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California Changes Shooting Policy

by W. Wisely

In the past ten years, California prison guards have shot and killed 39 prisoners, wounding over 200, with high powered rifles. Nearly all of the shootings involved attempts to break up unarmed fist fights--- a practice unique among all other prison systems in the nation. After a series of scathing articles in the Los Angeles Times and other publications, state legislative hearings, and the Federal indictment of eight guards, the department of corrections is changing its shooting policy.

"In the vast majority of cases in California, there's really no excuse for shooting. It's just the way [guards have] been trained," Lanson Newsome, former commissioner of Georgia's prison system, told the San Francisco Examiner. Pointing to a decline in the number of shootings in the wake of relentless media coverage of the staged fights at Corcoran prison, state corrections director Cal Terhune said, "I am very pleased in the direction that it's gone. We're going to continue to push, through alternatives and training, to really make the use of lethal force the absolute minimum, as a last resort."

The policy in California's maximum security prisons prior to 1994 allowed guards to shoot unarmed prisoners engaged in fights. Because of newspaper reports and the FBI investigation of the shooting death of Preston Tate in Corcoran prison's security housing unit, the department modified its policy in 1994 to require a verbal warning to stop fighting, then, if that didn't work, the use of nonlethal 37 millimeter gas guns that fire five wooden blocks, and the use of assault rifles failing all else. This policy wasn't employed in every fight, however. Between 1994 and October of 1998, 12 unarmed prisoners were shot and killed and another 32 wounded by guards. In the rest of the country, only six prisoners were killed by gunfire. All while attempting to escape.

In October of 1998, Terhune issued a terse directive: Guards at maximum security prisons were prohibited from shooting prisoners during nonlethal fights or riots, according to The Modesto Bee. Yet, since the latest change of policy, guards fired 14 shots during a riot involving 250 prisoners at Corcoran II. A Mexican-American prisoner was shot in the back during a riot between some 125 white Nazi Low Riders, skinheads, and Hispanic prisoners at Lancaster's Level IV yard. Scattered shootings, were reported in Salinas Valley, New Folsom, Centinella, and High Desert prisons, according to postings on prison-related Internet mail lists.

"Anytime they are not shooting at prisoners that's a good thing," Bob Navarro, a San Francisco area attorney who has represented prisoners in several excessive force lawsuits against department employees, told the Bee. "But, I don't think it's been a long enough time to say that the practice and culture have changed or that the corrections department has really incorporated a new lethal force policy."

In a 53 page report by an independent panel made up of two former police chiefs and a retired FBI agent obtained by the Los Angeles Times, reviewers found that 24 of the 31 shootings at Corcoran were unjustified. Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, co-chair of legislative hearings on brutality, corruption, and cover-ups at Corcoran, told the Associated Press, "We had a shooting gallery going on at Corcoran and the blue-ribbon panel basically verified it. That's incredible."

All California guards were supposed to be "retrained" in the new policy and tested by June. "We pulled in about 153 staffers from the various prisons and put them through the training," Terhune told the Times, "We did the same with the union shop stewards and chapter presidents. Now they're going to go out and do the actual training at each prison." The new policy restricts deadly force to situations where staff or a prisoner is in immediate threat of death or great bodily injury. After training those in gun towers, the remaining 29,000 guards will be included.

One wonders just how long it will take, and how many people will be maimed, crippled, or killed, before California prison guards are made to understand it's not right to shoot someone to break-up a fist fight.

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