ATWATER -- A change in leadership at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater is creating more questions than answers.
Union officials say the shake-up comes on the heels of an internal affairs investigation, but administrative officials are staying quiet about the circumstances of why Warden Hector Rios Jr. is away from his post.
On Monday, Associate Warden John Bell took over as acting warden, said Kristi Rodriguez, public information officer at the prison.
Rodriguez wouldn't say how long Bell might continue his interim role or if Rios would return to his post.
"I don't have any information on it at all right now," she said.
The situation isn't atypical, Rodriguez added.
"We don't have a new warden," she said. "Mr. Bell is just acting. He's just the associate warden. When the warden's out, we have associate wardens acting."
Rios, who is in his early 50s, is still listed as the prison's warden, according to the most updated information available at the Federal Bureau of Prisons Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.
However, Donald Martin, American Federation of Government Employees Local 1242 president and chief executive officer, said it's the union's understanding that Rios retired suddenly Friday.
"I can't, obviously, speak on behalf of the bureau," Martin noted.
Martin is a correctional officer at the prison but was speaking as a union official. "It's the union's understanding that there was this cloud over his head and an allegation out there that he was being investigated during last week, but we have no understanding of why he did it (retired)," Martin said.
Rios first became warden in 2008 in the wake of the death of correctional officer Jose Rivera, who was stabbed to death in the prison by two drunken inmates. Rios began making changes as soon as he took over, increasing security checks on inmates.
But later moves caused a rift between Rios and the union, such as the decision to shut down six of the prison's seven security towers, which the union labeled as a money-saving decision that could cost lives.
"We had our challenges," Martin said. "At this point, we're just optimistic that we can partner with the new warden that comes here in order to move the prison in the right direction, especially as it relates to working conditions for staff members."
On Monday, Martin met with Bell, who agreed to "re-engage with the union," Martin said. "We view that as a positive step forward."
Attempts by the Sun-Star to reach Rios and Bell on Monday were unsuccessful.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.