New warden at California Men's Colony settles in

Elvin Valenzuela is the warden at the California Men's Colony.
Elvin Valenzuela is the warden at the California Men's Colony. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Warden Elvin Valenzuela sits at ease behind a large, orderly desk at the California Men’s Colony.

At 6 foot 3 inches tall, his hulking figure dominates the office, but his voice remains steady and calm as he talks without reservation about the daily operations at the prison.

Later that day his presence commands the respect of inmates as he ambles through the prison yard of the West Facility, with inmates nodding in acknowledgement as he passes. Meanwhile Valenzuela banters with staff, jovially.

Valenzuela said the medium/minimum-security prison, which houses 5,041 inmates and has a staff of 1,900, is distinctive because of how well inmates manage themselves. Based on his 19 years of experience in other prisons, he believes the inmate culture is less hostile than at other facilities, mainly because many of the prisoners want to stay at California Men’s Colony and not be transferred elsewhere.

An array of vocational programs, self-help groups, educational classes and better paying jobs than at other prisons keeps inmates busy and out of trouble, Valenzuela said. “I’ve never seen as many inmates getting along,” said Valenzuela. “They are not going to the yard dressed combat ready because the inmates themselves don’t want it that way.”

However, he said, that can lead staff to get too comfortable. One of the first things that Valenzuela did as warden was review all of the prison’s security measures.

“Despite how efficiently things work here, this is still a prison,” said Valenzuela. “If you can control the inmate population, then you can keep a good ship.”

Inmates not interested in rehabilitation programs are not encouraged to stay and are transferred to other prisons, he said.

“Idle hands and idle minds get you in trouble,” Valenzuela said.

In December, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Valenzuela to the CMC post at an annual salary of $130,668, cementing the acting warden post he’d held since 2011.

“He is a great guy and a great partner,” said Sheriff Ian Parkinson, who has conducted joint staff trainings with Valenzuela.

“He is about collaboration,” Parkinson said. “He is literally the first warden I can remember so engaged to this level with all of us locally. It should be that way, and he is the one bringing it to the table.”

Valenzuela rose through the ranks of the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He began as a correction officer at Avenal State Prison in 1987 before transferring to Corcoran State Prison in 1989, where he was promoted to a correctional sergeant six years later.

He took the job as a correctional officer because it was more promising than the packinghouse job at Sunny Cove Citrus in the Central Valley that he was working at the time. A short time later, he persuaded his mother to leave the packinghouse as well and become a correctional officer, which she did for more than a decade.

Valenzuela transferred to the California Men’s Colony in 2006 as a captain and continued to be promoted until he was appointed to the warden position in December.

He succeeded Terri Gonzalez, the prison’s first female warden, who had risen through the ranks with him, dating to his time at Corcoran.

She left the prison in 2011 for Sacramento when she was appointed associate director of the general population male offenders for the Department of Corrections.

Valenzuela said he hadn’t always planned on being a warden but was driven by the job and the challenges along the way.

“I like coming to work,” said Valenzuela. “I’ve always made it a challenge.”

He encourages others working at the prison to do the same but acknowledges that it can be a negative environment to work in each day.

“I tell them that I can’t make them happy, but I can give them a safe place to work,” Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela’s pride of the prison shows as he walks the grounds, talking of the various rehabilitation programs in place.

The Men’s Colony still has the same problems all prisons have, such as drugs being smuggled in, but Valenzuela said he is putting resources toward cracking down on it.

“We fight it the best we can,” he said. “The hardest part is getting them to want to quit.”

Valenzuela takes the helm as the prison’s inmate population, while still overcrowded, is declining because of realignment.

The prison’s inmate capacity peaked around 1999 with 7,000 inmates. The prison was originally designed to house 3,884 inmates.

Last year a new law took effect that shifted the responsibility for housing certain nonviolent offenders from the state to county governments.

In addition, people who violate their parole or probation are now sent to County Jail instead of back to prison.

Valenzuela has worked closely with Parkinson during the transition. Parkinson has also looked to Valenzuela for insight on how to safely interact with the new and growing County Jail population.

Parkinson is working with Valenzuela to develop a memorandum of understanding that would make prison staff first responders should a crisis such as a riot occur at the County Jail because the prison and jail are so close.

“He is like a gentle giant,” Parkinson said. “He comes across as a big guy, but he is just really a nice man who is bright, easygoing, relaxed and accommodating.”