Roderick Hickman's appointment as Secretary of Corrections in 2003 by Gov. Schwarzenegger was touted as a triumph of reformist zeal, but in February of 2006, Hickman resigned. Here, he talks with PT about problems facing California's prison system.
PT: First, could you describe some of your experiences and your background?
Hickman: I was a correctional officer—a warden. Governor Schwarzenegger appointed me as a Secretary. At one point, I ran internal affairs. I'm also on the board of governors for the New York Correctional Association, and I have done some work with the National Institute of Corrections. I would consider myself to be a lifelong corrections professional from the front door to the back door.
PT: Under your tenure, the California Department of Corrections added "rehabilitation" to its name. Can you describe some of the rehabilitation programs you were working on while with the CDCR?
Hickman: In the new CDCR, the design intent is to be able to provide inmate rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism. When we re-organized the system, we changed the mission of the prison system, to reduce recidivism through evidence-based strategies.
Some of the programs we need include mental health programs. The evidence is clear that if you can get someone into a mental health program, get them into after-care, into a transitional program upon their return, and then get them into an existing support system in the community, recidivism in that population will improve. The women's population, also, needs appropriate programs for substance-abuse. Women offenders are totally different from male offenders, and programs that aid them in employment, the ability to parent, tying back into their families... These things will reduce their recidivism rates dramatically.
PT: Why are our prisons operating at or above capacity?
Hickman: I think root causes are due to the lack of appropriate programs that can intervene on criminogenic behavior. Even so, the other thing to consider is that the number of people in prison in California is proportionate based on the population numbers of the state. The incarceration rate involves sentencing. This involves looking at the appropriate number of prisons. Overall, we've incarcerated people at a rate that is commensurate with the rest of the country. This has something to do with sentencing policy. If you look at crime rates, however, you might say "What is wrong with sentencing policy?"
In addition, California employs a parole system that puts essentially everyone on parole. We should consider revisiting our parole policies in California. We should determine whether or not some people shouldn't be on parole, if others should, and if parole itself is causing some to fail.
PT: Why is it difficult to institute legislative reforms in the prison system? Some people mention
Hickman: We have a very difficult political environment for reform in California. Crime and punishment is good politics in California. The bottom line on the union is that they make $23 million a year in dues and they put that money into the political system.
PT: So they have a lot of influence?
Hickman: That's an understatement! Saying that they have a lot of influence would be an improvement. Elected policy makers in the state are completely hamstrung by the way that this union can dictate policy based upon their ability to make political contributions. What they can do with independent expenditures, for instance. Campaign financing law says that they can only put so much into a specific campaign. But let's say that you and I are each running for a certain seat. There's no limit on how much a specific group can spend bashing you on my behalf without me having anything to do with it. With independent expenditures as they are, the union can spend as much money as they want running attack ads, and they never have to state that I'm a great candidate. This is all very threatening to politicians when a particular group has that much money and that much capability.
We have politicians that are willing to acquiesce to that influence. The bottom line is that we don't have politicians that are capable of success within the political environment.
PT: The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was budgeted to spend over $8 billion in 2005-2006. Where does the high cost come from?
Hickman: The majority of the costs of running the prisons are staffing costs. We also need to change the current parole system, which allows prosecutors not to prosecute, instead returning people to prison for parole violations. Instead of being convicted on the crime itself, parolees are returning to prison on technical violations. This [catch-and-release] all adds up to the total cost.
PT: You sponsored a look at programs aimed at reducing recidivism around the country. What kinds of programs appear to be working?
Hickman: I think you will find that reentry programs are successful everywhere, anywhere that you tie programs that exist in prison to programs in a specific community. We looked at programs in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Ohio has a different parole system and they have invested heavily in prison system programs. These things took years. Reggie Wilkinson was director of corrections for 12 years in Ohio. Here in California, we haven't had the long-term leadership necessary to institute reforms.
PT: Do you plan on continuing to work in prison reform despite your recent resignation?
Hickman: I'll be working as a consultant for a company called XRoads Solutions. I will be dealing with the current absence of partnerships. I think it will take more collaboration with the public and private sectors and with community-based programs. Overall, it's going to take a lot of time to stabilize our inmate populations, and we need private sector performance improvements to improve our government operations. That's why I'm at XRoads now.
PT: Mr. Hickman, thank you for your time.
Roderick Hickman is the first former correctional officer to become California's Secretary of Corrections. He served in the position from 2003-2006, and he now works as a consultant for XRoads Solutions.
written by Argena McAdoo, June 18, 2008