Staff, interim boss say Corrections Dept. needs new direction
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Ask the guy in charge. Ask those working there. They’ll as likely as not tell you there’s something wrong at New Mexico’s Corrections Department.
In the next days and weeks, new leaders will be chosen and tasked with turning around the troubled department. Interviews were reportedly scheduled Friday with two out-of-state candidates for cabinet-level leadership positions. The announcement of an appointee is expected to soon follow.
The Watchdog also learned department officials have completed interviews and recommended candidates for three warden positions that have remained unfilled for months. We uncovered documents showing that three candidates were offered those warden jobs in early September, but in each case, turned them down.
What problems will new department leaders face, and how will New Mexicans know when the department has turned a corner? We asked one of the department’s interim leaders.
“Realities and perceptions can come together to create a situational awareness where we’ve probably got some things that need to be fixed,” said interim deputy Sec. Of Corrections Gregg Marcantel, who currently pulls double duty at Corrections and as Deputy Secretary of Public Safety.
One of the realities facing the department is a large number of long term vacancies. As of Friday, seven of 10 top-level jobs were vacant or filled by interim leaders. Corrections has a greater portion of its top level jobs unfilled than any other state agency. Throughout the department, one in four jobs are vacant, including about one out of four security-sensitive positions.
If the department worked under the same rules as private contractors that operate four prisons in the state, the department might be considering whether to assess itself penalties for the prolonged vacancies. The problem runs deeper than that.
In the past two years, the department has accumulated a long list of real or perceived problems. The department’s problems for years have repeatedly been the subject of news headlines and media investigations.
A facilities manager was convicted of taking bribes. An audit found likely or potential procurement problems that went far beyond the bribes paid to that one facilities manager.
Whistleblowers in the same department last year found threats scrawled on an employee bulletin board.
Employees were instructed to falsify records. One probation officer alleges in a lawsuit she was beat up in an on-the-job training class after she complained she was instructed to falsify records. Another’s federal lawsuit alleges sexual discrimination.
The director of the Probation and Parole division was suspended for leading employees on an out-of-town excursion to her birthday party in state vehicles. Undocumented and unauthorized use of state vehicles continued nonetheless.
Gov. Susanna Martinez, with the help of her transition team, in December picked long time warden Lupe Martinez to replace Joe Williams as Secretary of Corrections. Lupe Martinez held the job down for eight months. She left just days after her boyfriend, Larry Flynn, discharged a pistol – reportedly at rattlesnakes – outside a prison-grounds home the two shared.
Flynn, a senior probation-and-parole official and former Internal Affairs investigator who was both Sec. Martinez’s subordinate and live-in boyfriend, was already on paid leave while under investigation for padding time cards. As of Oct. 1, Flynn remained on the state payroll, collecting a $59,196-a-year paycheck according to a state organizational listing. Results of the investigation aren’t likely to be made public, a department spokesman said.
Good-ole-boys and revolving doors
As the first woman to take the helm of New Mexico’s Corrections Department, Lupe Martinez took the top job from Joe Williams, who directed the department during the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson. An uproar of complaints during Williams’ tenure suggested the department under his command had become the domain of a “good ‘ole boys’” network. His leadership was defined in media accounts by his refusal to levy potentially millions of dollars in penalties against operators of private prisons who failed to maintain contractual staffing levels.
Williams was also panned in some reports for being part of a revolving-door relationship between private prison operators and the state corrections departments. He joined the department after working for GEO Group and has since returned to work there after his tenure as Secretary of Corrections in New Mexico. GEO was among the major contributors to Gov. Susanna Martinez’s campaign, providing $33,000 (0.44 percent as her nineteenth largest contributor) to her 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Among the first tasks New Mexico’s next Secretary of Corrections will face will be to settle an ongoing dispute between GEO and the state about penalties for under-staffing the Lea County Correctional Facility. In a letter obtained by the Watchdog, former Sec. Lupe Martinez noted the Hobbs facility had only half the number of required correctional officers for 11 days in February, and less than 40 percent the contractually required number on Feb. 3 and 4.
Sec. Martinez told the company they would be assessed $185,606 in penalties against their September payment. GEO disputed the method by which staff shortages were assessed, asserting that vacant positions had not remained unfilled for more than 30 days. The company also proposed a different method for calculating daily pay on which penalties are based.
Citing the lack of a Consumer-Price-Index related increase in their past two year’s contracts, and reductions in inmate populations at facilities they manage, GEO Senior Vice President John Hurley replied that the possibility of vacancy penalties would “force GEO to seek re-negotiation of the contract at an appropriately higher per-diem rate.” On Sept. 1, the day before Martinez resigned, he tendered a counteroffer of $81,484 in vacancy deductions based on the company’s calculations.
One candidate who offered her resume as the new Secretary of Corrections blasted Williams’ influence on Martinez’s transition team. Erma Sedillo, who served as Deputy Secretary under Williams from 2003 through 2008 said in an e-mail to Gov. Martinez’s office, “I believe some of the transition team members were influenced by Joe Williams who’s a nice guy but not ethical or credible.”
Sedillo said the relationship between state officials and private prison operators had become too cozy. “You can’t be friends with them. It has to be a partnership,” Sedillo said in an interview.
She noted that members of Martinez’ transition team had shared a lunch with Williams. “I guess they all go out and have drinks. If it’s a woman at the helm she’s not going to go out and have drinks because everybody’s gonna say your sleeping with them.”
As of Thursday, Sedillo said she’d not been contacted for an interview for the cabinet position. Her name was among nine identified in resumes the governor’s office provided in response to a request to inspect documents related to the selection of new cabinet officials.
If she’s not picked, it wouldn’t be because of her former role in the Richardson administration, she said. It’s because she’s outspoken – and because of what she sees as a good-ole-boys’ network of which she said Williams is a part.
Trouble at the helm
Asked what it would take to turn the department around, Sedillo was on the same page as several department sources who spoke to the Watchdog both on the record and anonymously.
“When you run prisons you have to be consistent in those policies, you have to be consistent in every thing you do,” Sedillo said. If not, “those inmate see it’s weak. That’s compromising the safety.”
Her comment mirrored Marcantel’s answer when asked how New Mexicans would know things are in order behind the cloistered walls of New Mexico prisons, and among the probation and parole officers who supervise those who run afoul of the law.
“I think how you see that is you see someone there that’s promoting the notion that what we are about is the core value of justice,” Marcantel said.
While the department’s problems have more or less flapped in the breeze of public discussion for all to see, department spokesman Shannon McReynolds said inside the walls no unusual unrest among inmates has been documented. His assessment mirrored assertions in GEO Group’s exchange related to vacancies in private facilities – audits have not identified indicators of unusual problems among inmates.
Inmates may not be in an uproar, but that’s not an indication the system is accomplishing what society pays for. Whether the complaints among staff, probation officers, management and private-prison operators are real or perceived, “they need to be addressed,” Marcantel said. “If we’re ever going to make that better, we’re going to have to acknowledge it. Perceptions are reality.”
“If I were an organizational physician, the first thing I would look at is the amount of grievances,” Marcantel told the Watchdog during an interview earlier this week.
A retired commander for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Dept. before he took a second chair at DPS and an interim post at Corrections, Marcantel said he doesn’t consider himself part of long-term management at Corrections. During his interim role, he is determined to get a handle on problems while not upstaging whomever soon steps in to lead the department. He praised the staff that has remained with the department, and placed problems squarely on the shoulders of leadership.
Bad Apples? Check the barrel
If there seem to be bad apples in the ranks, he said, the department needs to look at the barrel rather than singling out what appear to be a few bad apples. In his assessment, the way the department operates “rises and falls on the issue of leadership.”
“There hasn’t been a strong vision — a strong constancy of purpose articulated for these folks,” Marcantel said.
He’d earlier that day been in meetings discussing two grievances. In his view, way employee grievances are addressed can be indicators of how well a system is administered. “If there are a lot and they are being managed too high up in the management structure, we’ve got cancer.”
Numbers of grievances over a long period of time might be difficult to compare, but it’s clear that some of the recent grievances have gone beyond the department’s top offices. One employee was reinstated after a district court intervened in 2006. Several others have also appealed personnel actions to the state personnel board and to district courts.
Another former probation officers’ lawsuit based on a complaint that she was beaten during a job-related defensive tactics class because she’d refused to comply with a supervisor’s order to illegally destroy records remains pending in district court. That officer said she has since moved to a different state to find work in more amenable environment.
The state Environment Department eventually found that defensive tactics class not to comply with federal workplace safety rules. An internal audit had found the training practices acceptable. Another probation officer’s case, still pending in federal court, alleges gender-related discrimination.
Probation officers take laundry list to Lt. Gov.
If problems floating to the top levels of administration indicate a problem, there’s been a problem for at least a couple of years. Several Corrections employees’ grievances made it all the way to the top of state government. Nonetheless, the grieved employees said they found no resolution there.
In October, 2009, nine probation and parole employees showed a letter detailing their grievances to various officials in their chain of command. They eventually delivered it to Lt. Gov. Dianne Denish.
In that letter, they complained of:
- injuries resulting from a defensive tactics class taught by an instructor who lacks the required training to teach such a class,
- workplace safety problems – including lack of repairs to a rented building whose owner was a donor to Richardson’s campaigns,
- unfairness in who is selected for firearms training,
- probation officers remaining on the job after being arrested for domestic violence,
- retaliation against whistleblowers,
- disparity of treatment among different employees,
- wrongful termination and
- improper use of internal investigations.
In their letter, the probation officers named names of alleged wrongdoers and provided their own names. The Watchdog obtained the letter and has made it available – without the names of those accused or those making the accusations. Read the redacted version of that letter here.
One of the signors said she’s since had trouble finding work, despite submitting scores of applications to other public agencies. The reason? She said the state human-resources department is telling potential employers she couldn’t be rehired at the state, even though she gave two weeks notice. She says she’s a victim of retaliation for filing work-related grievances.
Several department employees were willing to speak to the Watchdog provided their names were not disclosed. One long-time senior employee working in an administrative office said, as conditions at the department deteriorated, he’d compiled a list of indicators of a dysfunctional organization, based on sources he found online. Each of those indicators, he said, he’d seen at play in the department where he works. That lengthy list includes:
- conspicuous value statements based on vague, immeasurable terms
- those who voice concerns are identified as having personality defects rather than having made real observations
- problems are attributed to training or policy but never to management deficiencies
- conflicting messages are delivered with a straight face
- people are discouraged from documenting matters in writing
- the history of the department is regularly revised to fit a favorable narrative
- directives are ambiguous and vaguely threatening
- management presents approaches from the latest best-seller and claims that’s what they’ve already been doing
- rules are enforced based on who you are rather than on what you do
- information is used as a weapon
- meetings are purposeless, or deliver information rather than solve problems
- decisions are made at the highest possible levels
To whatever extent the department’s overall functions became impaired in recent years, individuals who remain with the department for the most part have kept themselves together, Marcental said. “I see right now in an intimate way the work, creativity and professionalism that’s going on behind those walls. That hasn’t been nurtured.”
That empty feeling
As for the vacancies, the state spent money to sort through more than 60 candidates, conducting interviews among 18 for three wardens positions only to have the chosen candidates decline offers in September because of “mis-communication” with candidates, Marcantel said.
The department offered jobs at facilities other than those candidates thought they’d applied for, he said. In the second round of interviews, Marcantel said, the department was more careful only to interview candidates for particular positions who were interested in working at particular facilities.
Staff-level vacancies grew during a recent state hiring freeze, but vacancies are being filled, and corrections officers are being trained, McReynolds said. Nonetheless, Corrections has a higher proportion of vacancies than all but four other state agencies with more than 100 employees.
With nearly one in four of 2,526 Corrections jobs vacant, the vacancy rate is well above the current executive-branch rate of 21.7 percent of all jobs unfilled. A spokesperson for Gov. Martinez said some of the vacancies in executive agency jobs might not need to be filled.
“Just as families are doing more with less, the Governor believes government can do the same; after all, government did grow beyond justification during the past eight years,” said Scott Darnell, public information officer at the governor’s office.
“Governor Martinez has been diligent in trimming the number of political appointees in state government, and she has asked agencies and departments to evaluate whether positions that have been vacant for a very long time are necessary to accomplish their mission and provide a high level of customer service to taxpayers,” Darnell said.
Marcental said recruiting probation officers hasn’t been that difficult. The problem is keeping them on the job once hired. That can be a factor of misguided expectations about a difficult line of work, but one probation officer who agreed to talk to the Watchdog provided his name not be disclosed attributed the short tenure to management problems.
That probation officer said whomever is appointed Secretary of Corrections needs to initiate a thorough review of those who remain in senior and mid-management positions. The man, who worked a previous career as a law enforcement officer in another state, said the average tenure of young probation officers in New Mexico these days is only about 3 years.
“You get these young kids in here, just out of college, they do it for a couple of years and get disgusted with it,” the man said.
The reason he offered for such short tenure was the same as that the Watchdog heard from source after source, male and female alike – a good-ole-boy man network that made professional personnel management difficult.
Whatever direction it moves the troubled Corrections Department, change is in the wind, and soon. Acting Sec. Alfonso Solis, who in his day job is Roswell Police Chief and once was U.S. marshal for the District of New Mexico, told a legislative committee last week the Governor’s office had interviews scheduled for late this week with two out-of-state candidates and would likely appoint a secretary soon after.
Using the state’s sunshine law, the Watchdog obtained a stack of resumes that had been submitted to the governor’s office for the cabinet post, but we have no way of knowing if that list includes all the names under consideration. The list includes:
- David Diaz Huerta, the director of a federal corrections academy,
- Erma Sedillo, the former Deputy Secretary from the Richardson administration,
- Joseph Garcia, a deputy warden at a New Mexico prison,
- Carl Rene ToresBijns, a retired corrections administrator from Arizona and New Mexico,
- Howard L. Skolnik, who until earlier this year was Director of Nevada Dept. of Corrections,
- Robert Smith, a shift-commander at the Santa Fe Penitentiary,
- Daniel G. Ronay, a Chief Deputy Secretary of Corrections from Florida,
- Robert C. Patton, a division director from Arizona Dept. of Corrections and
- Richard Chilelli, Lieutenant at the correctional facility in Los Lunas.
The Watchdog also learned the name of a retired state police captain who was said to have interviewed for the job, but has not confirmed that the man is a candidate. It was not clear in all cases which of the candidates had approached the governor’s office and which, if any, had been recruited.
None of the resumes the Watchdog reviewed included reference to extensive work in privately operated prisons. Robert Smith’s resume lists brief experience as a shift commander at the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility, which is operated by GEO Group. GEO and Corrections Corporation of America operate four privately run facilities in New Mexico that, together, house about 42 percent of the state’s inmate population.
Among the documents obtained from the governors’ office was one that detailed a legal case against Daniel G. Ronay arising from his work at Illinois Dept. of Corrections. A woman alleged Ronay’s gender-oriented comments to her coworkers created a hostile workplace. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed lower court rulings when they found his comments to others did not creat a hostile workplace for the woman who brought the lawsuit.
Ronay retired from the U.S. Army as a First Sergeant. He supervised combat troops in Iraq, served as a U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor and oversaw detainee operations at Tal’ Afar in Iraq.
Although New Mexico’s Corrections Department includes some of the darkest memories in U.S. prison history – the 1980 riot that left 33 inmates dead and 7 of 12 guards taken hostage injured – the system has also enjoyed periods of relative calm and progress. A consent decree that resulted from settlement of a lawsuit arising from the riot set in motion, among other reforms, efforts to begin formal training of corrections officers. The decree was finally lifted under the administration of Rob Perry, who served as Secretary from 1997 to 2002.
Outside his role as department spokesman, McReynolds said he thought Perry “was the best Secretary this department ever had.”
Perry initiated a department-wide data system, implemented a “security group” policy that identified prison gangs, and started work on a revised inmate classification system.
Posted under News.
Tags: Erma Sedillo, GEO Group, Gov. Bill Richardson, Gov. Susanna Martinez, Gregg Marcantel, Joe Williams, John Hurley, Larry Flynn, Lupe Martinez, New Mexico Corrections Department, Probation and Parole Division, Secretary of Corrections, Whistleblowers