On June 21, 1995, a busload of 36 Calipatria prisoners was transferred to Corcoran State Prison, home to Southern California's 'supermax" (similar to Pelican Bay up north). About 30 Corcoran guards were on hand to greet the bus. Exactly what happened next is difficult to determine. Most of the following narrative is derived from newspaper accounts (based on "department records").
One by one the 36 shackled Calipatria prisoners were grabbed, some by their testicles, and choked, punched and thrown off the bus. One prisoner's ribs were broken, a window was shattered with the head of another. Guards banged one prisoner's face off a concrete wall and stuffed a towel down another's throat.
Guards "escorted" the prisoners inside to private quarters for more beatings. The guards then laid out 24 of the prisoners on their stomachs, jerked their heads back by their chins and forcibly sheared off their tightly braided hair.
One newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, obtained copies of grievances filed by some of the Calipatria 36. One prisoner said, 'When I stepped off the bus [and in plain view of at least two lieutenants] four C/Os grab me and snatched my head back by my hair, then kicked my feet from under me, causing me to be slammed to the ground. They then picked me up to uncuff me and re-cuff me behind my back."
He said he was ordered to squat with his head against a cement wall. "One of my shower shoes was kicked away and the other one was halfway on. It was about 2:30 p.m. and the temperature was in the high 90s or low 100s. The ground was like a frying pan." When he complained, he said, he was told to shut up and guards joked about his burning feet. The prisoner suffered third-degree burns on one foot and first-degree burns on the other. He said it was four days before he was allowed to see a doctor.
The month following the beatings, Millard Murphy, a legal intern at the Prison Law Office at the University of California at Davis filed a citizens' complaint. In that complaint he wrote, "As it appears so many inmates were attacked, it is evident that these allegations will not disappear.''
Corcoran was already the subject of a Department of Justice probe into the high number of prisoners fatally shot by guards, which seems to have also made it more difficult for the Calipatria 36 'welcome wagon" incident to evade scrutiny. A formal investigation into the incident ensued. Early in 1996 it was reported that seven Corcoran guards were placed on paid administrative leave pending the conclusion of an internal investigation.
In March 1996, eight Corcoran staff were fired as a result of the investigation for their actions relating to beatings of the Calipatria 36. Among those fired were Associate Warden Bruce Farris Jr. and Capt. Lee Fouch, both of whom are named in a wrongful death suit involving the 1994 shooting death of prisoner Preston Tate.
In addition to Farris and Fouch, others fired in March were: Lt. Richard Garcia, Sgt. John Misko, Sgt. Reginald Parra, Lt. Ellis McCant, Lt. Harold McEnroe it and Sgt. Robert Dean. Another guard, Eric Rose, chose to take early retirement.
All eight of the fired Corcoran personnel filed administrative appeals. In May, administrative law judge Jose Alvarez modified the disciplinary actions of five of the guards. One lieutenant had his termination changed to a 60-day suspension, and a lieutenant and three sergeants were demoted to correctional officers. The termination of Fouch and Farris were not overturned, and information about the appeal of Lt. Ellis McCant was not publicized.
Department of Corrections spokesperson Tip Kendel said the discipline against the five was modified after a lengthy review process. Kendel said he did not know what factors led to the easing of the penalties.
The suspension is estimated to cost Lt. McEnroe about $9,000 in salary. The demotions will cost Garcia an estimated $1,000 a month in salary and the three former sergeants about $500 a month each, according to Kendel.
Former Corcoran Associate Warden Bruce Farris told a captain and lieutenant at a briefing on the day the Calipatria bus was to arrive that the 36 prisoners had participated in the prison office stabbings, were "assaultive and violent," that they fought with guards when leaving Calipatria and that the prisoners threatened to "take over" Corcoran upon their arrival, according to his termination notice. A Calipatria Lt. who spoke by phone with Farris that morning says that Farris was told that the wild allegations about the busload of prisoners were unfounded rumors. Farris didn't dispel the wild rumors, however, when briefing his subordinates.
The former associate warden was also cited in the termination notice for "validating" the brutality against the Calipatria 36 as proper "disciplinary action," for failing to investigate the injuries the prisoners reported, and for authorizing more than $1,000 worth of overtime pay for the guards who handled the Calipatria bus.
The investigation and wrongful death suit in the fatal shooting of Preston Tate continues. That suit contends that Corcoran guards deliberately start fights between prisoners from rival ethnic gangs to "provide themselves and/or other guards with an opportunity to use firepower against prisoners." [See: "The Pelican Bay Factor" in this issue of PLN].
"I think the prison is rotten to the core," said Catherine Campbell, one of the three Fresno attorneys handling the wrongful death suit for Tate's family. "It is one filthy pig-sty prison. Everywhere we look, we find nothing but massive brutality."
But warden George Smith (who escaped discipline for formally authorizing the hair shearing of 24 of the arriving Calipatria prisoners) says that prison officials "do not tolerate our staff abusing inmates -- we never have and we never will."
"We are not," Smith added, "a bunch of knuckle-dragging thugs." He took early retirement in August.
Sources: Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, Associated Press
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