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Veteran California Prison Official Promoted Despite Checkered Past; Folsom Lieutenant Fired After Be

Veteran California Prison Official Promoted Despite Checkered Past; Folsom Lieutenant Fired After Being Convicted Of Lying

In June, 2004, Jonathan L. Cobbs was promoted to the $97,000/yr. Chief Deputy Warden position at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. But this honor seemed incongruous with disparaging court papers filed against Cobb by his employer, the California Department of Corrections (CDC), which accused him of misconduct and for refusing to pay for his defense against two prisoner lawsuits that were eventually dismissed by the federal courts.

Cobb's history goes back to 1995, when he led a group of masked guards on Ninja Day" to storm cell blocks under the guise of a fire drill injuring seven prisoners with alleged excessive force. In 1997, Warden George M. Galaza recommended Cobbs be fired for his role in the raid. Cobbs cut his losses on administrative appeal to a 5% pay cut for six months, when Administrative Law Judge Shawn P. Cloughesy ruled that Cobbs had no reason to believe that using masks was forbidden because CDC had no rules on their use. Cobbs' only error was determined to be failing to file the required use of force" reports.

Cobbs was then promoted twice in 2001. CDC spokesperson Terry Thornton could not explain CDC's inconsistent treatment of the 24-year veteran employee, whom she praised as a detail-oriented team player with no other disciplinary actions. But despite this record of advancement, he is accused by CDC in court papers stemming from the suit brought by a 1995 raid-injured prisoner, of actions committed with a deliberate wrongful intent" motivated by actual fraud, corruption and/or malice." For these reasons, the California attorney general's office refuses to pay the $20,000 that Cobbs and another guard, F.A. Rodriguez, owe for the state's defense of the prisoner's suit, or for the other $100,000 of their attorney bill that was paid by the prison guards' union (CCPOA). (Cobbs has since sued CDC to recover his legal expenses, but CDC has replied that it was not under a mandatory duty to provide him a defense.)

Tom Quinn, a private investigator who specializes in prisoner civil rights cases, felt the 2,500 hour criminal probe by the California attorney general (which resulted in no charges being brought) was hindered by the prison guards' legendary code of silence." State documents show that Cobbs planned the raid to search for drugs and weapons. But another guard confided that the raid was a show of force" against Crips gang members who were rumored to be planning attacks on Corcoran staff. The seven hour raid on June 11, 1995 was conducted by Cobbs and 55 other guards many of whom wore ski-mask style face coverings on Cobbs' instructions. The raid turned up weapons, drugs and other contraband.

From the internal review, Warden Galaza placed Cobbs on administrative leave on January 31, 1997, followed by a notice of dismissal on March 27, 1997. Galaza wrote that the use of the masks led to an atmosphere in which excessive force was more likely to occur," adding that Cobbs brought discredit to [CDC], the institution and [his] status as a peace officer." Yet records show that a scant two weeks before the dismissal notice, Galaza had rated Cobbs well qualified" for the position of associate warden.

State Senator Gloria Romero, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Prisons on initial review of the facts commented that CDC was sending a schizophrenic message" about Cobbs, adding that Cobbs' case shows that CDC lacks enough guards with unblemished records to fill the vacant spots needed for prison reform. To some extent, we've got slim pickings," she said.

In a separate incident, a Sacramento Superior Court jury acquitted a Folsom prison guard in August, 2004 of brutality and assault on a prisoner but convicted him of lying about the incident. Former Lt. Stephen Luke Scarsella was fired from his job of 20 years and faces one year in jail for filing a false police report a felony. He was convicted for saying he used an open palm to push the prisoner when it was proved that he instead used a closed fist. Deputy District Attorney Steve Secrest said the jury's verdict vindicates three fellow guards who ignored the code of silence" and testified against their supervisor, Scarsella. Senator Romero commented: This is more than just lying on a piece of paper his is covering up. Filing a false report is inherent to the code of silence.'"

Trial evidence showed that prisoner Mel Edward was pepper-sprayed in his cell, and then dragged by five guards down a stairwell with his legs chained and his hands cuffed behind his back. Scarsella admitted dragging the 250 pound prisoner by the leg, but denied punching him twice while he was face-down on the gurney. Apparently Scarsella's defense that Edwards had an extensive record of threatening to injure and sue staff made points with the jury.

Senator Romero further noted that the assault charge here, and virtually every other prosecution charging excessive force by CDC guards, is lost when Sgt. George Arquila a CDC training officer testifies as an expert against CDC. Romero calls this a conflict of interest. Special Master John Hagar, a federal court CDC overseer, asked Why hasn't Arquila been disciplined?

Scarsella's co-defendant, Sgt. Richard Saunders, pleaded guilty earlier to lesser charges to avoid a trial and received 300 hours community service and 18 months informal probation.

Sources: Sacramento Bee; Associated Press, Los Angeles Times.

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