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Tales of Brutality Behind Bars

Five officers claim staging of 'gladiator days,' other abuses at Corcoran State Prison. FBI is investigating facility, which has most killings of inmates in U.S.

August 21, 1996|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CORCORAN, Calif. — The stories spilling out beyond the walls of Corcoran State Prison--of torture, killing and cover-up at the hands of correctional officers--would seem to derive from another time or place.

Yet they come from a prison touted as a marvel of high-tech security when it was built in 1988 in the San Joaquin Valley cotton fields. And they come not from inmates or prisoner rights groups but from Corcoran's own--captains, lieutenants and guards who said they no longer could stay quiet about abuses their brethren inflicted on prisoners.

Talking publicly for the first time, their accounts bolstered by internal memos and confidential prison documents, five officers describe a feckless warden and a clique of supervisors who ran one of the nation's most brutal prisons.

It was common practice, they say, for guards to pair off rival inmates like roosters in a cockfight, complete with spectators and wagering, then sometimes shoot those who wouldn't stop fighting. Shackled inmates arriving from other prisons were pummeled by officers in an intimidation rite called "greet the bus," they say. Other inmates were forced to stand without shoes on scorching asphalt, their severe burns blamed on games of "barefoot handball."

Since Corcoran came on line eight years ago as California's most maximum-security prison, home to Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, seven inmates have been shot dead by guards and more than 50 have been wounded. It has the most killings of inmates than any prison in the country.

Paradoxically, the guards all gave the same reason for resorting to deadly force: They were trying to stop inmate fights from turning deadly. Internal investigations and shooting review boards appointed by the state Department of Corrections routinely cleared the officers of wrongdoing. The FBI and a federal grand jury are investigating the shootings.

"Gunfire was ringing out nearly every day and many of these shootings were not justified," said Steve Rigg, a lieutenant at Corcoran from 1988 to 1994 who is one of several officers who have talked to the FBI. "The fighters posed no imminent and serious harm to each other." And sometimes, he added, "the wrong inmate was killed by mistake."

The 1994 killing of inmate Preston Tate, which Rigg called a "bad shoot," is the focus of an FBI civil rights investigation. Last summer, even as FBI agents were gathering evidence, 36 inmates were taken off a bus and beaten by correctional officers who wore black leather gloves and called themselves "the Sharks."

Eight supervisors, including an associate warden and a captain, have been fired, suspended or demoted over the beating--"a case of thuggery," said a lawyer for the Department of Corrections. The officers, arguing they have become political pawns, are appealing their punishment this month.

Warden George Smith, 60, who retired in July citing poor health, declined to be interviewed, and in a short phone conversation denied that he lost control of the prison.

"I'll admit that some of my staff have gone crazy," Smith said. "But it was only a few who screwed up. We've got 1,700 good employees."

Of his former supervisors who have gone to the FBI with reports of ingrained abuse, Smith said: "They're disgruntled employees. It's that simple."

According to whistle-blowers and investigators, Corcoran's problems began during the five years that Smith was chief deputy warden, and worsened after he was elevated in February 1993. He knew of the abuses, they said, but didn't want to be bothered with the details. His nickname among the staff was "Mushroom George" because, in the words of one captain at Corcoran, "mushrooms like to be kept in the dark."

Some of the whistle-blowers said they took their complaints to the Department of Corrections, but administrators sided with Smith and his inner circle. James H. Gomez, the department's director, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed, citing pending lawsuits.

The accounts of what took place within Corcoran's walls emerge from interviews with prison officials, attorneys, prisoner rights groups and five of the officers cooperating with the FBI, and from thousands of pages of prison and legal documents.

The unmasking of Corcoran as the most troubled of the 32 state prisons began when a young gung-ho officer, Richard Caruso, said he became convinced that his superiors were covering up the Tate slaying. One night in 1994, he sneaked out of the prison with an armful of incriminating documents and gave them to the FBI, which began an unusual federal civil-rights investigation of inmate abuse inside a state prison.

Two years later, the grand jury in Fresno continues to weigh possible criminal indictments of prison staff. The FBI would not comment publicly on the case, but federal sources say accounts of the cooperating officers form a key part of the probe. In the meantime, Caruso and other whistle-blowers have become pariahs and seen their careers suffer.

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