Article Launched: 7/24/2006 12:00 AM
But it was the first time he faced any consequences.
Ziska was convicted in February by a U.S. District Court judge on charges of conspiracy, civil rights violations and violent crime in aid of racketeering. He was sentenced last month to 17 years in federal prison.
At his trial, several witnesses told how Ziska allowed inmates associated with the white supremacist Nazi Low Riders out of their cells at CIM so they could assault and kill other prisoners.
"He walked off the tier and left the cell door open," said former inmate Brian Roberg, describing one such incident in court. "And we went in and assaulted the inmate."
Ziska also supplied gang members with materials to make weapons, taught them self-defense techniques and transported drugs from cell to cell, according to witnesses.
The rogue officer's actions did not go unnoticed by his co-workers. But when he was reported to supervisors, an internal investigation cleared him of wrongdoing.
It was only after the FBI followed the trail of an Ontario drug ring to the prison's gates that Ziska was charged with any crime.
Those circumstances fit into a decades-long pattern at the Chino prison.
The people in charge knew things were going wrong, and failed to stop them.
The same was true last year, when Correctional Officer Manuel Gonzalez was stabbed to death at CIM's Reception Center-Central.
Following the killing, a special review team found dozens of deficiencies at the prison, ranging from procedural missteps to policies ignored by staff.
It also reiterated several concerns outlined in previous audits and studies of CIM's operations.
For example, a 1986 report from California's Auditor General detailed a series of frightening shortfalls in security at Central:
• Cell searches were not conducted as frequently as required by prison guidelines, and inmate pat-downs happened too rarely to meet "the intent or spirit" of CIM's procedures.
• Officers did not adequately monitor inmate movement.
• Inmates had access to tools that could be turned into weapons.
Nearly 20 years after the report was issued, all of those failures were cited by investigators as possible contributing factors in Gonzalez's killing.
"Stuff that needed to be done never got taken care of," said former prison spokesman Lt. Tim Shirlock during a prison tour last fall.
Shirlock began his career at CIM in 1979 and transferred out a few years later. When he returned last year as a member of the review team, he found Central in roughly the same condition as when he started working there.
"Now, there's a whole project list ... that are some of the same things
people have been asking for for years," he said.
Ziska's conviction and Gonzalez's killing are two of the three biggest scandals to hit CIM over the past 25 years.
The third was the 1983 escape of inmate Kevin Cooper, who was sentenced to death for the murders of four Chino Hills residents days after his escape. Cooper has not been executed.
The three incidents share a common trait, aside from their deadly outcomes: The circumstances leading up to disaster were all foreshadowed by reports, memos and internal data that pointed out shortcomings in prison operations.
The pattern began when CIM's first prisoners arrived in 1941, becoming participants in Superintendent Kenyon J. Scudder's experiment in minimum-security incarceration.
At CIM, cell doors stayed unlocked and correctional officers did not carry batons or other weapons. No one staffed the gun towers ringing the perimeter.
Scudder even told inmates how easily they could escape.
"You can get over that fence if you want to," he told a group of new prisoners in 1950. "Fellows have done it, and it's not very difficult. But the minute you do -- you become a fugitive, and then it's necessary for us to go after you -- and we will never let up."
Despite that warning, escapes were rampant during CIM's first years, far outstripping those at the state's other two prisons.
The fact that Scudder knew his policy would allow more escapes foreshadowed what later became a recurring theme at CIM -- where officials knew about problems, but still let them get out of hand.
A 1977 survey of California prison guards offers an early example. CIM was not yet the most dangerous prison in the state, but its situation was worsening.
At the Chino prison, the average officer's age and experience level was lower than at every other men's prison except one, the California Correctional Center in Susanville.
But CIM's officers were assaulted at a much higher rate than those at Susanville, and they were more than twice as likely to have stress or anxiety-related problems requiring medical treatment.
"Through the years, (the stress) takes such a toll on your system, it gets harder and harder to come down at night," said former officer Herb Higgins, who started at Chino in 1978. "Your system just goes bonkers."
Higgins, a councilman in Norco, said he was forced into a medical retirement after 12 years on the job.
Now, decades later, those stressed-out officers are regularly required
to work 16-hour shifts, leaving them exhausted. Budget data shows CIM spends
more on overtime than any other state prison.
NOT LOOKING FOR PROBLEMS
Institutional barriers locally and at the state level have long kept potential problems at CIM from coming to light.
For example, a 2001 review by the prison system's Inspector General found the department's Office of Investigative Services -- created to look into allegations of serious employee misconduct -- lacked the funding to do its job properly.
A second review that year by the Inspector General faulted officials in Sacramento for delaying inmate appeals beyond the time limits outlined by state law.
Thousands of such appeals -- the only avenue for prisoners to raise serious complaints --were outstanding in fiscal year 2000.
That backlog has since been eliminated, according to a follow-up audit, but inmates say the appeals system is still broken. Several CIM prisoners told the Daily Bulletin that their complaints are routinely ignored or "screened out" -- the official term for an appeal that is rejected without even being considered.
"(The appeals officer) can screen out an appeal for something as small as excess verbiage," said former CIM inmate Robin Adair. "With these little loopholes in the screening process, he can screen out any damn thing he wants, and that's exactly what he does. "
Other reasons for screening them out, as shown on appeals obtained by the Daily Bulletin, include listing two separate issues on one appeal form and filing multiple appeals on the same subject.
When it comes to monitoring staff, CIM's efforts also can fall short.
One audit by the Inspector General in 2000 determined many managers at the prison had not had a performance review in years. The report also faulted several Internal Affairs investigations at CIM as being incomplete.
Even blatant misconduct can go undetected, regardless of the warning signs.
For example, Officer Ziska's illicit liaisons with Nazi Low Rider inmates went on for years, according to witnesses at his trial.
Despite what was described as the officer's regular and open defiance of CIM policies, prison officials never disciplined him.
In fact, it was the officer who reported Ziska to supervisors who suffered the consequences. Officer Richard Palacios testified that co-workers shunned him after he filed the complaint.
"If I walked upon a group that were conversing in a hallway ... once they saw me coming, they just pretty much went in different directions and didn't have any conversation for me," he said in court.
That seemingly minor gripe is a big deal inside prison walls. Officers depend on each other for backup in the event of a riot or other incident.
The "silent treatment" may have indicated Palacios had lost support among fellow officers. Either way, he transferred to another facility at CIM after making the formal complaint.
Throughout his trial, Ziska denied any affiliation with the Nazi Low Riders. His attorneys pointed out that many inmate witnesses received lighter sentences in exchange for their testimony.
"It's a no-brainer for these people to inform on a corrections officer and get benefits for themselves," said defense attorney Joel Levine.
What sets Ziska apart from CIM's usual pattern is that he was caught -- albeit by the FBI -- before being exposed through a public scandal.
Not so for Kevin Cooper.
Cooper's 1983 escape from CIM and the grisly murders that followed three days later are seared in the collective memory of area residents.
The four victims were slashed and hacked to death with a knife and a hatchet. Police responded to a crime scene soaked in blood.
CIM's escape problem was well-known to the Department of Corrections at that time. The year before, one-third of all California prison escapes were from the Chino prison, according to department data.
Cooper slipped away easily, through a hole in a fence.
Had prison staff processed him properly, they would have seen Cooper didn't belong in minimum-security housing, based on his history of escaping from jails and mental hospitals.
But he had been convicted under an alias, and the documents explaining his actual identity weren't found until it was too late.
Like the frequency of escapes, the shortfalls in CIM's paperwork processing were no secret prior to Cooper's arrival.
Daniel McCarthy, then-director of the Department of Corrections, told a state Senate committee that CIM never set up a computerized records system that could have prevented Cooper's escape because there was never any money for it.
"Here we are, the largest department in the United States, and we're still operating back in the Dark Ages," McCarthy said at a hearing after the escape. "Hopefully, we're going to be coming up with budget proposals for some of these things. They're long overdue."
Many blasted CIM's then-superintendent, Midge Carroll, for failing to improve the fence around the minimum-security facility.
Yet, as Officer Ray Beltram pointed out at a hearing, Carroll had asked for money for a fence prior to the escape.
"It always (comes down to) the same issue: the budget, the budget; no money, no money," Beltram told the Senate committee. "It's sad ... it takes an incident to get action."
But even after the prison got its fence and computers and improved procedures, similar errors led to tragedy.
In 2005, improper processing kept inmate Jon Christopher Blaylock in
a general population cell even though his record clearly showed he belonged
in a higher-security setting.
THE SAME MISTAKES
Blaylock is now awaiting trial for the stabbing death of Officer Gonzalez, who was killed Jan. 10, 2005.
Like Cooper, Blaylock was held in the wrong housing unit when he arrived at CIM. Like Cooper, his processing was flawed from the beginning.
Because of his violent behavior during a previous term in prison, Blaylock was supposed to be segregated from other prisoners when he returned to CIM.
Instead, he remained in the general population, even after his file was reviewed by officers several times. If Blaylock had been in segregation, he never would have been out of his cell when Gonzalez was killed.
A second problem contributing to the killing was hinted at in another state auditor report from 1986.
As CIM's mission shifted in the 1980s toward inmate processing, inmate violence had declined. Auditors theorized this was because prisoners being processed through reception centers are less likely to get into fights.
"Inmates in transit do not have as much time to organize gangs, develop personal feuds or familiarize themselves with the institutional security weaknesses so they can acquire weapons materials," the report stated.
Inmates who spend longer stretches in one facility are more likely to assault officers or each other, the report noted.
As overcrowding caused the average stay in CIM's reception centers to lengthen, that's exactly what happened.
When Gonzalez was killed, Blaylock had spent nearly six months in Reception Center-Central -- three times the 60-day processing time called for in department guidelines.
In that extra time, he had grown familiar with the facility and was involved in several altercations with officers and other inmates.
"Until the murder, it had become even more typical for it to take longer than necessary to get inmates moved to the appropriate prison," said Martin Aroian, president of CIM's chapter of the officers' union.
The pattern continues today.
Since Gonzalez's killing, the Daily Bulletin has identified numerous inmates who were held in CIM's reception centers for months beyond the 60-day processing time.
A recent investigation by the Inspector General also found dozens of
prisoners at CIM and other prisons who belonged in isolation cells but
instead were allowed into the general population.
SOME PROGRESS MADE
The Department of Corrections' responses to issues raised in various reports throughout the years has ranged from concurring with the findings to complete denial.
In 1986, for instance, Corrections Director McCarthy rejected a suggestion that metal screens be placed over frequently broken windows in CIM's Reception Center-Central.
Screens would make cleaning "difficult if not impossible," he wrote. He also predicted tensions in the reception center would fall because prison overcrowding would soon ease.
The Inspector General noted in 2005 that broken windows in Central allowed inmates to pass weapons and other items. Metal screens will soon be installed over cell windows in one facility there.
Additionally, the state's prison population continued to explode, and overcrowding was never relieved.
These days, the department appears more open to suggestions.
The Office of Inspector General now has more staffing and is designed to be a separate entity from the department it reports on, thus freeing officials from charges of bias.
"Most of the independence of the inspector general's office in California has occurred over the last 18 months (to) two years, and I hope the governor hasn't regretted it," said Inspector General Matthew Cate in February. "He remembers me as the guy who always brings bad news, and not only that, but I always bring it publicly."
Cate made public all the previously unreleased reports completed by his office and has launched more wide-ranging reviews than his predecessors.
That attitude shift can also be seen at CIM. After Gonzalez was killed, the prison adopted a 36-page "corrective action plan" outlining new procedures, training and long-needed repairs.
In the aftermath of the Cooper killings, prison officials blamed the previous CIM administration, and held on to their jobs. After the Gonzalez killing, the warden and two chief deputy wardens at CIM were suspended, then ousted.
It was in that atmosphere that new Warden Michael Poulos arrived at CIM a year ago. His task was simple but not easy: Turn the troubled prison around.
Poulos is committed to paying attention to problems identified at the institution and solving them. For him, completing the reforms detailed in the corrective action plan is just the beginning.
"That sets the standard of where we have to move from. We needed to
get there first," Poulos said. From that point forward, "it's constant
refinement, constant review, constant monitoring and constant improvement."
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