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California and the West

Prison Chief Tells of Steps to End Abuses

Hearings: In concluding session, Cal Terhune testifies that focus on brutality and shootings at Corcoran facility will have lasting effect.

October 22, 1998|MARK GLADSTONE and MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — State prison chief Cal Terhune predicted Wednesday that hearings into brutality and shootings at Corcoran State Prison will have a lasting influence on the way the state Department of Corrections does business.

"I truly do not believe that the correctional system in California will ever be the same after these hearings because I think there was light shined on problems," Terhune testified at a concluding session of legislative hearings on prison conditions.

Terhune said positive steps his department has taken in recent months include beefing up review of abuse complaints; more closely scrutinizing fatal and serious shootings of inmates by prison guards; and pursuing an independent probe into allegations that whistle-blowers at Corcoran faced job retaliation.

The hearings were triggered by stories last summer in The Times that said a pair of state investigations last year--one by the Department of Corrections and the other by the attorney general's office--failed to pursue allegations of a broad range of brutality and cover-ups at Corcoran.

State investigators told The Times that their efforts to pursue the allegations were stymied by top corrections officials and a longtime appointee of Gov. Pete Wilson. They also said these officials allowed the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. to block their efforts at Corcoran, where seven inmates were shot to death and 43 were wounded between 1989 and 1994.

During Wednesday's conclusion of the hearings, Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) blasted Wilson for his silence.

"We have not heard from the governor himself. This is disturbing. His staff has served as apologists for a system that was completely out of control," Polanco said.

Sean Walsh, Wilson's press secretary, dismissed Polanco's comments, calling the lawmaker "a blowhard."

Walsh said the governor has appointed a new corrections director, Terhune, "with a mandate to thoroughly review all our prisons and specifically allegations of abuse at Corcoran."

After his testimony to the four legislative oversight committees that called the six days of hearings that began during the summer, Terhune said the sessions served as a form of continuing education for guards statewide.

Watching the televised hearings, he said, officers received a clear message: "We don't operate in isolation anymore."

The Times reported Sunday that California prison guards continue to kill and wound inmates engaged in fistfights and melees, a practice unheard of in other states. Since late 1994, 12 prisoners have been shot to death and 32 wounded by guards firing assault rifles to stop fights.

Terhune, who assumed the director's seat in 1997, was the main witness as lawmakers reiterated that the department needs to take more strides to reduce violence in the state's 33 prisons.

Terhune told the legislators that he is prepared to ask Wilson's successor for more funds in the next state budget to boost training for guards at least from six weeks to nine weeks.

Some of Terhune's comment's dovetail with specific recommendations for prison reform suggested this week by Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the Republican candidate for governor.

Lungren said that he has urged creation of a consistent, statewide policy on when guards should employ firepower.

"There ought to be a single policy in terms of use of force and shooting policy throughout the entire system, and I think they have moved to that recently," Lungren said.

The GOP nominee also urged that more money be used to recruit officers, to conduct background checks and psychological profiles, and to train guards.

Gray Davis, the Democratic front-runner in the gubernatorial contest, had fewer specifics.

Davis said this week that he hasn't taken an in-depth look at the issue but if elected he intends "to look at this matter myself; appoint a task force to review the activities at Corcoran and other prisons to determine whether changes in procedure make sense."

The Democratic nominee has been endorsed by the prison guards union, which in previous elections has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign assistance to candidates during the final weeks of the election.

Declaring that prison guards have the "toughest beat in California," Davis said steps need to be taken "to protect their safety. That would be my first concern. . . . Nobody should sanction brutality. I don't know if what has happened today constitutes brutality, but I am going to review it personally when I become governor to see if existing policies merit change."

In a statement given to the legislative committees, Jeff Thompson, chief of government relations for the guards union, said that the union "does not condone excessive force or brutality against inmates."

But he cautioned lawmakers about believing "sensational allegations" in the news media about officers. "It also appears to us the L.A. Times reports created allegations, to increase the 'shock value' of their articles."

Gladstone reported from Sacramento and Arax from Fresno. Times staff writer Dave Lesher and Times political writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this story.

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