Iheard yelling and screaming. I heard batons hitting," Connie Foster told California lawmakers at a joint legislative hearing into brutality at Corcoran prison July 28, 1998. Foster, who worked at the prison from 1987 to 1996, spoke quietly about watching guards beat a prisoner lying face down on the ground, handcuffed behind his back. The hearings, which lasted five days, revealed a sordid story of a system out of control. "The [guards] were just thrashing him. I walked away. It made me sick," Foster told the Sacramento Bee .
Located on a flat stretch of burned out farm land laden with toxic chemicals in California's Central Valley, Corcoran was the first prison in the state to open a modern "super max" Security Housing Unit (SHU). Between 1989 and 1995, 50 Corcoran SHU prisoners were shot by guards, seven fatally. The number of prisoners brutalized in other ways is undetermined.
Seven years after the first unarmed prisoner was killed by a guard for fighting, and amid probes by the FBI and a local prosecutor, the Department of Corrections and Attorney General's office launched their own investigations into the shootings, violence, and cover-ups at Corcoran. Not surprisingly, both concluded there was no widespread staff misconduct.
"It's clear investigations for the department are not adequate," Senator Ruben Ayala, D-Chino, chairman of the hearing told the Bee . "We must take a closer look at how they investigate problems and where that information goes." Even the Department's own investigators were unhappy.
"The [guards] union and the governor's office ran the investigation," Jim Connor, a parole agent who supervised the Department's team told the Los Angeles Times. "We would try to question a witness, and the union was there blocking us. The [union] even told us how many interviews we could do, and our bosses in Sacramento backed them. This was no independent inquiry. It was just a sham."
"I've been an investigator for 10 years, and no one has ever told me before that l couldn't talk to certain important people and couldn't pursue certain key leads," Ben Eason, another supervisor with the Department's investigation team complained to the Times . "If this was a search for the truth, how can you establish those parameters?" Governor Pete Wilson and Attorney General Dan Lungren denied the investigations were hamstrung.
Lungren, running for governor, said that claims the state investigations were a sham are "a bunch of crap." He claimed the investigations were limited so they wouldn't obstruct ongoing federal probes. "We weren't going to duplicate or interfere with what the feds were engaged in. It's a matter of not screwing up another investigation," he told the Times. Federal authorities deny that. They targeted just the Preston Tate killing, and pointed out there were plenty of other allegations of misconduct to occupy state investigators.
The Department's investigation was controlled by Del Pierce, a former Department of Motor Vehicles chief and Wilson's trusted crony. "[Connor] chose the team but he never got to run it," Eason told the Times . "It was taken out of the hands of an investigator and put into the hands of a political appointee." Only Eason and Bryan Neeley, a fellow investigator, stood by their testimony that the Department's investigation was "an exercise in futility" according to the newspaper.
On Thursday, July 30, 1998, Connor testified at the hearing that he never told the Times the Department's investigation was a sham. But, the newspaper explained that a reporter read the quote to Connor twice before publication and he agreed it was correct. Other investigators told the Times they were afraid of losing their jobs if they testified truthfully. "I was told to be careful of my opinions," one confided to the newspaper. "No doubt about it, if I spoke my mind, there would be retaliation. That's the way it is. That's the nature of the beast."
That investigator, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation by the Department, said he, and others involved in the state probe, withheld testimony when they saw Corrections Director Terhune with former and current top corrections officials seated at the witness table across from them, the Times reported. Terhune told the newspaper that Senate Republicans asked him and other officials to stay for the duration of the hearing. He claimed he didn't believe his presence would intimidate anyone.
After spending $500,000 tax dollars, only one person was singled out for discipline by the Department's investigation. That person was Richard Caruso, the former Corcoran guard who provided key evidence about staged fights, bad shootings, beatings, and cover-ups to the FBI. Caruso was docked pay for 90 days for firing wooden blocks at prisoners fighting, although there were no injuries in the incident and he had already been cleared by internal investigators of any wrongdoing.
The report about Caruso's disciplinary action was sent to the FBI by former Deputy Director Eddie Myers. The FBI told the Times they believe Myers sent the information in an attempt to discredit Caruso and sabotage his relationship with the Bureau. Caruso is a central figure in the continuing federal investigation into Corcoran. Del Pierce, who headed the Department's investigation, denied the action against Caruso was retaliation for his cooperation with federal authorities. Prison officials have reason to be angry about Caruso.
On April 4, 1994, Preston Tate was shot dead by a Corcoran guard at close range with a nine-millimeter assault rifle. The videotape showing the killing of the unarmed man played on television news shows across the nation. Tate, serving a term for robbery, was intentionally put on the tiny SHU exercise yard with a rival street gang member. Caruso revealed that guards routinely staged "cockfights" between prisoners then falsified reports to cover-up the brutality. With the Tate killing, Caruso decided he'd had enough and told federal authorities what he knew.
Caruso, along with former Facility Captain Ralph Mineau and former Lieutenant Steve Rigg, turned to the FBI in 1994 because their supervisors and corrections officials refused to listen. Their information led to the indictment February 26, 1998, of eight Corcoran guards for violating the civil rights of prisoners. The eight guards are charged with staging fights between gang rivals, falsifying official reports in an attempt to cover-up those fights, and using a staged fight to kill Preston Tate.[ PLN, July 1998]
"I'm a whistle-blower. I'm not sorry for the action I took," Rigg testified at the hearing, according to the Times . "I'm sorry I put my family through the horrors of the reprisals and harassment we've been subjected to. My career came to an abrupt end. I'm sorry I've been threatened with death or harm. I'm sorry my wife is frightened to sleep in our home at night and often sleeps on the bathroom floor fearing ambush."
In December of 1988, I left New Folsom's B Facility on one of the first five buses bound for Corcoran. With a one-year SHU term for assaulting two guards, I had reason to worry. We'd heard rumors of what could be expected for prisoners accused of assaulting a guard. It was hot that day. Very hot. The air in the bus was stagnant, without circulation. We had no drinking water, and sat crammed together, wearing dirty transportation jumpsuits without underwear or socks. Our hands were tightly cuffed to waist chains. Steel ankle restraints bit into bare flesh with every step.
The prison loomed at the end of a narrow highway in the distance, mirage dancing in the heat. Most of the surrounding fields were barren, a few had scraggly cotton trying in vain to grow in the rock-hard, parched earth. By the time the bus rolled into the prison, we'd been chained fourteen hours.
A group of SHU guards wearing dark jumpsuits, black leather gloves, bullet-proof vests, riot helmets, steel-toed combat boots, and wielding metal batons stood in parade formation next to the bus. They ran through marching drills with cadence before beginning to take us off. The asphalt was searing hot, and most of us wore thin-soled kung fu slippers. We were grabbed one by one and tossed from the bus, guards screaming, "Don't look at us! Look straight up at the sun! We'll kill you if you look at us! This is Corcoran SHU!"
We were separated and surrounded by guards. I had one behind jerking my head back, one on each side leaning menacingly in, and one very large guard in front yelling orders so close his spit showered my face. "You like hitting officers, huh, asshole?" he bellowed. "We've got something for you!" I was hoping to make it to a cell alive, so when they peppered my kidneys and solar plexus with blows, I struggled to keep looking up.
The Corcoran welcome wagon came under investigation by the Attorney General's office. In 1995, a group of rogue guards who called themselves The Sharks were joined by other guards waiting for the arrival of a busload of black prisoners from Calipatria. According to a Times article, as the bus arrived, dozens of guards jumped to attention, then performed a half-hour of warm-ups and cheers.
Dressed the same as the day I got there, with tape over their name tags, the guards grabbed the shackled prisoners, jerked them off the bus one at a time, and ran them through a gauntlet of fists, batons, and combat boots. Prisoners with braids were held down while a guard cut their hair off. The abuse lasted over thirty minutes.[ PLN, Sept. 1998]
One prisoner was thrown headfirst through a window, another smashed into a concrete wall, according to the newspaper. Some of the guards weren't scheduled to work that day, but came to join the activities. A lieutenant helped cover-up the incident, faking time sheets so it appeared many of the guards weren't at the prison that day. "I've seen guards beat [prisoners], but nothing ever like that," Connie Foster told legislators according to the Times . "I couldn't watch it all. After it was over, I went to my car and threw up."
When I arrived in 1988, only one of the two SHU facilities was open. It was dark before I got to a cell. I spent a few hours standing naked in a telephone booth-size holding cage, hands cuffed behind my back. The cells were concrete, save for the stainless steel toilet/sink combination. There was no mirror, locker, or electrical outlet.
Two concrete slabs for bunks lay side by side. No more than 18 inches separated them. Crude spaces carved out of the side of the concrete bunks served as shelves. I put my half-toothbrush, small envelope of tooth powder, and pen filler in one of the spaces.
In California, racial politics require you to go to yard in segregation or SHU. It's mandatory. It doesn't matter if you're scared or don't want to go. You go, or you're marked as a coward and subject to assault or stabbing. So, when the door opened for yard, I went. We were allowed to wear boxer shorts, tee shirt, socks, and soft shoes to yard only.
Corcoran's SHU yards are narrow triangles with high walls some twenty feet across at the wide end, eight feet across at the narrow end, and maybe thirty feet long. The floors are unfinished concrete, slanted, and uneven. There's one combination toilet/sink, and one shower nozzle. Sometimes they worked, most of the time they didn't.
The high walls reflected the burning sun onto the SHU yards, making them several degrees hotter than the outside air. You only go to the yard with your tier. Each building has two sides, three sections, and two tiers per section.
Prisoners group by race on segregation unit yards. New arrivals are quickly told the rules, "This is our area here. That's theirs. Cross the line and it's on. Sometimes the guards shoot the [wooden] blocks first. Sometimes the nine," explained an older con my first day on the yard. Races exercise separately in their little areas. Handball, the one game available, is sometimes played between races, and sometimes not, depending on the yard.
Corcoran was a place of extremes. It was either extremely hot, extremely cold, or extremely wet. When the cold came, a thin layer of ice formed on the SHU yard floors and the toilet water froze. Hot, cold, wet or dry, I went to the yard, exercised and played handball. A few weeks after I arrived, William Martinez, 30, was the first prisoner shot to death. He'd finished fighting and was walking away when a guard shot him in the back. I heard the shot, then the alarm.
You never got too comfortable in one cell because guards moved you constantly. They stacked tiers with enemies, letting the fighters out first for yard. Everyone knew what was expected. If it happened to you, you had to fight. You might get shot either way. Southern Mexicans and whites stuck together. Northern Mexicans and blacks stuck together. Others picked sides when they hit the yard.
I was lucky. I never got shot. Sure, some bullet fragments and splinters of wood blocks after they shattered against the concrete hit me, but nothing serious. I remember one rainy morning, guards shot the 37 millimeter gun 19 times on my yard. In the end, I was the only one left. I played handball alone in the driving rain.
After a couple of months, the SHU yard walls showed pockmarks from bullets. Ominous dark stains blotched the yard floors, some with long smears where a body was dragged away. When my SHU term was up, I was given an indeterminate term in newly opened Pelican Bay without charges, notice, or a hearing. They needed bodies to fill it. My wife made a few calls, and I was on the next bus to a mainline. I felt sorry for those with no one to help. Those like Eddie Dillard.
Eddie Dillard was a 120 pound, 23 year-old first termer. He came to Corcoran SHU for kicking a female guard at Calipatria prison. Roscoe Pondexter, a 6-foot-7-inch former pro-basketball player turned guard, knew Dillard was a marked man when he read the order to cell him up with Wayne Robertson. Robertson beat and raped black prisoners as a favor for the guards according to the Times .
Serving life for murder, Robertson enjoyed being called the "Booty Bandit." He told state corrections investigators that when SHU guards wanted another prisoner "checked," they used him. He said he got extra food and tennis shoes in payment.
"I didn't know what wrong Dillard had done, but my superiors obviously wanted him punished," Pondexter told the Times . "Everyone knew about Robertson. He had raped [prisoners] before and he's raped [prisoners] since....The Booty Bandit was just one of the tools of punishment that we used."
Now out on parole, Dillard told the Times , "They took something away from me that I can never replace. I've tried so many nights to forget about it, but the feeling just doesn't go away. Every time I'm with my wife, it comes back what he did to me. I want a close to the story. I want some salvation. But it keeps going on and on."
Dillard has sued four Corcoran guards over the incident. The lawsuit is set for trial in the fall. Backing up his claim that he was repeatedly raped by Robertson is Pondexter, corrections investigative reports, and admissions Robertson made to the investigators. And the fact that Robertson was listed in prison records as an enemy of Dillard before they were celled together.
Although they were from the same neighborhood outside, when Dillard arrived in prison Robertson propositioned him. Dillard turned Robertson down and they fought, according to the Times. Under Department policy, the fact that they were listed as enemies should've prevented them from being placed in the same yard, let alone the same cell.
At Corcoran, when Dillard was ordered to move to Robertson's cell, he told Pondexter, Sergeant Alan Decker, and Anthony Sylva, another guard, that he and Robertson were enemies. Sylva said, "It's happening. Since you like hitting women, we've got somebody for you," Dillard told the Times .
The lights went out and Robertson grabbed Dillard. They struggled, Dillard pounded on the cell door, but no one came. Eventually, Robertson overpowered and raped him. Guards walked by two hours later, but just laughed at Dillard. Over the next two days, he was repeatedly raped. Finally, when the cell door opened, Dillard ran out and refused to go back in.
A prison medical technician examined Dillard for sexual assault, but Dillard refused to snitch Robertson out. Robertson did that himself when he bragged to a guard, "Yeah, I punked him," according to the Times . That guard reported the incident to Sergeant Jeff Jones, and was told, "What do you want me to do with this? Nobody wants to do anything about it."
Orders to transfer Dillard to an outside hospital for a full rape examination were mysteriously canceled. Dillard was moved to a different cell and warned by Decker not to make noise or they'd put him back with Robertson, Dillard told the Times .
Pondexter was an enforcer used to strangle or intimidate prisoners. After four years, however, he had a change of heart. Although he refused to speak with Kings County prosecutors investigating the Dillard case, he is now cooperating with the FBI into the rape and cover-up. Seven guards and supervisors were investigated by the state, but nothing happened. Pondexter testified before a federal grand jury in Fresno recently, according to the Times .
Prosecutor James Jahn told the Fresno Bee that a Corcoran medical technician first tipped off state investigators about the canceled rape exam for Dillard last year. The technician said the cancellation came from the prison's "security squad," according to the Bee . Corrections records indicate the same squad covered-up at least 13 other cases of excessive force at Corcoran. The guards union impeded the probe as well.
Corrections investigators told the Times their investigation of the Dillard case was stymied when the union posted fliers all over Corcoran prison telling guards they did not have to answer any questions without a union representative present. Even during the joint legislative hearings, state Senators were met with a wall of silence.
Guards refused to testify on advice of their attorneys, citing the so-called "Peace Officers Bill of Rights." Those civil statutes provide that anyone with the designation "peace officer," like a prison guard, has the right to refuse to answer questions which might expose him to civil or criminal liability. Lawmakers were frustrated, and promised to take another look at the statute. Efforts to thwart investigation didn't stop at the prison walls either.
In the town of Corcoran, guards went door to door distributing fliers and asking support for their indicted colleagues. During recent demonstrations by citizens opposed to brutality at the prison, guards staked out local parking lots and took down license numbers from vehicles driven by protesters. Barbecues organized by the union drew hundreds of guards and several Republican legislators.
In a blatant example of how pervasive the corruption and cover-ups are, the guards union spent some $27,000 for fliers denouncing Kings County District Attorney Donald Strickland as a friend of prison gangs because he prosecuted a guard for misconduct. Strickland was voted out of office, his opponent financed by the union. Support for the "Corcoran Eight" doesn't stop there.
Corrections Director Terhune approved spending more than $1 million of taxpayer's money to defend the guards charged by the federal grand jury, according to the Bee . Despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt, Terhune claims use of tax funds is appropriate because he's confidant they are innocent. Governor Wilson backed Terhune's decision. In the meantime, six of the guards are back to work at Corcoran, and two took early retirement, the newspaper reported.
But, where is the public outrage over guards abusing prisoners then lying to cover it up? "The fact that no one noticed seems to be the worst crime," Fresno attorney Catherine Campbell told the Times . Campbell represents the Tate family in their wrongful death suit. "Corcoran was given license to act out the worst impulses of our criminal justice system," Campbell concluded.
With the probability of further action by state legislators, bills to curb the guards union immunity from cooperating with investigators, civil judgments against prison staff and the corrections department, the pending federal grand jury indictments, the ongoing FBI probe, and a second state investigation, it seems unlikely the Department's problems will go away anytime soon. And that's a good thing. Unfortunately, it usually takes the loss of life or outrageous examples of brutality before the public and lawmakers take notice and demand changes in prison.
[Editor's Note: PLN has been covering the Corcoran story since the first reports of set up shootings began trickling out. Long before the rest of the media discovered it.]
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login