SACRAMENTO — Six correctional counselors fired for their roles in a videotaped beating of two inmates at a California youth prison were given their jobs back Tuesday by the state Personnel Board.
Capping a case that drew national attention because of the graphic footage, the board reinstated the employees after finding that their testimony was more persuasive than that presented by corrections officials.
The board members, voting 5-0, also were swayed after learning that the videotaped fight was preceded by an assault on one of the staff members by the juveniles, spokeswoman Sherry Hicks said.
No other details were available because the board meets in private. Hicks said it was unclear how soon the six employees would be back at work. They will likely be reimbursed for wages lost since their termination nearly a year ago.
Officials with the union representing the employees called the decision a complete vindication.
"At first glance, this incident was a cause for concern," said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. "However, once we began to peel away the layers of this onion, we found that ... the video did not tell the whole story."
Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman said he strongly disagreed with the board's decision but respected the process. Hickman fired the employees last September after an internal investigation concluded that they had used unnecessary force and made false statements about the episode.
"Despite today's decision, this department will continue to aggressively pursue any and all action in cases where staff are allegedly abusive or dishonest," Hickman said.
He added that after he reviews the personnel board's written findings, he will consider various options. Those could include filing for a rehearing before the board or pursuing the matter in Superior Court.
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who has pushed for reforms in juvenile prisons, called the decision a "setback that will have a chilling effect on efforts to improve the system."
"But I applaud the administration for having the backbone to put this case forward ... even when we know the board reverses 60% or 70% of the matters that come before it," Romero said.
The beating occurred at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton in January 2004. The videotape, recorded by a security camera, made national news and fueled calls for reform of California's juvenile prisons.
Investigators said the fight began when one of the two inmates -- then 19 and 21 -- punched one of the counselors in the nose, a scene not recorded on the video.
The tape showed two counselors scuffling with the inmates, Vincent Baker and Narcisco Morales, in a lounge area and eventually wrestling the young men to the floor. Counselor Delwin Brown sat astride one of the inmates and punched him repeatedly in the head. A second counselor, Marcel Berry, drove his knee into the neck of the other inmate and appeared to kick him in the face after he had been handcuffed.
Two other counselors surrounded the fracas. One shot the inmates with a gun that fired balls of pepper spray, while another sprayed their faces with a chemical agent.
Corrections officials placed those four workers and two others on leave after an investigation concluded that they had used unnecessary force and filed incident reports that conflicted with the videotape. Criminal charges were sought by prison officials, but not filed.
Since the videotaped incident, the Chaderjian facility -- which houses about 500 male inmates ages 18 to 25 -- has weathered a string of other problems.
Over the summer, the superintendent -- who functions like a warden at youth prisons -- was removed from his job after allegedly using unreasonable force against an inmate and failing to report the incident. Steve Kruse had been the ninth superintendent at the facility in five years.
Also recently, Chaderjian lost accreditation of its high school. State law mandates that prisons provide education to juveniles, but with the loss of accreditation, the facility's diplomas will hold little value in the job market and colleges on the outside.
Finally, the state's newly hired chief of juvenile justice, Bernard Warner, warned this month of "an escalation of dangerous incidents" at the prison.
He placed a 45-day moratorium on the placement of new offenders there and ordered staff to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the facility.
The turmoil has fueled calls for the closure of Chaderjian. At the nonprofit advocacy group Books Not Bars, director Lenore Anderson said Tuesday's reinstatement of the counselors was further evidence that the system fails in its mission of rehabilitating young offenders.