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California and the West

Two Prison Brutality Probes Launched

Hearings: Sens. Richard Polanco and Ruben Ayala plan joint investigation of alleged abuses and cover-ups at Corcoran facility.

July 08, 1998|MARK ARAX and MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Two key legislators are launching hearings into brutality at Corcoran State Prison to determine if top state officials stymied a pair of investigations last year into alleged abuses and cover-ups by prison guards and supervisors.

Sens. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and Ruben Ayala (D-Chino), who head two prison committees, said they will hold hearings in the next several weeks and call state officials to testify about their roles in the two investigations. The investigations ended last year without any criminal charges filed.

The oversight hearings come in response to reports in The Times this week that detailed how the two investigations--one by the Department of Corrections and the other by the attorney general's office--failed to pursue a broad range of alleged crimes at the maximum-security San Joaquin Valley prison.

"Everything to date points to a sloppy job. It was a whitewash," Polanco said. "We need to make sure now that whenever we do these investigations . . . we have in place a system that is not going to allow a whitewash to take place."

The Corrections Department's own team of investigators told The Times that their effort to uncover brutality by officers and mismanagement by top corrections officials was blocked by the politically powerful state prison guards union and representatives of the Wilson administration. They said their investigation was a sham and an "exercise in futility."

From 1989 to 1995, Corcoran became the most violent and deadly prison in America, a place where 43 inmates were wounded and seven were killed by guards firing assault rifles. Rival gang members were pitted against one another in human cockfights watched over by guards and then shot if they didn't stop fighting.

When the Corrections Department and the attorney general's office finally did examine Corcoran last year, their investigations were either so restricted or so toothless that it became virtually impossible to ferret out wrongdoing, The Times found.

Aides to Gov. Pete Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren concede that they did not do enough to prevent Corcoran's seven-year meltdown, but they dispute allegations that the investigations were a whitewash done at the behest of the prison guards union. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. has contributed nearly $1 million to the election campaigns of Wilson and Lungren since 1989.

"The governor's office never blocked any attempts to investigate any wrongdoing at Corcoran," Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman, said Tuesday. "We insisted on fundamental reviews of a host of policies, insisted on aggressive review of alleged wrongdoing by correctional staff and followed through with . . . other disciplinary acts."

Lungren's spokesman, Rob Stutzman, said union pressure played "absolutely no role" in the attorney general's investigation. "This office has never politicized this matter or any criminal matter."

However, he said Tuesday that the attorney general is taking a fresh look at allegations, reported by The Times, that inmate Eddie Dillard was locked in a cell and repeatedly raped by an inmate enforcer nicknamed the Booty Bandit.

Polanco and Ayala said their plans for the oversight hearings were still evolving but that they might include two days of joint hearings in late July or early August by three different Senate committees: Polanco's joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations would be joined by Ayala's select Prison Management Committee and by the Public Safety Committee headed by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara).

If necessary, the committees will subpoena witnesses, including state investigators, to compel them to appear. The senators said the list of possible witnesses could include Lungren, the Republican candidate for governor.

Lungren's spokesman said that the attorney general's office would cooperate with the hearings and that Lungren's chief criminal deputy, George Williamson, would testify if necessary.

Others likely to be called to testify include former prison guards who have cooperated with federal authorities, and Del Pierce, the governor's point man who headed the Corrections Department special investigative team. State agents said it was Pierce, a longtime trouble-shooter for Wilson, who restricted their four-month investigation. They said they were told that they could not compel key officers to talk about their knowledge of any brutality or cover-ups, including firsthand accounts that problem inmates were purposely locked in a cell and subjected to rapes by the Booty Bandit.

"I'm not at all satisfied with the internal investigation that took place," Ayala said.

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