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.
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.