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State Prisons' Woes Reflected in Guard's Case

Corrections officials promote a veteran employee while, at the same time, accusing him of misconduct.

August 12, 2004|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Seven years ago, the state Department of Corrections tried to fire veteran prison employee Jonathan L. Cobbs.

In June, the department promoted him to chief deputy warden at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, a job with a $97,700 annual salary.

But the same system is simultaneously disparaging Cobbs in court papers, accusing him of misconduct and refusing to pay for his defense in a lawsuit brought by an inmate.

It's a mixed message no one can fully explain, but which illustrates the internal disorder of a prison bureaucracy burdened by budget shortfalls, inmate lawsuits, and a system for investigating misconduct by guards and supervisors that is widely considered dysfunctional.

Cobbs' troubles began with a raid on inmate cells at Corcoran State Prison in 1995. On what came to be known as "Ninja Day," masked officers under Cobbs' command stormed cellblocks under the pretense of a fire drill, injuring seven inmates and prompting allegations of excessive force, according to internal affairs documents. It was one of several violent episodes in the mid-1990s that led to intense scrutiny of Corcoran and spurred calls for systemwide reform that continue today.

In March 1997, the warden at Corcoran, George M. Galaza, recommended that Cobbs be fired for his role in the raid. Cobbs successfully appealed, and his punishment eventually was trimmed to a 5% pay cut for six months.

Cobbs was promoted in 2001, then a second time in June. But despite that, the state argues in court papers that his actions in the 1995 raid were "committed with deliberate wrongful intent," and motivated by "actual fraud, corruption and/or malice." As a result, the California attorney general's office refuses to pay the roughly $20,000 that Cobbs and another officer owe for their defense against a lawsuit by a prisoner who claims injury in the raid. Cobbs has sued the state seeking reimbursement.

Court documents faulting Cobbs for his part in the raid do not elaborate on the allegations, and corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton could not explain the department's contradictory treatment of him.

She praised Cobbs, a 24-year veteran, as a detail-oriented "team player" who has faced no other disciplinary actions, and referred all other questions to the attorney general's office. A spokesman there declined to comment.

Cobbs' attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, alleges that the cash-strapped prison system was trying to avoid paying a $120,000 legal bill. The prison guards union paid $100,000 of the defense costs for Cobbs and guard F. A. Rodriguez -- money which the union wants the state to reimburse. Wilkinson said the two guards paid for the rest.

"It's all about money," Wilkinson said. "Cobbs is an exceptional individual." The Corrections Department "knows that. They've acknowledged the qualities he has by promoting him," Wilkinson said.

But Tom Quinn, a private investigator who works on behalf of inmates in prison civil rights cases, questioned the wisdom of Cobbs' promotion.

Quinn and other critics said Cobbs' efforts to save his job took place in a system in which more than 60% of the cases brought against corrections employees result in the reduction or dismissal of penalties on appeal. Employee misconduct inquiries were among the problems cited recently by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson when he threatened to place the entire prison system under federal receivership.

Critics also wonder if the attorney general's investigation into the raid was hindered by a prison guard "code of silence" alleged earlier this year in a stinging federal report. After a 2,500-hour criminal probe, the attorney general brought no charges in the incident. State agents later said nearly all of the correctional officers they interviewed refused to talk on the advice of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the prison guards union.

"This is very much, to resort to cliche, business as usual," Quinn said.

Cobbs did not return calls for comment for this article. Nor did union officials. But the union has long maintained that officers are the subject of overzealous prosecution during internal inquiries.

At the time of the raid, Corcoran, a maximum-security lockup between Fresno and Bakersfield, was a hotbed of violence and tension. Between 1989 and 1995, seven inmates were fatally shot by guards there and 43 were wounded.

According to state documents, Cobbs said he planned the raid to search for drugs and weapons. Another prison guard told internal affairs investigators that the raid was meant to be a "show of force" against Crips gang members who were rumored to be planning attacks on Corcoran staff members.

Cobbs and a group of about 55 officers swept through four buildings on June 11, 1995, evacuating inmates and searching cells for contraband. On his instructions, some of the officers wore face coverings similar to ski masks.

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