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Ex-Guard Describes Hazing at Prison

In a lawsuit, he says he was punished for reporting incidents at Blythe. A lawyer for the state calls the man a willing participant.

September 27, 2006|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

Behind the walls of Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, correctional officers regularly hazed their colleagues and harshly punished those who dared report the roughhousing, a former Ironwood correctional sergeant testified Tuesday in Riverside County Superior Court.

Curtis Landa -- who is suing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, alleging that officials retaliated against him for reporting one of the hazing incidents -- gave jurors a rare glimpse into prison life at Ironwood when he took the witness stand Tuesday.

Both Landa and an attorney for the corrections department acknowledged that the incidents were common.

They ranged from the nonviolent, such as officers' covering telephone receivers with mayonnaise, to fights in which a group of officers restrained a colleague with tape as they punched and kicked him.

But attorney Patti Ranger, who represented the state prison agency, portrayed Landa as a "a willing and active participant" in the back-and-forth "horseplay" among officers.

She described Landa as "buddies" with the men he later accused of attacking him, adding that he chose to engage in "this fooling around at work" and was seen by colleagues laughing off the incidents.

"We submit to you that there was no retaliation," Ranger told the jury.

Landa said he was often afraid of what his fellow employees might do to him and quickly learned that reporting the hazing could derail an officer's career and jeopardize his safety.

Landa detailed a 1996 incident in which he hid in a closet to escape officers who came after him for hiding a colleague's pink furry dice.

The guards sprayed pepper spray and slid burning toilet paper under the door -- forcing Landa to put on a gas mask and goggles for protection, he testified.

But he never considered reporting it, he said.

"It was widely known you did not tell on the staff," Landa testified. "If you had a problem with a person, you dealt with that person."

Landa says his troubles began when he did report a similar hazing incident in 2000.

He was stabbed in his driveway a month and a half later by unknown assailants.

He says prison agency officials forced him to leave Blythe for a desk job in Sacramento where he says he was mistreated by his new colleagues because they labeled him a snitch.

Ranger said Landa had no reason to complain about his transfer to what she described as a highly coveted background investigations job and said Landa had requested the transfer for his safety.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

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