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California and the West

3 Senate Panels Plan Hearings on Corcoran Prison

July 15, 1998|MARK GLADSTONE and MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Legislators should have taken a hard look at troubled Corcoran State Prison long ago, a leading state senator said Tuesday.

Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), who is spearheading an upcoming hearing into allegations of abuses and cover-ups by guards and officials at the San Joaquin Valley penitentiary, said he was embarrassed that he failed to watch over problems there. Since 1989, 50 inmates have been wounded or shot to death by Corcoran guards.

Allegations of staged fights and other abuses at Corcoran "kept lurking there" he said, but legislators were focused on other issues.

"I'm not apologizing. There are 40 of us [in the Senate] and 32 million Californians," said Vasconcellos, chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee. But he promised the hearings won't be "just one day and forget it."

At a Capitol news conference, Vasconcellos and the chairmen of two other committees announced that they will hold one or two days of oversight hearings starting July 28.

The sessions come in response to a recent series of reports in The Times that detailed how two state investigations--one by the Department of Corrections and the other by the attorney general's office--failed to pursue a wide range of alleged crimes at Corcoran.

From 1989 to 1995, Corcoran was the most violent and deadly prison in America. Forty-three 43 inmates were wounded and seven were killed by guards firing assault rifles. Rival gang members were pitted against one another in fights watched over by guards and then shot if they did not stop fighting.

The Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, which oversees the Corrections Department, says it welcomes the hearings.

"We believe we are managing the nation's largest prison system effectively," said spokeswoman Lynda Frost. "We went into Corcoran in search of the truth. We believe we found it. But if we missed something about the problems at Corcoran, we certainly want to know about them."

Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, said he too welcomed the opportunity to have George Williamson, Lungren's chief criminal deputy, explain his probe and show "why it's not a whitewash."

Legislators who set the hearings Tuesday presented a list of questions to state officials, asking that they spell out the prison shooting policy, the nature of the two probes into what happened at Corcoran, and what steps the Department of Corrections needs to take to overhaul its system of internal investigations.

Besides Vasconcellos' panel, the committees conducting the oversight hearings will be the Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Construction and Operations headed by Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and the Senate Select Committee on Prison Management headed by Sen. Ruben Ayala (D-Chino).

Ayala said Tuesday that he has asked more than 20 current and former state officials to attend the Sacramento session, including former corrections chief James Gomez; Del Pierce, a trouble-shooter for Gov. Pete Wilson who oversaw an investigation into Corcoran; state investigators; and guards allegedly involved in misconduct.

Gladstone reported from Sacramento and Arax from Fresno.

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