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Judge Throws Out Corcoran Sanctions

by W. Wisely

As state and federal investigations into brutality, corruption, and cover-ups at California's Corcoran prison expand, as the ink on multi-million dollar settlement checks is barely dried, and as the grass grown over the bodies of young men gunned down by guards for entertainment thickens on the tears of their grieving families, a judge overturned disciplinary sanctions against six high-ranking staff charged with orchestrating an attack on a busload of unsuspecting prisoners.

On September 18, 1998, in Sacramento Superior Court, Judge Cecily Bond held the State Personnel Board violated due process by adding charges in the course of its administrative action against an associate warden, two lieutenants, and three sergeants, and ordered charges dropped in four cases, sending the remaining two back to the Board for reconsideration.

On June 21, 1995, 36 black prisoners were transferred from Calipatria prison's general population to the now infamous Corcoran security housing unit. As reported by PLN, the transfers followed violent uprisings by Calipatria prisoners in which guards were injured. The bus was met by an organized clique of guards outfitted in riot gear, steel-toed boots, helmets, face plates, bulletproof vests, black leather gloves, wielding metal batons with their name tags taped over. This was payback Corcoran style.

The guards, some of whom joined the action on their days off, screamed threats as they paraded back and forth beside the parked bus for an hour. Then they dragged and threw the chained and shackled men onto searing hot asphalt, and kicked, punched, and beat them. Several prisoners were held down, stomped, their hair shorn like animals while custody supervisors either permitted the abuse or participated in doling it out. Later, those supervisors falsified records in a botched attempt to hide the incident.

Prisoncrats fired Associate Warden Bruce Farris, Lieutenants Harold McEnroe and R. Garcia, and Sergeants John Misko, Robert Dean, and Reginald Parra. They were charged with planning the assault on the prisoners who arrived from Calipatria, although it turned out that none of those men were involved in the attacks on staff there. On administrative appeal, the dismissals of the five supervisors were reduced by the Board of Personnel to demotions, suspensions without pay, and cuts in salaries. But, in its anxiousness to swiftly punish those responsible for the widely publicized assaults, the Board made a mistake that eventually undid the case against the Corcoran six.

The Board was not convinced by the mountain of evidence detailing brutality so outrageous a staff member who witnessed guards slamming a prisoner head first into a concrete wall over and over vomited. The Board discounted eyewitness accounts by the victims because they were prisoners. Instead, the Board of Personnel administrative judge ruled the guards only used excessive force when they violently cut the men's braids off, then pulled them around by their chins. The accused staff members protested that these charges were added too late, denied them adequate notice and time to prepare a defense. An ironic claim from people who routinely refuse to give prisoners due process.

Judge Bond found there were no clear rules controlling forced haircuts and "chin holds." Under this strained reasoning, the court held the employees' federally protected due process rights were violated. In overturning disciplinary charges against Farris and Garcia, however, Judge Bond found they "failed to verify rumors" the prisoners who arrived on that fateful bus planned to attack guards at Corcoran. Proceedings against those two were returned to the Board for reconsideration.

"We're feeling like we finally got before someone who was willing to listen, who was willing to look at the bulk of evidence in the case," Lance Corcoran, vice president of the prison guards' union, told the Sacramento Bee September 19, 1998. "We feel vindication."

Corey Weinstein, chairman of the Corcoran Committee of California Prison Focus, said Judge Bond's decision to reverse the disciplinary charges shows "the Department of Corrections is incompetent to discipline its own employees." He said the ruling "underscores the need for civilian oversight, for community oversight" of the prison system.

James Maddock, the agent heading up the FBI's four year-old probe into brutality at Corcoran, subpoenaed the prison's records of the bus incident. Maddock would not comment on Judge Bond's ruling.

Department spokesman, Tip Kindel, told the Bee that if Bond's decision was upheld, the penalties for Farris and Garcia will be reduced. The cost to taxpayers for the return of the six staff members to their former rank and pay could top several hundred thousand dollars. "We don't know how much it's going to cost," Kindel said. Eventually someone will figure out the cost in terms of dollars. The cost in public confidence in a prison system riddled with corruption and run away growth remains to be determined.

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