Donovan warden talks about prison’s challenges


By Kristina Davis

Thursday, November 11, 2010

George Neotti, warden at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, talks about the challenges of his job.

Howard Lipin

George Neotti, warden at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, talks about the challenges of his job.

George Neotti, warden at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, talks about the challenges of his job.

Photo by Howard Lipin

Correctional officers at the Donovan State Prison in Otay Mesa escort inmates in one of the cell blocks.

Donovan State Prison facts

• Opened in 1987.

• Built for 2,200 inmates but houses twice that amount.

• One of seven reception centers that screens incoming prisoners from Southern California.

• Forty percent of the inmates have mental health problems.

• The prison employs inmates at a laundry, bakery and canvas shoe factory.

• About 600 volunteers administer various programs to the inmates.

• $200 million annual operating cost.

• A smuggled cell phone can be sold in prison for $500.

OTAY MESA — George Neotti, warden at Donovan State Prison in Otay Mesa, is responsible for 4,400 inmates and 1,700 staff. He jumped from a career in the restaurant business to corrections in 1984, starting as a prison cook. He worked his way up through three California prisons before being appointed warden here in February. He plans to retire at the end of next year. In meantime, Neotti must navigate the challenges brought on by overcrowding, budget cuts and staff shortages.

Q: How did you get to be warden?

A: “You don’t grow up deciding to become a warden someday. Even 20 years into my career, it wasn’t on the radar. But small windows of opportunity come up. I got a call one day from the director of corrections, asking ‘Would you like to go to San Diego and be warden at Donovan State Prison?’ … I went through a vetting process that took 10 months from the Inspector General’s Office. …

I don’t know that I could write a script for my life that would be any different. … I look at it as fate. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

Q: What are some of the challenges that go along with the job?

A: “This business wears on you after awhile. I’ve got 55 lawsuits against me by inmates. Disciplining employees is probably the most difficult thing I have to do. … It’s the kind of job that gets a lot of scrutiny from Sacramento, the Legislature, politicians, unions, families, victims, employees. You get bombarded almost daily with a number of things and you find yourself almost having to justify what you do all the time. …

This is the kind of business where everything is good until there’s a bad outcome. My hope is that that bad outcome isn’t when staff gets hurt or the public is compromised. But people make mistakes. Things do happen in this business.

Q: What part of the job do you enjoy most?

A: “It’s got to be the people. … I like to make a difference in their lives, make the prison safe, make the world hopefully a little better place. It’s the day-to-day interaction, seeing people working hard and doing the best they can every day.”

Q: Let’s talk about contraband. What do you see and what do you consider the biggest threat?

A: “Cell phones are the biggest threat to public safety. That’s where my K-9s come in. We do regular targeted searches on housing units, cells, day rooms and keep that element of surprise.

Drugs is second. … It’s the heroin, cocaine, meth. It’s trying to keep that from coming into the prison, which is really, really difficult. (Contraband is often smuggled in by mail or visitors, volunteers or employees, often through the rectum.) It’s worth so much in this environment and it really jeopardizes the safety of the staff.”

Q: How have you been affected by budget cuts?

A: “The biggest challenge is the number of programs we’ve lost. We had 450 substance abuse program bed. We lost those about eight months ago. When we lost those programs and the educational and vocational programs … that hurt because those inmates, if they don’t have something to do that’s productive, that’s when they are hanging out on the yard and they get into trouble. On the other side of it, if they don’t get some kind of help in that arena — because we know they’re going to get out someday — then what? If they don’t have a GED, if they don’t have skills, then they’re just going to end up back here.”

Q: How frequent is the violence?

A: “The last homicide we had was on Memorial Day on the ‘Three Yard.’ That was over a $600 drug debt. An inmate got access to a clipboard and that metal piece on the clipboard and broke it off and slashed the jugular of the other inmate out there. …

“We average about two incidents a day, and an incident can be anything from assault on staff to battery on an inmate with a weapon to two-on-one fighting. … The threat is always there when you have 200 to 300 inmates on a yard.”

Q: Do feel this job has left you jaded?

A: “When you have staff out here around inmates who are throwing feces and urine and swearing at you, it’s hard not to let your heart get hardened and become jaded and angry and bitter, and I have to fight that a lot. I want to stay upbeat and optimistic. If I’m walking around this institution with my head down and complaining, that’s the message I’m sending my staff out there.”

 

Source: Sign On San Diego

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