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Federal jury indicts former prison guard, supervisor

The Chino state prison officer is accused of flinging two inmates to the ground from a van. The sergeant allegedly covered up the incident.

February 21, 2007|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

A guard at Chino state prison who allegedly flung two shackled prisoners to the ground from a van and a supervisor accused of helping cover up the incident were indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles.

The alleged assaults took place on May 9, 2002, after a melee earlier in the day between prisoners and officers at the sprawling Chino facility.

Named in Tuesday's three-count indictment were two former corrections employees at the prison: Robert McGowan, 37, of Apple Valley, who was a guard, and Thomas Ramos, 50, of Montclair, a former sergeant. The federal indictment charges McGowan with two counts of depriving the inmates of their rights.

Ramos was charged with one count of obstruction of justice for allegedly providing a false report about the incident.

According to the indictment, after the fight with the inmates was brought under control, several prisoners were shackled, placed in a van and taken to "an administrative segregation unit" at Chino.

There, McGowan allegedly pulled two prisoners out and let them fall to the ground. Prosecutors said the prisoners couldn't break their falls because they were shackled, but they suffered only minor injuries, mainly bruises.

Two weeks later, prosecutors maintain, Ramos submitted a memo stating that one of the inmates had slipped, although he already had been told of McGowan's alleged actions.

Tammy C. Spertus, an assistant U.S. attorney and a prosecutor in the case, said the investigation of the incident began more than two years ago.

Federal authorities came in after the apparent closing of a controversial review by state authorities, along with the San Bernardino County district attorney's office, of broader allegations of wrongdoing by guards after the 2002 fight between prisoners and officers.

The state Department of Corrections looked into whether Chino officers beat five inmates after the fight, and two of the department's internal investigators later charged that the state prison guards' union had used its influence to block their investigation. No charges were filed.

An official with the district attorney's office said at the time that there were "inconsistencies and credibility issues" with the inmates who alleged that they had been beaten.

McGowan and Ramos are due to be arraigned in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles next month.

If convicted of the charges, McGowan could face up to 20 years, and Ramos up to 10 years, in federal prison.

Neither defendant could be reached for comment.

Chuck Alexander, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., whose 28,000 members include state prison guards, said it was unclear whether his union would provide legal representation for McGowan or Ramos.

He added that he was not familiar enough with the case to comment on it.

Alexander, however, said that problems involving excessive use of force in the state's prisons often were exaggerated.

"Any organization that has nearly 30,000 employees is going to have a few problems, but I don't believe that we have as big an issue as some would make you believe," he said.

However, Steven Fama, a staff lawyer with the Prison Law Office in San Rafael, Calif., a nonprofit that provides legal services to prisoners, said he was encouraged by Tuesday's indictment.

Assaults of prisoners by guards, he said, "unfortunately are inevitable because there are no systems in place at most state prisons to control use of force day in and day out."

Criminal prosecutions of prison guards, Fama said, "are rare but are an important part of the process ... to deter the use of excessive force."

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stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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