Part of the Bay Area News Group

New chief at the big house by the bay

By Josh Richman
Thursday, December 28th, 2006 at 4:52 pm in Arnold Schwarzenegger, General.

sq.jpgThe governor’s office today announced Robert Ayers, Jr., 59, of Cloverdale, has been appointed warden of San Quentin State Prison. The job doesn’t require Senate confirmation — as the big prisons overhaul package Schwarzenegger enacted last year removed wardens from that process — and pays $125,196 per year; Ayers is a Republican.

Ayers has been the acting warden there since June; and before that had been acting warden at Lancaster State Prison since last year, and from 2001 to 2005, was a correctional administrator at the Department of Corrections headquarters. He was Pelican Bay State Prison’s acting warden from 1998 to 2000; acting warden at California State Prison, Sacramento from 1997 to 1998; and Pelican Bay’s chief deputy warden from 1994 to 1997. All told, he’s had 38 years in California corrections.

Couple of things about Ayers:

The Corrections Department in 1996 gave Ayers and a prison guard captain Bronze Medals of Valor for their rescue of an elderly fisherman who’d become trapped between his boat and rocks in rough surf.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson had nominated Ayers to the warden’s job at Pelican Bay, but his successor, Gray Davis, withdrew the nomination amidst lawmakers’ concerns about Ayers’ leadership there. His name has come up in some of the federal litigation involving the “code of silence” among prison guards and management which persists to this day.

For example, in his capacity as Pelican Bay’s warden, he was the first named plaintiff in a former guard’s federal lawsuit, Freitag v. Ayers; the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September ruled in that case that a state corrections department can be held liable for prison officials’ failure to correct a hostile work environment resulting from male prisoners’ sexual harassment of female guards. An investigation by state’s Office of the Inspector General concluded, among other things, that Ayers had taken “no definitive actions . . . to address exhibitionist masturbation directed at female correctional officers by male inmates.” Ayers did, however, launch several internal-affairs investigations of the complaining guard, and later approved her suspension and termination.

Meanwhile, it seems San Quentin goes through wardens faster than Spinal Tap goes through drummers:

  • Eddie Ylst, acting warden, March 2006-June 2006
  • Steve Ornoski, acting warden, Sept. 2005-March 2006, transferred to department’s headquarters in Sacramento
  • John Stokes, acting warden, July 2005-Sept. 2005, ???
  • Jill Brown, warden, May 2004- July 2005, fired amid investigation of poor communications between prison and medical staff
  • Jeanne Woodford, warden, 1999-February 2004, appointed director of the California Department of Corrections
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