Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

California Guards Set Up Prisoners

After a scandal in which guards boiled a mentally ill prisoner alive, California's most notorious prison is once more the target of an investigation into abuse and excessive force. Pelican Bay prison guards are accused of setting up prisoners convicted of sex offenses against minors for assault. One guard faces a five-count felony complaint, two have been fired, and two others have been identified as suspects according to an FBI spokesperson in San Francisco who said the case is under "active investigation."

The targeting of child molesters and other prisoners by guards for assault "has been a serious problem at Pelican Bay," said Steve Fama, an attorney with the Prison Law Office in San Rafael. "What it essentially is, is the establishing of a kangaroo court of justice, where individual [guards] decide who should receive extra punishment or, in the most extreme cases, who should live or die. It's about as serious a problem as one could imagine in prison."

Fama said the charges of guard-arranged beatings, following so soon on the tail of a federal judge's findings of widespread abuse and excessive force at Pelican Bay, "points out some fundamental problems" with the entire prison system's hiring and training of its staff. Pelican Bay officials are keeping quiet about the latest problem, only reluctantly acknowledging that it exists. A Department of Corrections spokesman in Sacramento claimed that the fact that this investigation came to light proves how fast the system identifies and punishes 'rogue'' guards.

Representatives of the prison guards union said the case is the result of a flawed internal investigation. They claim Pelican Bay prison investigators fabricated reports, intentionally misinterpreted interviews, and induced false statements from prisoners to make the case against their own employees. "It's the dirtiest [internal affairs] investigation I've ever seen," said Rick Newton, vice president of the Pelican Bay guards union chapter.

Ironically, similar allegations of false charges are often made by people in prison who feel they've been singled out for retaliation because they've filed complaints about guards or conditions, but lacking a monied and politically powerful union to defend them, their claims are ridiculed by prison staff and usually summarily dismissed by the courts.

There is no doubt that child molesters, historically marked for assault by other prisoners, were getting stabbed, slashed, and beaten at Pelican Bay at a much higher rate than in any other prison in the state. One Pelican Bay correctional counselor testified that as many as 10 child molesters were getting "hit" each month between December 1994 and March 1995, compared with the regular rate of one such assault every two or three months. The increase in incidents continued through January 1996 according to court documents and prison internal reports.

Department of Corrections officials began investigating the child molester beatings in March 1995. "What it tells you is that the department, when it's allowed to investigate, will find out the facts, and if the facts are there, it will take action against the staff," said spokesman Tip Kindall. "When we're allowed to investigate, when we find wrongdoing, appropriate personnel action is taken." Unfortunately, such investigations seem to begin only after the problem becomes public.

Pelican Bay prison officials attributed the child molester assaults to a group of guards who secretly rifled through prisoners' files and then passed the information on to the most assaultive prisoners on the yard. Those prisoners apparently shared the guards' sentiments about child molesters. Offering bribes of alcohol, money, and other items, the guards persuaded the prisoners to do their dirty work.

Charged is six-year veteran guard Jose Garcia, 41, accused in one count of conspiracy to commit assault and in four other counts with furnishing alcohol to prisoners as payment for the beatings. Neither Garcia or his attorney would comment on the charges, but denied them in interviews with prison investigators, claiming prisoners probably had access to the confidential files because of lax security procedures.

In the conspiracy charge, Garcia is alleged to have set up the throat slashing of one prisoner and the beatings of three others. He's accused of furnishing copies of information from those prisoners' files to the actual assailants.

One of the prisoners allegedly used by Garcia to assault child molesters, Nicolas Figueroa, 26, serving 25 to life for conspiracy to commit murder, testified that the guard "brought it to our knowledge" that another prisoner on the yard "was a child molester." Figueroa also testified that Garcia told him and his cellmate that "the dude's got to go," and then explained how to kill someone by stabbing them in the heart from the armpit area.

Garcia "was willing to supply the weapon" for the attack, Figueroa testified. "If you can do it on the yard and I'll witness it, then I'll say it was [the molester] that had the weapon and that [he] was trying to stab you and you just took it and defended yourself."

Another prisoner, Ronald Caudle, testified that Garcia gave him "the green light" to beat a child molester in one of the dayrooms. Caudle said he was "pressured" into going through with the assault by other prisoners, and that when the time came, his cell door was popped open and looking directly at him from the control room was Garcia.

With a jerk of his head, Garcia motioned to Caudle to come out of his cell and go into the dayroom where the molester was seated at a table. Caudle testified he slugged the molester in the face, knocked him to the concrete floor, then kicked him in the stomach. Garcia ordered both prisoners down, then shot at the molester with a 37-millimeter gas gun according to Caudle. Garcia later bragged about the shooting.

Other prisoners testified Garcia gave them vodka in a baby oil bottle, Jack Daniel's whiskey, and tinfoil wrappers with chocolate liqueur candies.

Garcia is also alleged to have arranged assaults through Thomas Branscum, 34, a convicted murderer and reputed "shot caller" on the yard. Garcia befriended Branscum by giving him cologne, deodorant, muscle relaxers, a photo of himself and his dogs, and a pair of silk underwear Branscum wore to family visits.

According to State Personnel Board records and court documents, Garcia claimed only that he gave Branscum a few bottles of "pruno" to cultivate him as an informant. Garcia was accused of giving one prisoner a large sewing needle to stab a child molester and of paying another $100 for "hits" on selected sex offenders.

Union officials said the charges against Garcia are unbelievable because they were based on the word of prisoners. Twenty-one prisoners testified against Garcia, including both victims and their attackers. The union claimed the prisoners benefited from their testimony. Figueroa, who slashed a molester's throat, had all criminal charges in that incident dropped. Other prisoners had disciplinary charges dismissed in return for cooperating in the investigation and were transferred from Pelican Bay to prisons closer to their homes.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login