For the second time in less than two years, a California prison has become the target of a U.S. Justice department investigation. In part of what is expected to be a wider civil rights prosecution, a federal grand jury in San Francisco indicted fired Pelican Bay prison guard David Lewis June 8, 1999, for shooting a prisoner in the chest in 1994, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The indictment is just part of an ongoing investigation into abuse, corruption, and cover-up at the state's northernmost prison.
The pattern at the Crescent City maximum security prison is eerily similar to the problems at Corcoran, where federal prosecutors charged eight guards with staging gladiator-style fights between prisoners, illegal shootings, and fabricating evidence to cover up the abuse. "I do see similarities between problems at Pelican Bay and problems at Corcoran," said attorney Steve Fama, who has sued prison officials for civil rights violations many times. "Both are about large numbers of state officials abusing [prisoners] by the most serious means one can imagine," he told the newspaper.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco charged Lewis, 51, with two counts of civil rights violations for shooting Harry Long, a Pelican Bay prisoner, in the chest. Long lived, but suffered serious injuries. The department fired Lewis in 1996 for a number of reasons, including the use of racial slurs towards prisoners.
Civil rights prosecutions are rare in Northern California where the population is mostly white and their politics mostly right-wing. But, Robert Mueller III, the U.S. Attorney for the district including Pelican Bay, said that would change. Mueller promised to "vigilantly" enforce civil rights, "particularly where there are allegations that a law-enforcement officer has committed a crime."
Investigation into abuses at Pelican Bay really took off in early 1998 when James Fallman, Deputy District Attorney for Del Norte County, wrote a strange legal memorandum asking for federal oversight at the troubled prison. Listing a string of probable civil rights violations ranging from guards setting up assaults on alleged child molesters, to the conspiracy to stab to death a prisoner who testified against a guard, Fallman wrote, "perhaps a federal grand jury needs to look at Pelican Bay State Prison."
Fallman was laid off as special prosecutor in charge of Pelican Bay cases in September of 1998 when the county board of supervisors voted to eliminate his position. The action potentially will cost the county $170,000 in reimbursement from the state for handling criminal cases arising from the prison, according to the Daily Triplicate. District Attorney Bill Cornell refused to file or investigate cases referred by Pelican Bay Warden, Robert Ayers for two months beginning October, 1998, claiming he didn't have the staff,
In December of last year, the supervisors relented, and approved funding for Fallman's position for 90 days. The compromise didn't appease Cornell or Ayers. The District Attorney has said his office still cannot undertake serious criminal prosecutions like murder because those cases take longer than 90 days to resolve. Ayers wrote supervisors that the prison has a backlog of prisoners in segregation waiting a determination by the District Attorney as to whether he will file criminal charges or not. The warden asked the state Attorney General to step in.
Fallman would not comment on the Lewis case or funding conflict. But, he said, "I applaud the U.S. Attorney and FBI for their work." Cornell's office charged a Pelican Bay prisoner with murder recently for the stabbing death of a prisoner who testified against former guard Jose Garcia. Garcia was convicted in 1998 of setting up, and assaulting, accused child molesters at the prison. Garcia was sentenced to state prison where, because of his former status as a guard, he will be housed in protective custody with alleged child molesters.
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