In the wake of recent state legislative hearings that focused on allegations of brutality and official cover-up at Corcoran, The Times examined dozens of inmate shootings beyond the walls of the San Joaquin Valley prison and interviewed lawyers, shooting experts and corrections officials in every region of the country. The review of California shootings over the past decade shows that guards may not be setting up rival inmates to fight as they did in Corcoran, but the end result is often the same.
Deadly force is used to break up fights and melees that haven't turned deadly.
A Death in Salinas
Like so many of the recent incidents, the events leading to the death of inmate Mark Anthony Perez in February seemed routine. Perez, a 25-year-old San Jose man convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, was fighting in a tiny recreation yard at Salinas Valley State Prison.
His opponent, Darren Halliwell, was bigger and stronger. Halliwell had already shaken off the blows of another inmate wielding a sharp object. That inmate had left the scene and it was just Halliwell and Perez, neither landing anything close to a knockout, according to the Monterey County district attorney's office and inmate witnesses.
Then came a shout to stop fighting and a warning shot of nonlethal wood blocks fired by an officer in the control booth above. Before the officer could discharge a second warning round, a gunner in a nearby tower fired the fatal bullet.
The district attorney cleared that gunner of any wrongdoing even though he had fired while the other officer had control of the scene.
"My test is a simple one," said Assistant Dist. Atty. Terry Spitz. "Could I convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt [that the gunner] had no basis for believing he had to act to defend Halliwell? Under that standard, a jury would never return a verdict of guilty. That's not to say if you look at it from a civil standard, a jury would not find differently."
Perez's family is pursuing a civil lawsuit.
"Why did he shoot? They were just fighting. They were just punching each other," Emma Perez, the victim's widow, said. "These guns are shoot-to-kill guns, not guns to stop someone from fighting. The bullet just shattered my husband's leg bone. The coroner said it was like a snowstorm inside."
Many of the 44 fatal and serious shootings since 1994, like the Perez incident, took place in recreation yards or housing units built with special features that allow guards almost complete control. Inside these high-security units, every movement to and from a cell is monitored, and guards perform complete body checks for homemade weapons.
Such control, experts say, should reduce the need for deadly force. In other states, these units are the settings in which guards utilize nonlethal measures such as batons, pepper spray and tear gas.
"Shooting at inmates involved in a fistfight sounds a little farfetched," said Chas Simmons, a research analyst for the Alabama Department of Corrections. "You wouldn't do it if you were working for the police department or the sheriff's office. And if you're shooting real bullets, make no mistake, you're trying to kill them."
Many states, including Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio, respond to prison violence by employing emergency response teams specially trained to break up inmate fights. A few states, such as New York, have shot at inmate fighters in years past but only in the most dire situations, such as during a deadly stabbing.
"We have found a way to be effective without shooting at inmates," said Pam Pattison of the Indiana corrections system. "We always fire a warning shot first. Then we send in emergency response teams with radios and pepper spray."
"We tell inmates to stop, and if they don't, we send in a team and pull them off each other," said Joe Andrews of the Ohio corrections department, which houses 50,000 inmates, the fifth-largest number in the country. "We've never had an officer killed, and I can't recall any [officers] who were severely injured while breaking up a fight."
Although California guards are also equipped with radios, batons and pepper spray, they often shoot before summoning emergency response teams and exhausting less-lethal options, corrections officials concede.
Part of the problem is rooted in a shooting practice that varies from prison to prison. All of California's 26 maximum security lockups are supposed to adhere to a single state policy that allows deadly force only as a "last resort," after guards have considered or tried other "reasonable and available" means to stop a fight.
But The Times found that several prisons cling to their own conflicting practices.