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FBI Investigating Deaths at Prison : Law enforcement: Seven inmates have been fatally shot by guards at Corcoran since 1988. Agents reportedly are focusing on potential civil rights violations.

October 27, 1994|DAN MORAIN and DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — FBI agents are investigating possible civil rights violations at the maximum security Corcoran State Prison near Fresno, where seven inmates have been shot to death by guards since the prison opened in 1988, officials said Wednesday.

The investigation began at Corcoran within the past month and has entailed interviews with prison guards, inmates and officials. FBI spokesman Tom Griffin in Sacramento told The Times that the inquiry is focusing on "potential civil rights violations by people at the prison," but would not elaborate.

The FBI sent a letter to the California Department of Corrections last week informing the state about the investigation, and "asked us not to interfere with them," said Craig Brown, undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, which oversees the prison system.

Brown also said he has "heard that there is either the possibility of a grand jury or there is one convened" to ask questions about the prison's operation.

Don Novey, head of the state prison guards union, said FBI agents have interrogated correctional officers at their homes, adding that the questions appear to focus on the prison's shooting policy.

"I think they've (Corcoran prison officials) got a screwed up weapons firing policy," Novey said, suggesting that the policy calls for the use of deadly force too quickly.

FBI inquiries into California prison operations are not unheard of. But, referring to FBI agents visiting officers' homes, Novey said: "I've never seen anything like this."

The seven shooting deaths of inmates by correctional officers at Corcoran is higher than the toll at any other California state prison in the last 10 years. The next-highest number of shooting deaths by correctional officers--four--has occurred at Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum security facility that opened in 1989 near the Oregon border.

Overall in the last decade, correctional officers have shot and killed 36 inmates in California state prisons, including three since September, The Times reported last month. That is more than three times the number in all other major U.S. prison systems combined during the 10 years.

The Kings County district attorney's office has reviewed each shooting death at Corcoran prison and found nothing improper in the officers' actions, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick Hart, who supervises the criminal division of the district attorney's office.

Hart said he knows of only one death that might raise questions. In 1992, officers trying to stop a knife attack accidentally shot and killed the inmate who was the victim of the attack, he said.

Sources who work with inmates say prisoners told them that FBI agents interviewed inmates at the prison Friday and Saturday.

Among the inmates questioned was one who alleges that officers tried to force him into dropping a lawsuit over medical care at Corcoran, where a new 75-bed prison hospital opened last year. When the inmate refused to drop his suit, he was allegedly accused of assault, a source said.

One of the two highest-security prisons in the state, Corcoran has had its share of problems. In December, an officer was fired for using marijuana and cocaine while off duty. In 1990, two lieutenants were convicted of criminal assault in state court for using a Taser on an inmate's testicles.

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