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Jailers Too Must Obey the Law

March 01, 1998

The crimes arising from the alleged abuse of inmates at Corcoran State Prison by out-of-control guards and supervisors will finally get a full airing in court, despite what the FBI says were "intentional efforts" by some state corrections and other officials to impede the investigation. A federal grand jury has indicted eight guards and supervisors on a range on charges involving violations of civil rights. Among them are bodily injury of inmates, including one fatal shooting. Penalties on conviction could run from 10 years to life imprisonment.

Credit a former Corcoran guard named Richard Caruso for prompting the federal investigation. Caruso chose to break the "code of silence" to describe what was going on in the prison, joining with four other officers to detail alleged abuses of prisoners in articles in The Times two years ago. Corcoran, in the San Joaquin Valley, at that time stood out for having more fatal shootings by guards than any other prison in the country, with seven inmates shot dead over a five-year period. Review boards found each shooting justified.

But Caruso and other whistle-blowers tell a different story. They have described how guards and officials would encourage inmate fights in confined outdoor areas, usually pitting blacks against Latinos or rival gang members against one another. An FBI official says "the fights were staged, even provoked, for the amusement of correctional officers or as retribution against inmates." As U.S. Atty. Paul Seave chillingly put it, "these defendants used their authority to sponsor blood sport."

The public has scant sympathy for those serving time in a maximum-security prison like Corcoran. It should regard no less sternly officials who abuse the public trust by illegally and callously tormenting the inmates over whom they hold power. Society is in trouble when those who represent the law within prison walls themselves become lawless.

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