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Corcoran Prison Cover-up

by W. Wisely

On October 7, 1994, former California prison guard Richard Caruso decided he had enough. The frequent shooting of prisoners forced into fights staged, then covered up, by guards at Corcoran prison's Security Housing Unit (SHU) weighed on his conscience. So, Caruso gathered evidence of the abuse and arranged to pass it to the FBI.

At 10 a.m. two FBI agents met Caruso at his home. They had to move fast because Jim Brown, Assistant Director of the Department of Corrections, and the man in charge of the agency's internal investigations, had threatened Caruso. "I understand you have stolen state property (referring to the log books and prisoner files Caruso took) and that you're going to meet with the FBI and turn it over to them," Caruso recalled Brown saying in a telephone call the day before. Brown then reportedly said, "You're not turning over a motherfucking thing."

As Caruso and the federal agents left the house, two state cars screeched to a halt just outside. Special Services Unit (SSU) investigators rushed forward. "Where are you taking him?" an investigator demanded.

"You don't need to know," one of the FBI agents replied. "We're handling this investigation and you need to back off." But, the SSU wouldn't be put off so easily.

As Caruso and the FBI drove off, the state cars followed. The SSU gave chase at speeds up to 90 mph for over 45 miles. Once Caruso and the agents were inside FBI headquarters in Fresno, SSU investigators burst into the lobby demanding that Caruso and the evidence be turned over to them. After the supervising FBI agent threatened to arrest them, the prison investigators left empty handed. Caruso was interviewed for five hours by the FBI.

Since Corcoran prison opened in 1988, more than 50 prisoners have been shot by guards for fighting. Seven of those prisoners died. In 1989, the rate of assaults at Corcoran was more than five times greater than that of the state prison system according to CDC records. [PLN, Nov. '96.]

Prison officials "don't want the violence to stop," said Steven Rigg, a lieutenant at Corcoran from 1988 to 1995. "They want to (use the violence to) convince the public that we need more money, more prisons and more security." When Rigg complained to then-Warden George Smith about the unnecessary use of force against prisoners in 1993, he was told he could be fired or transferred if he didn't keep his mouth shut.

In fact, the CDC routinely claims prisoner violence is on the rise to justify never ending demands for more and more tax dollars from the Legislature. On August 30, 1995, Director James Gomez asked for money to build six new prisons to "forestall this public safety crisis" of increasing "violence rates in the prison system."

In its five-year plan for 1993-1998, the Department asked for $2.26 billion to build an additional 15 new prisons because of "the potential for violence and injury to (prisoners) and staff" caused by overcrowding. In its 1996-2001 five-year plan, the Department ominously warned that "the consequences of not enacting the 1996 Program (of building six new prisons) will be the creation of conditions where violence and the potential loss of life and property will escalate." The guards union backs the Department in their requests for more money.

In current contract bargaining sessions, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents the state's 27,000 prison guards, cited stories of violence at Corcoran as grounds for increased pay and benefits according to a recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"The chronic complaint of the union is that prisons are dangerous and we need to have a lot of attention paid to safety equipment and staffing," an official who declined to be identified said. "They have said that specifically about Corcoran." It seems, however, that only violence directed toward prisoners by prison guards is escalating.

On June 21, 1995, 30 Corcoran guards stood waiting in steel-toed boots, bulletproof vests, riot helmets with visors, metal side batons and dark paratrooper style jumpsuits for the arrival of a busload of 36 chained and shackled prisoners transferred from Calipatria. The prisoners, mostly black, were jerked from the bus one by one, then repeatedly beat, kicked and choked. Guards stomped their testicles, stood on the back of their necks and forcibly sheared their braided hair off. [PLN, Sep.'95.]

Since Corcoran SHU opened, prisoners have been forced to go through similar gauntlets upon arrival. This one was particularly violent because Associate Warden Bruce Ferris spread a false rumor that prisoners on that bus stabbed a guard at Calipatria then hid knives in their hair. Disciplinary action was taken against a number of guards and supervisors, but all of those decisions are being appealed and some staff have already been reinstated. [PLN, Nov.'96.]

Officially, the reason for increased violence in Corcoran SHU is Gomez' policy of forced integration. Known enemies are housed on the same tier and released to the same yard for exercise. The SHU yards are smaller than a regulation handball court and sometimes twenty men share the small space. No warning shots are fired in the SHU and lethal force is used to stop simple fist fights.

SHU guards intentionally stacked tiers with rival gang members and known enemies. They delayed yard release until guards from other areas of the state's largest prison could arrive for the show. Bets were placed on the combatants and one former guard, Pio Cruz, liked to call the action like a sports announcer at a prize fight before grabbing a rifle and shooting according to transcripts of the internal investigation at the prison posted on the Internet. In televised interviews, Gomez stubbornly continues to defend his integration policy.

On April 2, 1994, Preston Tate, a 25-year old street gang member from Los Angeles, was shot in the skull and killed by a guard in Corcoran SHU. On a grainy videotape replayed across the nation on nightly television news shows recently, a nervous Tate and his cellmate are shown walking out to the exercise yard. Moments later, two rival gang members from Southern California walk onto the yard and attack. The four prisoners roll around for several seconds then shots are fired.

Caruso found two versions of the incident report on the Tate killing. One states that Tate held a weapon and was the aggressor in the fight and the second report says another prisoner was armed. There were no weapons and the video clearly shows Tate was not the aggressor. Still, a shooting review board appointed by Governor Pete Wilson cleared the guard who fired the fatal shot of any wrongdoing.

"The things that were wrong with Corcoran--the integrated yard policy, the unfettered discretion given to officers, the acceptance of acts of incredible brutality--all came together in that moment when Tate was killed," said Catherine Campbell, the lawyer for Tate's family. "People who wouldn't leave the ranks for anything left the ranks for this. It was too blatant."

Caruso and his family were threatened by prison staff because he cooperated with the FBI in the ongoing federal investigation into brutality at Corcoran prison. Caruso left Corcoran in July 1995 for Solano prison where a supervisor called him "the rat that brought down Corcoran." Caruso's complaints about harassment were ignored by the Department and he was forced to take a leave of absence in March 1996.

Rigg also left Corcoran and now works as a lieutenant at High Desert prison in Susanville. Unfortunately, the brutality and corruption exposed at Corcoran are not limited to that prison and the number of prison staff with the good character to speak out against such abuse seems to be limited. "If that sonofabitch (Caruso) had been working here I would have fired him," said a sergeant at Lancaster prison after newspaper accounts circulated about Caruso's cooperation with federal agents.

The federal investigation and civil lawsuits have brought California prison officials increased attention. Attention they do not welcome. State lawmakers, bullied for years by the guards union and prison officials into mortgaging California's future to build the biggest prison system in the world, seem already less likely to approve bills for new prison construction in the wake of the growing Corcoran scandal. If the sworn testimony of guards and prison officials is true, there may be repercussions within the Department ranging from the prison yard at Corcoran to its headquarters in Sacramento.

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