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Wall Out Prison Abuse

August 02, 1998

The Wilson administration and the state Department of Justice under Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren insist there was no effort to limit investigations into shootings and abuse of inmates at Corcoran State Prison over a six-year period. But consider the facts unearthed in an exhaustive Times investigation: Seven inmates were shot dead and 43 seriously wounded by guards at the San Joaquin Valley facility, often during fights between rival gangs staged by prison guards. In more than 2,000 shooting incidents involving bullets or wood projectiles, only one corrections officer was investigated by a state team and disciplined--and that was a whistle-blower who had gone to the FBI.

The Times reports prompted a series of hearings in the Legislature that will continue Monday. One focal point of Thursday's session was whether there was any cover-up or "whitewash" of the events by high-ranking state officials--something that the offices of Lungren and Gov. Pete Wilson steadfastly deny.

But testimony by prison officials on Thursday certainly supports the conclusion that the state investigations were anything but vigorous and thorough. A ranking Corrections Department official conceded that the most serious allegations were ignored by higher-ups.

Officials also acknowledged that key paragraphs in a draft report describing cover-ups of brutality at Corcoran by corrections officers were deleted from the final report. The best reason one official could give for the change was that "it was editing by committee."

Semantics aside, the point is the state was extraordinarily slow to react to an appalling record of abuse at Corcoran and wound up taking little or no action when the investigations were over. State officials have argued that they were not kept abreast of developments and that they were forced to avoid some cases because federal officials already were investigating.

But that is no excuse. The story is in the numbers. How could so many shootings and other forms of abuse occur with an almost total absence of disciplinary action? Why did guards seeking to get the story out feel compelled to go to federal authorities? Why was the final report changed to delete references to cover-ups?

Wilson and Lungren properly pledged their support for a new Department of Corrections investigation, by an outside panel, into the Corcoran events. Wilson must insist that it be thorough and that punishment be meted out wherever warranted. After all, corrections officials are responsible directly to the governor.

The major problems already have been remedied, department officials insist, and that should be applauded. But the new probe needs to determine how these abuses were allowed to occur and go unpunished and why corrections officials to this day seem reluctant to acknowledge what really happened.

Then, the state must establish a fail-safe system within the Corrections Department to make sure such brutality does not occur in the future in the state's vast and growing prison system.

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