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Personnel Profile: Seth Unger

You were press secretary for Senator Charles Poochigian. How is it different being in a state agency?

The difference is between writing laws and deliberating over the legislative process and actually implementing and being part of the bureaucracy, part of making the laws work. We’re doing a lot of hands on implementing policy as opposed to shaping it. It’s one of the biggest law enforcement agencies in the world. In a legislative office, you’re more contained. It’s a very different atmosphere.

What do you do in a typical week?

We do everything from putting out fires if there’s something that happens, crisis management, to promoting some of the positive things we do. We have a lot that Corrections does with 172,000 inmates, 67,000 employees. We’ve got prisons, parole, youth institutions, Board of Parole Hearings, these are all things that are under our jurisdiction. There’s always news that’s being made, whether it’s by an inmate at a prison or a staff member. Or whether it’s by the agency, unveiling some new initiative. Our press office here directs all of our public information officers here in Sacramento in the field, and at our prisons, are our parole regions. We also have public information officers that work here in Sacramento on different beats, somewhat like a reporter would.

What was one of the toughest PR situations you’ve had to deal with since you’ve been here?

We inappropriately released a terrorist, Sarah Jane Olsen, about a year early. After we had released her we started to get information from the district attorney’s office that her case had not been calculated correctly. We had to go apprehend her as she was about to leave out of state and announce to the world the day before Easter that A. we had made the mistake and B. we had corrected it. You come to work, you might think it’s going to be a slow week and it might turn into a mushroom cloud because of one incident at a prison or with a parolee. You have to be nimble and never think you know what to expect.

She was with the Symbionese Liberation Army and she had been convicted of playing a role in a bombing here in Sacramento as well as one here in Los Angeles. She had been on the lam for 30 years and had been living a life as a housewife in Minnesota. Somehow she was tracked down and brought back, but because of some of the sentencing and laws between the 1970s and 2000s, there were some discrepancies about how her sentence should be calculated. Next year she will be getting out, in April.

How often does your job call on you to travel?
Recently because of the budget crisis we’ve been on some pretty strict travel restrictions. It’s now only in mission-critical instances that we travel. We have to get a waiver from the executive level to approve travel. If it’s something that’s a big event we’re promoting or a major initiative, we will travel to it. But it’s not as frequent as it would be if we were not in these tight budget times.

Has the style of travel changed at all?
Most of my travel, I’m going to prison towns. Because they are so far apart, we usually fly, land at the nearest airport then drive a ways to get to them. I’ve spent some good quality time in Blythe and places like Wasco in Kern County and Lancaster.

Usually the accommodations are fine. Most of the towns where we have our prisons, there’s a lot of pride in the community and in the prisons. A lot of the residents work in the prisons. I think it’s always good to go down and get a taste for the area where the prisons are. It gives us a lot of opportunity to see some places that are off the beaten path in California. I might not go to Blythe if I wasn’t working for the Dept. of Corrections. But having been there, I can say it’s a beautiful part of the state.

You have four sons. Has working in Corrections changed how you raise them or raised fears?
It’s reinforced my belief in good parenting and paying attention to your kids, really giving them the time and dedication they deserve. I think a lot of the people we end up incarcerating are people that may not have ever had much of a chance at succeeding in life. They’ve gone on to make really poor decisions as adults. Many, over and over again.

I think it’s really important to be involved in your kids’ lives. The Dept. of Juvenile Justice is under Corrections as well. You can see a lot of these kids, they don’t have strong father figures or male role models. They may never have been disciplined their entire life. It’s a path that’s going to take them even further down. Seeing people, some of them as young as 12, 15 years old that are already in the Dept. of Juvenile Justice, it certainly makes you think if you’re paying enough attention and giving them the love they need at home.

How old are your sons?
Five, four, two and six months. They’re all Browns fans.

It just happened that way?
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree that way, I guess.

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