By Scott Graves

Triplicate staff writer

When Robert Ayers became a correctional officer in 1968, he never imagined he would end up the warden of a maximum security state prison.

But on Tuesday, 32 years later, Ayers will retire as warden of Pelican Bay State Prison with fond memories and a feeling of a job well done.

I never envisioned myself as warden. I thought I might be a lieutenant at most, said Ayers, who entered the prison system with the goal of later becoming a policeman.

The longer I stayed, the more I liked it, and this is what happened, he said. I was in the right place at the right time.

Ayers, now 53, began his career with the California Department of Corrections as an officer at San Quentin State Prison in 1968. He made sergeant in 1978 and then lieutenant in 1981.

From there he was named chief of the correctional systems support unit in 1988. Ayers was promoted to correctional administrator at California State Prison, Sacramento in 1993.

He became chief deputy warden at Pelican Bay State Prison in 1994, just four years after it opened. He became warden of California State Prison, Sacramento in 1997 and then transferred back to Pelican Bay as warden in 1998.

The prison currently employs more than 1,400 people, most of them correctional officers. The inmate population is more than 3,000.

Ayers faced many challenges upon arriving at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Employees and administrators had just been found guilty of various civil rights violations against inmates. The staff was demoralized by the experience and expected to make wide-sweeping policy changes to insure such injustice didnt happen again.

There were a lot of investigative issues going on, Ayers recalled. The staff was embarrassed by all the attention. The failure of management was basically placed in the lap of the staff.

The burden fell on Ayers and other administrative officers to implement new use of force policies, which included training and mentoring the existing staff.

My goal was to bolster the staffs self-image, Ayers said.

Was he successful?

Morale is very good now the best Ive seen in any institute Ive worked at, he said.

Ayers credited the turnaround to the employees themselves.

It took a dedicated staff to make it all happen, he said. There have been some major changes for the staff and how business is done here.

Pelican Bay has become the vanguard of change.

The staff appreciates Ayers as well. On Friday, correctional officer Phillip Penner presented the warden with a Patriot Award issued by the United States Department of Defense.

Penner, who is a Naval reservist, nominated Ayers for the award because of his willingness to help him and other reservists employed by the prison to fullfill their reserve requirements.

The camaraderie has no doubt helped Ayers and his staff deal with the dramatic rise in the number of violent acts among inmates. Its a challenge that will face his as yet unnamed successor.

The next great challenge is how to run a prison and protect the inmates in the face of mounting violence, he said.

The face of inmate violence has changed because the inmates themselves have changed.

As far as the recent media attention drawn to the prison because of riots, Ayers said he has nothing to hide.

Ive always had an open-door policy, he said. The taxpayers pay for this facility and they have a right to know whats going on.

Prison shouldnt be a place where you stick people and forget about them. This isnt a Third World country, he said.

Most recently, a film crew from MSNBC was allowed to interview and videotape inmates, guards and administrators for an upcoming special on Pelican Bay State Prison to be aired later this summer.

One might think that Ayers is reluctant to leave the prison system. Not really, he said.

This place, the people theyve become a part of my everyday life, but I dont think Ill have a hard time getting used to it not being a part of my life.

He plans on living with his wife in Del Norte County for a while.

In the meantime, the couple is planning on buying a motorhome in hopes of seeing a world without bars.