. Trainees lived in dorms, marched a lot, and attended classes in criminal law, case law, evidence handling, report writing and ethics and policies. A "Code of Silence" was never discussed while I attended the academy. Thirty percent of the class dropped out before the end of the six week course.
Physical exercise was required along with passing meticulous weapons qualifications. At that time, the weapons that the Department of Corrections used were: Smith and Wesson (S&W) .38 revolver, 12 gauge shot gun and open-sight carbine called the Mini-14. We also had baton training using the PR-24 hard plastic baton. The instructors where made up of veteran sergeants from different prisons throughout the state.
The prisons meanwhile were becoming dangerously overcrowded. A policy of "double-celling" was instituted, in which two inmates were packed into tiny cells intended for one. The new living arrangement promptly spiked violence and suicide rates within the system. This was called a temporary measure until new prisons could be built.
Don Novey, the former President of California's Correctional Officer's Union, was a special guest at my graduation; he gave a pep talk about the union and our responsibilities as correctional officers entering our new careers with the California Department of Corrections. My family came up for the graduation ceremonies. My mother pinned my badge, number 35121, on my uniform shirt. It was the beginning of my dream career as a law enforcement officer.
In 1988, Corcoran State Prison opened as the largest prison in the nation, with a new architectural design to house the most dangerous inmates. Still empty when I arrived, I spent my first ninety days in a main gun tower.
I remember I was stationed alone in Gun Tower 6, a forty-foot high, sheet metal turret equipped with a sink, a toilet, a chair, combination intercom, shortwave radio, 12-gauge shotgun, Mini-14 carbine, and no air conditioner. There were twelve such towers spaced a hundred yards apart around the octagon-shaped perimeter of Corcoran State Prison. Inside each was a fellow rookie correctional officer, all recent graduates of the California Department of Corrections new training academy.
The new state prison in the town of Corcoran was the biggest local development since irrigation. When fully staffed and imprisoning the three thousand inmates it was designed for, it would be the largest, most expensive state-of-the-art prison in the world. In June of that year it was still empty, so the all-night watch was rookie duty, guarding a vacant prison.
* * *
There were two kinds of prisoners arriving at Corcoran that first summer. One group consisted of old-cons that'd been in the system for years. They came mostly from San Quentin or Folsom, the state's traditional felony prisons and asked to be transferred because it bumped them to the front of the line for programs. In the 1980's, American prisons still made an effort to rehabilitate criminals, offering vocational and educational programs that would better prepare them for life on the outside. In California, they earned double-time credit for enrolling in these programs; however massive overcrowding meant too few openings in coveted workshops and classes. By moving to a brand new prison they improved their chances of getting the cushy assignments that everyone wanted. Old-cons were patient, clever, ingratiating hustlers who long ago made a cliché of themselves.
The other early arrivals were involuntary transfers, repeat troublemakers that the state's fifteen other prisons wanted to be rid of, the bad-asses. They were usually younger than the old-cons, often ganged-up, men with too much anger or testosterone to get along in the close confines of prison. They had short tempers and attitude problems; many had mental or emotional issues and whenever a new prison opened, they were shipped from all across California to inaugurate it. Bad-asses were the main reason activating a prison was considered hardship duty by the California Department of Corrections (CDC)-worth the extra pay to the veteran guards who had agreed to do it.
Eventually there were middle ground inmates between those two extremes, but those early busloads had no room to spare for moderate characters. The department's green buses held thirty-four shackled prisoners and every day starting in June, three or four buses drove through the vehicle entrance to Corcoran's receiving area. Each had to stop between the fences atop a railed pit like those in industrial garages so the underside could be inspected. The bus guards got off to check their weapons in the gunroom. Then the interior gate was opened, the bus pulled forward and the men inside were unchained and disembarked, very cautiously. After long drives the bad-asses frequently emerged a little rowdy.
The southern end of the prison was divided into three main yards separated by tall razor-wire fences. Each yard had five cellblocks designed to house two hundred men. The prison's northern end was designed to contain the revolutionary "total control unit". That July, I drew third watch yard officer, scheduled from two o'clock in the afternoon to ten o'clock at night. The post and the shift were regarded as the most hazardous available-which both excited and terrified me.
The yards in California prisons are about the size of football fields, with weedy softball diamonds, cement basketball courts, concrete picnic tables, makeshift weight stands, and various other low quality amenities. Surrounding this sad amusement park were the gray-painted cinderblock walls of the housing units. Anywhere from two hundred to three hundred inmates can be on the yard at any one time, the number peaking in late afternoon when shops and classes shut down. Strolling among these proven criminals was a pair of wary guards armed with nothing more dangerous than a PR-24 hard plastic baton and a can of pepper spray. Our job was to act like we were in charge.
I can remember the night before my first day as a yard officer, out of the tower, on the ground amongst the inmates. I couldn't sleep. I kept going over in my mind all the warnings I'd been given by academy instructors about dealing with inmates:
"Don't tell them anything about yourself. Don't wear your wedding ring; don't talk about your girlfriend or your kids, what kind of car you drive, where you live, nothing personal. They've got friends on the outside. They'll remember you for years. They've got nothing to do but watch you. They can read lips. They'll never let up if you look like a victim. Never show fear."
In the morning I unwrapped my brand new Class B greens so I'd look the best. The shirt was straw-colored with the departmental patch on the shoulder. with a gold stripe down the seam. In my shirt pocket I placed two gold pens that matched the pant's stripe exactly. I pinned on my badge, CDC # 35121, my most proud possession.
Lastly, I tried on my favorite piece of equipment, the two-inch, black leather tactical utility belt I had ordered from the Galls catalogue, the nation's leading supplier of cop gear. It had custom pouches for handcuff s, gloves, pepper spray canisters, a notebook, and straps to hold a baton and a radio. It also had a smooth detachable sidearm holster for when I was outside the walls and wanted to carry. The belt was heavy, sturdy, and manly; it made me feel strong and ready when I buckled it on. I looked at myself in the mirror and shimmied a little, just to feel its weight shift around me.
The confidence it gave me had largely worn off by the time I reached the Yard A Program Office to relieve the second watch. I was handed a little Motorola radio with the red emergency button; my lifeline to backup.
Excerpted from The Green Wall by D.J. Vodicka Copyright © 2009 by D.J. Vodicka. Excerpted by permission.
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