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Eight California Prison Guards Indicted

by W. Wisely

It's going to be duck-hunting season," said one of the Corcoran prison guards who staged fights between prisoners in rival gangs just before Preston Tate was shot and killed according to Department of Corrections reports. Now eight Corcoran guards, including a lieutenant and two sergeants, are under federal indictment for violating the civil rights of several prisoners and obstructing justice by participating in a conspiracy to cover up their acts.

"It's like a ton of bricks has been lifted from me," said Bill Tate, Preston's father, in an interview published February 27, 1998, in the Orange County Register . "I always had faith in the Justice Department and the FBI, but it took such a long time," Tate continued. "Right now, I just feel blessed. I feel that Preston is smiling out from the grave, yet I feel that he is here, too." Tate, whose 25 year old son was shot to death by a guard April 2, 1994, has a pending wrongful-death lawsuit against the state and prison officials.

"It appears the fights were staged, and even provoked, for the amusement of correctional officers or as retribution against inmates," said James Maddock, FBI special agent in charge of the Sacramento office in the Register article. "That this activity could be allowed to occur, and did occur, with the knowledge and participation of prison management personnel is particularly troubling." Department spokesperson Tip Kindel denied that prison officials interfered with the three-year continuing federal investigation. Department officials conducted an internal probe, concluding the Tate killing was justified.

Charged in connection with Tate's death are Christopher Bethea, 33, of Clovis, Jerry Arvizu, 30, of Hanford, Douglas Martin, 50, of Corcoran, and John Vaughn, 42, of Hanford. They face life sentences for violating Tate's civil rights and then falsifying reports about the killing. Four other guards were charged with conspiracy to violate the civil rights of prisoners arising from a February 1994 staged fight. Those four may receive up to ten years in prison.

Some 1,000 prison guards gathered at the Corcoran YMCA grounds after the indictments were handed down to show their support for the accused. In an amazing attempt at propaganda, the assembled guards claimed the prisoners were responsible for all the staged fights and unjustifiable shootings at Corcoran prison. "You don't blame parents when they're [people in prison] violent at home," said guards union vice president Mike Jimenez in an interview with Fresno Bee reporter Jim Orr. "We don't make them violent in the prisons." Of course, prisons do make people violent and guards routinely set prisoners up for assault as any prisoner who's been around a few years knows.

"I was there. The guards set up fights every single day, sometimes two or three times a day. They brought women staff into the control booths to watch. They bragged about betting on the outcomes," said a lifer who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. "I saw them move dozens of men from cell to cell, tier to tier, and block to block, so they could stack tiers with rival gang members for gladiator fights. The only thing that surprises me is that anyone outside gives a shit."

FBI Probe Of California Prisons Expanded

The FBI announced one day after indicting eight Corcoran prison guards for civil rights violations and conspiracy to obstruct justice in staging fights between prisoners and shooting to death Preston Tate that it is expanding the investigation to include Pelican Bay and High Desert prisons. The announcement comes on the heels of escalating racial violence in the state's prison system. "We didn't have racial violence here but it was brought to a head [by prison officials]," said Robert George, a lifer at High Desert, in an Associated Press report March 10, 1998.

"It seems more and more buttons are being pushed up and down the state by the administration, Sacramento, headquarters," said George. Two race riots at High Desert in recent months resulted in the killing of two prisoners, one in each brawl. On February 4, 1998, 10 Asian prisoners allegedly attacked 8 Mexican-American prisoners in a small, segregation exercise yard. David Torres, 29, was shot and killed by guards during that incident.

In December of 1997, at least 40 white prisoners allegedly attacked 10 black prisoners in another exercise yard at High Desert. A prisoner was shot and killed by guards, and five others were wounded with bullet fragments. Dozens of prisoners remain locked down pending transfer to other prisons in the wake of the violence at High Desert. "The last time I saw this [much racial violence] was in the 1980s in San Quentin," said A.C. Liggins, a 43 year-old black prisoner in a March 9, 1998, San Francisco Chronicle article. In 1996, its first year of operation, High Desert prison's death toll was higher than at any other California prison and six prisoners have died there so far.

At Pelican Bay prison, two prisoners have died in the first three months of this year. The FBI is investigating complaints from relatives of prisoners that prison staff have urged rival gang members to attack each other. George Grotz, FBI spokesperson for the agency's San Francisco office said the Pelican Bay incidents are being treated as civil rights violations. In the Associated Press report, Lynda Frost, speaking for Governor Pete Wilson, said, "It strikes me as odd that the FBI has now decided to inject itself into these kinds of situations--all of a sudden, with Corcoran, and now they're going on and on." With overwhelming evidence that guards set up fights between prisoners, paid Quislings to assault prisoners in retaliation, then conspired at the highest levels to cover up the crimes, the only thing odd about the federal probe is that it's taken this long to begin.

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