Despite efforts to cut down on prison shootings, guards in California continue to kill and wound inmates engaged in fistfights and melees, a practice unheard of in every other state.
Since late 1994, when the Department of Corrections shooting policy came under criticism for its role in widespread inmate deaths, 12 prisoners have been shot dead and 32 wounded by guards firing assault rifles to stop fights.
In all other states combined, statistics and interviews show, only six inmates were fatally shot by guards in the same period--all of them while trying to escape. In no other state do guards shoot at inmate fighters, choosing instead to break up brawls and melees with pepper spray, tactical teams or warning shots.
Even in Texas, a state whose sprawling prison system is often compared to California's for its hard-nosed tactics and violent gangs, correctional officers shot and killed only one inmate--an escapee--during the past four years.
None of California's 12 recent fatal shootings took place at Corcoran State Prison, where seven inmates were shot dead from 1989 to 1994, making it at the time the deadliest prison in America.
The 44 fatal and serious shootings since late 1994 have occurred at maximum security prisons up and down the state. Only one of the inmates was armed with a weapon or was inflicting serious injury at the time the fatal shot was fired, a Times review of the cases has found. No corrections officer was facing peril, and not a single inmate was attempting to escape.
More than three-quarters of the shootings were deemed proper by Department of Corrections review boards. Only three gunners received any form of discipline--two were given reprimands and one served a 180-day suspension.
"Shooting to break up a fight is something you never see outside of California. It just doesn't occur," said Lanson Newsome, a former deputy commissioner of Georgia state corrections and now a consultant who has reviewed dozens of California prison shootings. "Fistfights can be stopped very easily and are stopped all over the country without deadly force.
"In the vast majority of cases in California, there's really no excuse for shooting. It's just the way they've been trained."
State corrections director Cal Terhune said the 12 fatal shootings and 32 injuries, although disturbing, represent a sharp drop from a few years earlier when Corcoran, Pelican Bay, Old Folsom and Tehachapi prisons were convulsed with fights and gunshots.
From 1989 to late 1994, according to official figures, correctional officers in California killed 24 inmates and wounded 175 statewide, many of these shootings during fistfights and other altercations in which no inmates wielded weapons.
Terhune, who took over the top job in 1997, cites revisions in the official shooting policy and better training for the declining numbers over the last four years. "I am very pleased in the direction that it's gone. We're going to continue to push, through alternatives and training, to really make the use of lethal force the absolute minimum, as a last resort," he said.
"Unfortunately, we are doing it at absolutely the worst time. We've had an upturn in gang activities, skirmishes. So far we've been lucky. . . . If we can keep the killings down--both inmate-on-inmate and our own shootings during this particular time--it's going to be a pretty good test."
California is one of a handful of states in which guards carry high-powered rifles inside maximum security units. Most states limit firearms to a few guard towers that ring a prison.
Corrections officials cite the singular nature of California's vast and complex system--33 prisons with 159,000 inmates, many of them rival gang members--as rationale for gunner posts inside the units. They contend that the uniquely violent nature of California prison gangs compels them to use deadly force on occasion.
Moreover, the state's prison guard union contends that guns are a necessary equalizer in a prison system that has one of the lowest officer-to-inmate ratios in the nation.
But critics say that prison guards have used their guns far too often. They maintain that changes in shooting practices--changes that the state undertook in 1994 amid newspaper reports and an FBI investigation of one shooting--have not gone nearly far enough. They say the continued practice of shooting and killing inmates to prevent fights from turning deadly is illogical and runs counter to the methods of every other state.
The practice has resulted in numerous lawsuits costing California taxpayers at least $6 million in legal fees and damage awards since 1994.
"The other states have found a way to protect officer safety and yet at the same time prevent the taking of life," said James Chanin, a Berkeley attorney who won a $300,000 settlement from the state on behalf of the victim's family in a 1993 prison shooting death. "It's too high a price, both in dollars and in lives."