Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

California Prison Guards Organize to Sue Assaultive Prisoners

California Prison Guards Organize To Sue Assaultive Prisoners

In a classic case of "man bites dog," California state prison guards have begun a program to sue prisoners whom they allege assaulted them. To prosecute these suits, 2,900 guards have organized the dues-paying California Staff Assault Task Force (CSATF). Separately, Lisa Northam founded the 2,300 member "non-profit" [$10/mo. dues] California Correctional Crime Victims Coalition (CCCVC, P.O.B. 894, El Centro, California 92244), to bring more suits. The guards' union (CCPOA) and the Department of Corrections (CDC) declined comment on the new strategy.

Dissatisfied with the prison disciplinary system, guards are targeting assets of prisoners outside of prison _ or, in the case of "poor inmates," whatever possessions they have on the inside, such as TVs, hot plates and prison trust accounts. "It's not about the money," said Lancaster State Prison Lt. Charles Hughes on the CSATF website, "it's about holding these convicted felons accountable for their actions. It may be small potatoes to you and me, but ask an inmate if he wants you to own his trust account." The CSATF claims the suits are necessary to "restore a balance of power that has tilted towards inmates in recent years" _ an apparent reference to recent court-mandated limits on use-of-force. Thus it would appear that the once unfettered power of CDC guards to shoot 12 prisoners to death between 1994 and 1998 _ often in staged fights _ has been replaced by a scheme to exact "civil death" instead.

Hughes reported that guards are frustrated by a system that permits prisoners to make "frivolous" complaints against staff, but often fails to mete out meaningful punishment for misbehaving prisoners. Recent events belie this concern.

In January, 2004, guard Delwin Brown pummeled 21 year-old Youth Authority ward Narcisco Morales 28 times, after two other guards had pepper-sprayed, subdued and pinned him. Investigation from surveillance tapes suggested that the guards used excessive force _ and lied when they instead blamed Morales. State Attorney General Bill Lockyer _ a recipient of substantial campaign donations from the guards' union _ refused to prosecute the guards, citing "insufficient evidence" to determine if Morales' complaints were "frivolous."

Then there was the "frivolous" complaint mailed to Corrections Oversight Committee Chairperson Senator Gloria Romero regarding Sikh prisoner Khem Singh, whom guards let starve to death over a two month period at Corcoran State Prison _ and the "frivolous" hours of howling for help just two weeks earlier by another Corcoran prisoner who bled to death in his cell from a broken dialysis shunt _ while his guards abandoned their post to watch the Super Bowl. Possibly Lt. Hughes' concern was over the "frivolous" complaints by prisoners who had been set up by Pelican Bay State Prison guards to be shot or severely beaten (for which participating guards received federal prison time) _ or over the "frivolous" complaint [recently settled for $150,000] of a San Quentin prisoner dragged from his cell at 1 a.m. during a seizure and beaten until his eardrum was broken. On this record, suing prisoners would seem to be a puny retort.

Lt. Hughes noted correctly that prosecutors often decline to file charges against prisoners who assault guards, especially when the prisoners are already serving long sentences. But many "assaults" amount only to minor pushing or disrespectful actions by psychologically disadvantaged prisoners _ which may in turn be fomented by simmering prisoner-guard tensions. Hughes' observation that "staff assaults rose from 337 in 1980 to 2,795 in 2002" rings hollow when one notes the equal eight-fold increase in CDC's prison population (to 162,456) in that period. Viewed from another perspective, in that same 22 year period, while CDC guards' training was upgraded, new weapons were provided them and their pay was tripled _ they made no gains in dealing with staff assaults.

The suits typically are for $5,000 the maximum allowed in small claims court. Some Lancaster-based guards' suits were filed by attorney R. Rex Parris. CCCVC aided three other Lancaster guards by hiring attorney Mark Peacock. However, Peacock withdrew from CCCVC and re-filed under the auspices of CSATF. It appears that CCCVC and CSATF are themselves now at war _ CCCVC filed suit against CSATF in Los Angeles Superior Court in April, 2004, contending that CSATF leaders were stealing CCCVC membership rolls. Perhaps they will find it more profitable to sue guards instead of prisoners.

John Scott, a San Francisco civil attorney who represents prisoners, said "This is incredibly mean-spirited," adding, that for the legal system, "It's a Pandora's box." Scott predicted costly trial proceedings _ plus the specter of appeals and counter suits. Scott further opined that victorious guards might have to turn over their winnings to the state if they had filed for workers' compensation.

State Senator Gloria Romero, who chaired a series of public hearings critical of the CCPOA, wonders if such "sledgehammer approach" suits are just a "publicity blitz" to counter bad press against the guards. A spokesman for Senator Jackie Speier, Romero's co-chair, expressed fear that CDC will only incur more expenses escorting prisoners to court and having guards testify.

Gretchen Newby, executive director for prisoner aid group Friends Outside, feared that litigious guards could harm prisoners' innocent family members by attacking joint ownership of homes or their children's college trust funds. But because prisoners are usually indigent, she observed that "Clearly, this is not going to be a money maker."

Indeed, one can only wonder at the ultimate wisdom of intentionally inflaming just those "nothing-to-lose" prisoners who have already demonstrated their propensity for violence towards staff.

Source: Los Angeles Times

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login