SACRAMENTO, California — California's new corrections chief plans to add training on diversity and leadership for prison employees and to examine what has been effective in other states to change employees' attitudes as he tries to alter a culture that often pits prison guards against inmates and outsiders.
"They (guards) have worked under very difficult situations and we have to figure a way to get them engaged in the rehabilitation process and not just be somebody counting heads," Scott Kernan told The Associated Press in an interview.
He took over as secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last month after starting as a correctional officer himself in 1983. Kernan worked his way up through management at a time when California prisons were so crowded that federal judges eventually set a limit on the inmate population.
Crowded conditions meant a violent atmosphere, few rehabilitation programs and an us-against-them attitude from guards, Kernan said.
"It's just emotional survival. You tend to paint, for example, all inmates with a broad brush of negativity, and I think we've got to change that," he said.
Altering that culture is his top priority as secretary, now that prisons are less crowded and state policymakers are emphasizing inmate rehabilitation, he said.
Kernan, 55, assumed the top post days after the state inspector general said the union that represents most correctional officers is encouraging a code of silence. The report came more than a decade after the department first tried to end a culture in which prison guards protect one another when they witness wrongdoing.
It was part of a scathing investigation that found guards at an isolated state prison created a culture of racism and used an alarming amount of force against inmates, among many other problems.
Kernan plans more training for rank-and-file employees, leadership programs for supervisors, and a search for practices that have worked in other states as he tries to change attitudes. He also plans to work more cooperatively with the inspector general's office and inmates' attorneys who filed the class-action lawsuits that largely drive prison policies and led to the federal population cap.
The additional training is patterned after that being offered at High Desert State Prison after the inspector general's report. That includes stress management and diversity classes for all employees and a national executive training class for wardens.
"The more training officers have, the better suited they are to contributing to a better correctional system," said Nichol Gomez-Pryde, spokeswoman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. She added that the majority of correctional officers are professionals who take their duty and oath seriously.
However, the union is suing the department and Inspector General Robert Barton over the months-long investigation at High Desert.
Barton alleged the union advised members not to cooperate and otherwise tried to hinder the investigation. The union says the department and inspector general violated employees' rights by requiring them to talk to investigators.
"We are happy to see that the Secretary is taking positive steps in the right direction," Barton said in a statement. "Thus far, Secretary Kernan has indicated a willingness to advance the Governor's vision for a more rehabilitative prison system."
Kernan was the department's undersecretary of operations until Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to replace departing secretary Jeffrey Beard.