Guarding the Guards

by Christian Goss 

No one thought that Sikh priest Khem Singh would have an easy stretch in state prison. Just being there was bad enough, but he’d also been convicted of sexually molesting an eight-year-old girl. In prison culture, pedophiles occupy the lowest rung on the ladder and are preyed upon by other inmates. 

So the report of his death on February 16, at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran State Prison, might have been written off as a consequence of doing time. Except that Singh, a 72-year-old handicapped inmate who spoke no English, may have died as a result of negligence by the correctional staff entrusted to care for him. 

Singh began his term in late 2001 and immediately refused the prison’s diet because it didn’t conform to the vegetarian practices of his religious faith. His weight dropped markedly, and fellow inmates made reports to medical staff and correctional officers, but records indicate that there was no follow-up. Singh had confined himself to his cell about 60 days before his death, where he succumbed to malnutrition on February 16. 

Incidents of neglect – like the recent case of jailed gangbangers in the Bay Area put on lockdown for two years – have become the legacy of tough-on-crime policies implemented under California’s last three governors. The state’s prison-industrial complex created and empowered by George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Gray Davis is now home to more convicts than any single nation in the world except for China. With the recall of Davis, legislators are seizing on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign promise to overhaul the system. 

Schwarzenegger has made a public showing of moving on prison reform, abolishing and then reestablishing the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) with former Deputy Attorney General Matthew Cate at the helm, giving it greater powers to conduct investigations. The move was lauded by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. The governor also established an independent review panel whose express purpose is to troubleshoot the system as it stands and make recommendations directly to the governor. Ironically, the panel is headed by former Governor Deukmejian and its staff includes Joe Gunn, a lead investigator on the LAPD Rampart scandal. 

Terri Carbaugh, spokesperson for the governor, wouldn’t comment on any specific investigations, but said, “I expect some recommendations from both the OIG and Deukmejian’s independent review panel within four-to-six weeks.” 

The rush to enact new government bureaucracy, at a time when the political hot button has been the fiscal crisis, came as a direct result of legislative pressure. Beginning on January 20, the Senate Select Committee on the California Correctional System held two days of hearings to document a systematic pattern of abuse by prison guards, investigating reports of gang-like behavior, a code of silence, and abuse of juvenile inmates. 

Co-chaired by state senators Gloria Romero (D-L.A.) and Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), the joint legislative hearings revealed a system in which prison administration officials and correctional officers seem to operate with impunity. “We don’t just need a review and overhaul of the policy,” Romero said in her opening address to the committee. “We need a review and overhaul of the people who are charged with running one of the nation’s largest prison systems.” 

The documented events that led to the senate hearings were so outrageous that they might have been lifted from a prison exploitation movie. “Gladiator fights” were staged between Mexican Mafia and the Nuestra Familia at Folsom State Prison, where officers allowed the rival gang members to integrate in order to initiate a riot. Guards at Corcoran State Prison allowed an armed prisoner into the cell of another inmate who was subsequently stabbed 17 times, as staff ignored the attack. A warden facing confirmation at Avenal State Prison aborted an investigation into a riot that threatened to jeopardize his position. 

These incidents have led prison rights groups to call the California Department of Corrections the most chaotic in a nation of troubled prison systems. 

“It’s pretty clear that treatment in California prisons is barbaric,” said Geri Silva, executive director of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes. “I want to believe that [Schwarzenegger] will follow through on real reform, but I won’t believe it until I see it.” 

Boom Years 

During two terms as a “law-and-order” governor, Deukmejian supported a prison construction boom that saw the California prison population rise from 23,000 inmates in the early ’80s to 101,000 inmates in 1991. His Republican successor, Pete Wilson, continued the policy and also promoted passage of the Three Strikes measure. Democrat Gray Davis seemed to break ranks with his own party when, during his 1998 campaign for governor, he embraced Singapore’s policy of executing drug offenders as “a good starting place for law and order.” As both major parties fought over who was toughest on crime, once-important policy differences all but disappeared. 

“Deukmejian was the inventor of toughness as a single dimension in criminal justice policy,” according to UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring, co-author of Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You’re Out in California. “Any story about the growth in the scale of California imprisonment that omits the Deukmejian administration would be bizarrely wrong.” 

Deukmejian built the prisons, says Zimring, but it took Wilson and Davis to forge new relationships with the prison guard union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), that kept the prisons full while ensuring that millions of CCPOA dollars flowed into reelection campaigns. 

As the labor representative of the massive state prison system, the CCPOA’s primary purpose is to support policy and legislators that keep the prison population growing, ensuring their members overtime that can push a guard’s paycheck above $100,000 a year. And the CDC has proven surprisingly resilient during budget cuts, escaping with only token layoffs. 

With the passage of Three Strikes, Wilson was the golden child of the CCPOA. Davis also tightened parole conditions and backed Proposition 21, the Youth Crime Initiative, and routinely vetoed legislation that would have limited Three Strikes sentencing. Instead, he granted prison guards a pay increase of 37.7 percent in 2002, adding to the fiscal crisis that would get him recalled from office. 

State prison guards became so untouchable that it enabled a group of officers to operate within Salinas Valley State Prison like a street gang, down to using hand signs and conducting initiations. They called themselves “The Green Wall,” and formed after a Thanksgiving Day riot in 1999. A recent OIG report confirmed that guards not aligned with the Green Wall were ostracized, transferred, and threatened. 

Schwarzenegger can change this. He has no meaningful ties to the CCPOA, and the overwhelming state budget crisis now overshadows the two decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric. Which means his inspector general might lead to some important policy shifts. 

Zimring remains cautious. “All I can tell you,” the Berkeley law professor says, “if you’re waiting for change in the California prison system: Stay tuned.” 

Just look the other way 

Thursday, April 29, 2004 
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle


ATTORNEY GENERAL Bill Lockyer was certainly right in concluding that it would be difficult to prosecute the guards who were caught on videotape beating two wards at a California Youth Authority facility on Jan. 20. 

The case would put the testimony of two young inmates -- who allegedly initiated the struggle by attacking counselors -- against the corrections establishment. 

Still, the failure of the San Joaquin County district attorney to file charges -- and the subsequent decision by Lockyer this week to stay out of the case -- is highly troubling. 

The videotape of the brawl at a Stockton youth correctional facility, made public by state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, did not include the first exchange of punches. But it clearly showed the two wards being punched repeatedly -- and in one case, kicked in the head -- well after they were subdued. 

"Was there excessive force? Yes, no doubt about it," said Lockyer, who nevertheless agreed with the local D.A. that it would be "damn near impossible" to get a conviction, especially because the wards started the fight and neither was seriously injured. 

That video, coming on the heels of other disclosures of abuse within the corrections system, corroborates the impression that the system is in desperate need of oversight. 

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