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CDC Trying to Polish Tarnished Image

The editors of PLN receive newspaper clippings from all over the U.S. We recently received articles clipped from about a dozen California newspapers. The articles appeared in the same week and all were strikingly similar. They were about how California Department of Corrections (CDC) prison guards are facing stronger disciplinary measures. Each of the numerous articles contained the same statistics, and many of them contained the same word-for-word quotes of various prison officials. This is a signature of a formal, well-orchestrated "public relations" campaign.

Public relations is a huge business in the U.S. (by some estimates raking in over $7 billion a year in fees), and the techniques of PR have been honed into something resembling more of a science than an art. One of those techniques, dubbed crisis management, was evidently used to disseminate the nearly identical articles in over a dozen California newspapers.

The CDC has been hit in recent years with an increase in bad publicity, from the numerous articles about California guards fatally shooting prisoners, and the FBI investigation of those shootings; the shocking guard brutality highlighted in the Madrid v. Gomez ruling; to more recent accounts of Calipatria State Prison guards beating chained and shackled prisoners. The accumulated effect of this spate of bad publicity, in PR terms, constitutes a "crisis."

The Public Relations technique of Crisis Management is used to counter the accumulated effects of bad publicity, and it works like this:

Step 1) Management takes a few half-hearted measures to fix the problem. Step 2) Sacrifice a few scapegoats. Step 3) Hire a professional writer (usually a practicing or former journalist or PR professional) to write a slick press release crammed with information showing how "concerned" management is about the problem, with statistics and anecdotal information highlighting the steps management has taken to combat the problem, and with reassurances from top officials about how the problem is now "under control." Step 4) Disseminate the press release as widely as possible, and encourage reporters to publish the material under their own by-line (which, in this instance, many of them did!).

Presto! John and Jane Q. Public citizen wake up one morning, snap open the morning paper, sip coffee, munch toast, and read about how the CDC "used to have" a problem with the behavior of its guards, and how (reassuringly) the problem has now been taken care of. They smile, gulp down their orange juice, and it's off to work, where they'll stand around the water cooler and talk with co-workers about how shocking it is that California prison guards are fired, demoted or disciplined for mistreating prisoners or for "merely doing their jobs," as some would put it. Everybody can go home that night and sleep well knowing that everything is under control in the CDC.

With that preamble, here are some highlights of the CDC PR campaign as it appeared in various California newspaper articles:

In 1995 nearly 100 more CDC guards (including Sgts. and Lts.) were disciplined than in 1994, an increase of 21 percent, while 17 more guards were fired in 1995 than in 1994, a 27 percent increase. The trend is projected by CDC officials to continue in 1996, with the number of disciplinary actions (against CDC guards) expected to go up by another 17 percent.

CDC spokesperson (Spin Control Technician) Tip Kindel was widely quoted in many of the articles: "I know there was a concern about what happened at Pelican Bay, especially in the area of use of force, and the department has done what it can to remedy that," said Kindel. "There has been a concern, system-wide, to make sure that management (at other prisons) was paying attention to their situations." Notice how the word concern appears in each sentence?

The articles then troop out the scapegoats. Robert Van De Hey, a "12-year veteran officer with an unblemished record," was fired Oct. 20, 1995, for a Nov. 9, 1994, incident in which he performed a cell-search on a prisoner who had cursed at him. During the search, the prisoner became "disruptive," and Van De Hey and two other guards then subdued the prisoner. Van De Hey was fired, not for using excessive force, but for 'contriving justification for the search in order to harass the inmate, for filing an inaccurate and incomplete report on the incident and for allegedly lying to department investigators who questioned him about his report."

CDC guard Thomas S. Lane was fired for fatally shooting a Calipatria prisoner who was fighting in the yard. Lane says he thought he saw a knife, though no knife was found on the dead prisoner or recovered from the scene of the fight. Lane's firing was the first in eight years of a CDC guard for fatally shooting a prisoner, even though 27 other prisoners have been fatally shot by CDC guards in the last five years. (The state Personnel Board overturned Lane's firing, but the CDC is reportedly suing to overturn the Personnel Board's decision to reinstate Lane).

California state guard union officials are quoted claiming that these and other (scapegoat) firings are unfair, and say that CDC guards are running scared because 'every case is turning into a major investigation with [the] threat of termination."

Is the California Department of Corrections public affairs office sophisticated enough to have planned and implemented such a well-orchestrated PR campaign? Or did they actually hire a professional PR firm to help them bolster their tarnished image? That's one question I wish I had the answer to. But, if forced to guess one way or another, I'd say it was the work of a professional PR firm. In either case, though, we can all rest easier tonight knowing that "rogue guards" are no longer tolerated in California. Heck, by the time you read this, all of the bad apples will probably already have been fired, because as Chris Van Fossen the union president at California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, says, "They're just not playing anymore."

Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Fresno Bee, etc.

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