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California and the West

Legislators to Open Hearings on Prison

Violence: Testimony will focus on charges that Wilson administration and attorney general's office failed to adequately probe allegations of brutality at Corcoran.

July 28, 1998|MARK ARAX and MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — The state Legislature opens hearings today on allegations of widespread brutality at Corcoran State Prison and whether the Wilson administration and attorney general's office failed to adequately investigate.

In recent days, Gov. Pete Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren have said it is unfair to blame them for failing to intervene as Corcoran became the deadliest prison in America. They cite an ongoing FBI investigation at Corcoran as the reason two state inquiries did not pursue the most serious allegations of abuse.

But in a July 22 letter to the head of one of the committees holding the hearing, the FBI says it never told the Department of Corrections or the attorney general's office to back off or limit its investigations.

"The FBI did not seek to limit the scope of the renewed [Corrections Department] investigation or the investigation conducted by the attorney general," James Maddock, the head of the FBI's Sacramento office, wrote Friday in a letter to Sen. Ruben Ayala (D-Chino) in lieu of testifying at the hearings.

In contrast to what Wilson aides and the attorney general's office have said, federal officials have also noted that the FBI's civil rights inquiry was limited in scope. It focused on only one of seven inmates shot to death by guards and left aside a long list of alleged brutality and cover-ups at the San Joaquin Valley prison.

From 1989 to 1995, 50 inmates were shot by guards at the prison tucked away in the middle of California's cotton fields. Today, Corcoran is finally getting the attention of state legislators.

Nearly 50 current and former prison officers, top officials working for Wilson and Lungren, and Corrections Department investigators have been called to testify about a broad range of alleged crimes and cover-up. Also scheduled to testify are the fathers of two inmates shot to death by guards at Corcoran.

The first scheduled item on the joint committee's agenda deals with a problem inmate who was locked into the cell of a 6-foot, 3-inch, 230-pound prison enforcer and repeatedly raped in 1993. The enforcer, nicknamed the "Booty Bandit," has recently told state investigators that he raped the inmate and others at the behest of Corcoran staff and was given tennis shoes and extra food as a reward.

"It's appropriate for us and we need to get to the bottom of the barrel and get the rotten cores out," said Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), one of the committee chairmen. "Had the appropriate investigations been done thoroughly and not been stymied, I think we would have gotten more truth and facts about what actually happened."

Over the past three weeks, Wilson and Lungren have challenged reports in The Times that characterized the results of two state probes--one by the Corrections Department and the other by the attorney general's office--as a "whitewash."

In November 1996, after a previous Times story detailed allegations of staged fights at Corcoran, the Wilson administration initiated a Department of Corrections probe and asked the attorney general to conduct a parallel investigation.

However, Lungren's office ended up investigating only a single case of brutality at Corcoran. The attorney general's office maintains that there is a simple reason the office did not heed the governor's request to conduct a more expansive probe: federal authorities already were engaged in a broad inquiry at Corcoran and Lungren did not want to duplicate or interfere with their efforts.

"We had a conversation with the federal authorities in which basically we said we're not going to interfere with their investigation," Lungren said.

Wilson aides are using the same federal investigation to explain why their administration delayed its probe of Corcoran from 1994 to 1996. The governor's aides say that when a special state corrections team finally did investigate the prison last year, it steered clear of the 50 serious and fatal shootings out of deference to the federal government.

"When the FBI comes in and tells you that they are conducting an investigation and for you to butt out . . . that has an impact on state law enforcement officials," said Sean Walsh, the governor's deputy chief of staff.

But several federal authorities strongly dispute that they told Lungren or Wilson to keep out.

They say that there was so much alleged wrongdoing at the prison that state agents could have conducted a far-reaching probe without stepping on the toes of the federal inquiry.

"The state is trying to abdicate its role by using the federal probe as an excuse," said one federal official familiar with the case. "And that just doesn't wash."

The Times' three-month investigation examined 10,000 pages of internal corrections reports and interviews with dozens of state investigators, guards, inmates and top corrections officials.

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