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California's Gulag on Trial | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

California's Gulag on Trial

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Welcome to Corcoran State Prison, 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles in the San Joaquin Valley; built at a cost of $271.9 million on what was once Tulare Lake, home of the Tachi Indians; opened in l988, designed for 3,000 prisoners, now holding 5,030. Kings County has dairies, cotton fields and two other state prisons besides. When they were selecting the jury for the ongoing trial of four correctional officers in the town of Hanford, fifteen miles from Corcoran, more than a third of the 500 residents called for jury duty said they worked at one of the prisons or had a relative in corrections.

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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This brings us to Eddie Dillard. In March l993 this slight man was sent to Corcoran's Security Housing Unit after kicking an officer. Two guards led him to a cell, opened the door, and Dillard stared up into the face of Wayne Robertson, a k a the Booty Bandit, 6 foot 2. Dillard knew Robertson. The man had made sexual overtures to him and they'd had a fight. Dillard had formally reported that he and Robertson should never be housed together.

"I'm not supposed to be in here," Dillard told the guards, who laughed and strolled away. Robertson knew and has testified to his role. Guards had told him Dillard "needs to learn how to do his time." For two days the Booty Bandit raped Dillard while guards ignored Dillard's hints that he was being attacked. Hints only, because Dillard didn't want to be killed as a snitch. Finally, Dillard, temporarily out of the cell, refused to return.

Six years later Dillard is getting his day in Kings County Superior Court, with four guards charged with aiding and abetting his rape. Testifying for the prosecution is Roscoe Pondexter, a 6-foot-7 former basketball star, dismissed from the Corrections Department for excessive force and now a man redeemed. Like Dillard, Pondexter is black. The accused are white or Latino. The jury is white or Latino. It's the first criminal trial of Corcoran guards in nearly a decade and should end later this month. Outside the Los Angeles Times and some other California newspapers, I've seen almost nothing about the trial. This is shameful, since Corcoran vividly incarnates the peculiar horrors of our national gulag.

Corcoran was conceived in the eighties as a model of "absolute control." Its heart is the Security Housing Unit, holding l,500 of those deemed the most dangerous of the state's metastasizing prison population. SHU guards determinedly forced the integration of deadly rivals--Aryan Brotherhood with Mexican Mafia, gang with gang. To quote the Times's Mark Arax, whose reporting on Corcoran is one of the great journalistic achievements of the decade, "By forcing such explosive combinations...corrections officials believed that the gangs would brutalize each other into submission, according to internal memos and interviews with SHU staffers. Integration, they said, would bust the gangs."

The SHU opened for business on December 5, l988. By December 29 it saw its first shooting when a guard wounded an SHU inmate "by mistake" with a 9mm carbine. Then: 4/4/89, William Martinez shot dead in the SHU exercise yard; 6/29/89, William Randoll shot dead in SHU exercise yard; 4/8/93, Michael Mullins shot dead in general population yard; 5/l4/93, Vincent Tulum shot through neck in SHU exercise yard, now quadriplegic; 9/9/93, Henry Noriega shot dead in SHU exercise yard; 4/2/94, Preston Tate shot dead in SHU exercise yard; 5/30/94, Donald Creasy, shot dead in his cell by guards. All shootings were declared justifiable by review committees and boards composed of Corrections Department employees.

By l996 Arax was reporting that whistleblowing guards had described "gladiator days" at Corcoran, when guards would stage fights between inmates and occasionally kill one of the antagonists. The state was investigating a 1995 episode when shackled men arriving from Calipatria prison were savagely beaten by guards screaming "Welcome to hell!" Even Governor Pete Wilson felt the heat. In response, Corrections won a permanent ban on reporters' face-to-face interviews with inmates.

In a draft report of April l997 an investigative team appointed by the Corrections Department substantiated the "selective cover up of excessive force" by Corcoran guards, plus the "disturbing" fact that potential targets of the probe often investigated themselves. On the instigation of Governor Wilson this draft was deep-sixed, and the California Justice Department concluded that there was insufficient evidence to pursue charges.

In l998 a federal grand jury indicted eight Corcoran guards for staging gladiatorial combat, among other abuses.The Corrections Department, for the first time in its history, said it would foot the guards' legal bills. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) told its members they did not have to talk to investigators from the FBI or the US Attorney's office.

The CCPOA, with 28,000 members, has lethal clout. When Greg Strickland, the Kings County DA, prosecuted some Corcoran guards for the "Welcome to hell" incident, the union put more than $25,000 behind his opponent. Strickland went down. Last July Bill Lockyer, the state Attorney General, told legislators that local DAs had admitted to him that they didn't dare go up against the CCPOA. Lockyer learned soon enough what they meant. A bill giving him power to police the prison system sailed through the State Senate; then the CCPOA sank it in the Assembly. He quoted one Assemblyman, Jim Battin (who later denied it) as saying, "Sorry, but I'm whoring for the CCPOA." Battin has got $l05,000 from the guards' union in the past four years.

Can anyone curb the CCPOA? Don't look to Governor Gray Davis. He collected $2.3 million from the union for his l998 campaign and has got more since. In thanks he vetoed a bill that would have shifted parole violators to community-based programs (lowering the prison population, hence the need for guards). He also vetoed a bill to rescind the constraints on journalists.

Before the trial in Hanford the CCPOA ran local ads hailing the guards who walk "the toughest beat in the state." This could be construed as jury-tampering, not only for this trial but for the future federal one. There was a bleat from a federal prosecutor but nothing more. A lot rests on the verdict of the Hanford jurors.

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