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BOP, FBI Investigations in Texas, Oregon, Arizona, and California Federal Prisons

BOP, FBI Investigations in Texas, Oregon, Arizona,
and California Federal Prisons

by Michael Rigby

Murder, riots, drug overdoses, and allegations of official corruption have prompted the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the FBI to launch investigations at federal prisons in Texas, Oregon, Arizona, and California.

In Texas, the FBI is investigating possible heroin overdoses that resulted in the death of one prisoner at the La Tuna federal prison. Daniel Mendoza, 23, and his cell partner were discovered "unresponsive" in their cell on July 7, 2003. Mendoza died at the hospital from cardiopulminary arrest. His cell partner was admitted to the hospital in critical but stable condition.

At the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Sheridan in Oregon, a riot erupted on the recreation yard on September 25, 2003. About 40 prisoners fought with homemade weapons in the riot; one prisoner, Ronald Acosta, 47, was stabbed but expected to survive. The riot was apparently the worst prisoner uprising since September 1993 when prisoners torched a building and shattered 212 windows. Overcrowding, which may have played a part in the 1993 riot, may be at issue in the most recent outbreak of violence as well. The BOP, which is running at about 40 percent over capacity in most of its prisons, is planning to add a third bunk to hundreds of 8' by 12' cells at Sheridan. One prisoner has filed a federal lawsuit hoping to derail the plan.

At FCI Phoenix in Arizona, prisoner Jesus Lopez-Rocha was stabbed to death on the recreation yard on May 9, 2001. Although a 2 year FBI investigation led to the indictment of 9 prisoners, Jesus's mother still has many questions, including why other prisoners allegedly saw his records.

A prominent theory is that Jesus was murdered because other prisoners thought he was an informant. Upon pleading guilty to drug charges in February 2000, he signed a standard form promising "to make full disclosure to the Probation Office of the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offense." James Alan Wilson, Jesus's defense attorney, said the prisoners may have misinterpreted the information in his pre-sentence report. Jesus's mother, Rosa Lopez, and Wilson deny that he was ever a snitch. But even so, they would like to know how prisoners gained access to his pre-sentence report to make that assumption. "I want to know how that can happen?" said Ms. Lopez. "That's not supposed to be public knowledge." BOP policy prohibits prisoners from possessing their own or other prisoner's pre sentence reports.

Ms. Lopez said she was provided with almost no information about her son's death or the ensuing investigation, saying that she was originally only told that her son had died. Ms. Lopez learned Jesus had been stabbed when she viewed the body, and she learned he had died in surgery when she saw the death certificate. Consequently, Ms. Lopez would like to know why prison officials and federal investigators are so reluctant to reveal information about the investigation. So would everyone else. In typical tight-lipped fashion, prison officials declined to comment and investigators provided only meager information that was included in the grand jury indictment.

At the volatile U.S. Penitentiary in Lompoc, California, guards have fled en masse amid mounting accusations against Warden Al Herrera. Herrera is accused of a number of misdeeds, including discrimination, theft, misappropriating funds, and contributing to guards' dangerous work environment.

The exodus of guards has left the prison dangerously understaffed, according to Frank Campo, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the guards' union.

"The reason I'm hearing [that guards have quit] is that they are not being supported by the administration," said Campo. "They feel inmates assault them and nothing happens to the inmates. I've talked to staff and more people are planning on quitting, but they are looking for jobs."

The Administration Law Group (ALG), which represents the AFGE criticized Warden Herrera and the BOP in an October 16, 2003 letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein. The letter alleged that the prison has become increasingly dangerous and requested an investigation.

The ALG's letter came on the heels of an October 15, 2003 attack on 3 guards at the prison's Special Housing Unit. The guards all received "puncture wounds" and were taken to the hospital; the prisoners apparently received no injuries.

Among the incidents cited by the ALG is a June 1, 2003 riot at the prison involving at least 50 prisoners. Prison officials reported that 8 guards and 1 prisoner were taken to the hospital; the ALG claimed, however, that 20 guards were injured and that 3 were taken hostage. Moreover, the AFGE alleged that Warden Herrera confounded investigation efforts by ordering the scene cleaned up before FBI agents arrived.

The ALG also alleged in an August 7, 2003, letter that the warden indirectly contributed to the riot. "The warden has fostered a pattern and practice of discrimination against non-Hispanics. [His] statements have had a detrimental effect on the officers and their ability to control the prison population," said the letter.

Furthermore, the ALG claimed that in the 14 months prior to October 16, 2003, there were two attempted murders, 48 serious assaults, and 203 other assaults.

Other allegations made by the ALG are that Herrerea spent between $7,000 and $10,000 for a staff housing bathroom remodel, including a Jacuzzi-style bathtub; that he approved a $30,000 renovation of a manager's government housing, which also included a Jacuzzi-style bathtub; that he spent $11,000 in government funds to purchase two plasma TVs for his personal use; that he pilfered household items from a local motel in 2001; that his policies place guards in danger; that he refused to punish prisoners who assault guards with feces and urine; that even though 49 prison employees filed equal employment opportunity allegations in 2001 the BOP did not investigate; and that although the AFGE has repeatedly warned about dangerous work conditions, the BOP has refused to take action.

On March 18, 2004, Herrera announced that effective May 31, 2004, he was retiring as warden. The BOP and Herrera refused to answer media inquiries about the retirement and its timing. The announcement came the same week that Internal Affairs investigators toured the prison. As this issue of PLN goes to press, none of the allegations by the guards' union against Herrera have been proven.

Violence has long been a fact of life for prisoners at Lompoc and many other federal prisons, but any attempt to apprise the public of dangerous conditions have been stifled by the BOP, a policy that has been upheld in court. In Martin v. Rison, 741 F.Supp. 1406 (ND CA 1990) the court held that a prisoner's writing about mismanagement and corruption at Lompoc threatened prison security. Time has shown, however, that Lompoc is a troubled prison. Unfortunately, there is no public scrutiny until the guards themselves cry foul.

Sources: Associated Press, The Oregonian, El Paso Times, Lompoc Record, Santa Maria Time

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