The stories spilling out beyond the walls of Corcoran State Prison--of torture, killing and cover-up at the hands of correctional officers--would seem to derive from another time or place.
Yet they come from a prison touted as a marvel of high-tech security when it was built in 1988 in the San Joaquin Valley cotton fields. And they come not from inmates or prisoner rights groups but from Corcoran’s own--captains, lieutenants and guards who said they no longer could stay quiet about abuses their brethren inflicted on prisoners.
Talking publicly for the first time, their accounts bolstered by internal memos and confidential prison documents, five officers describe a feckless warden and a clique of supervisors who ran one of the nation’s most brutal prisons.
It was common practice, they say, for guards to pair off rival inmates like roosters in a cockfight, complete with spectators and wagering, then sometimes shoot those who wouldn’t stop fighting. Shackled inmates arriving from other prisons were pummeled by officers in an intimidation rite called “greet the bus,” they say. Other inmates were forced to stand without shoes on scorching asphalt, their severe burns blamed on games of “barefoot handball.”
Since Corcoran came on line eight years ago as California’s most maximum-security prison, home to Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, seven inmates have been shot dead by guards and more than 50 have been wounded. It has the most killings of inmates than any prison in the country.
Paradoxically, the guards all gave the same reason for resorting to deadly force: They were trying to stop inmate fights from turning deadly. Internal investigations and shooting review boards appointed by the state Department of Corrections routinely cleared the officers of wrongdoing. The FBI and a federal grand jury are investigating the shootings.
“Gunfire was ringing out nearly every day and many of these shootings were not justified,” said Steve Rigg, a lieutenant at Corcoran from 1988 to 1994 who is one of several officers who have talked to the FBI. “The fighters posed no imminent and serious harm to each other.” And sometimes, he added, “the wrong inmate was killed by mistake.”
The 1994 killing of inmate Preston Tate, which Rigg called a “bad shoot,” is the focus of an FBI civil rights investigation. Last summer, even as FBI agents were gathering evidence, 36 inmates were taken off a bus and beaten by correctional officers who wore black leather gloves and called themselves “the Sharks.”
Eight supervisors, including an associate warden and a captain, have been fired, suspended or demoted over the beating--"a case of thuggery,” said a lawyer for the Department of Corrections. The officers, arguing they have become political pawns, are appealing their punishment this month.
Warden George Smith, 60, who retired in July citing poor health, declined to be interviewed, and in a short phone conversation denied that he lost control of the prison.
“I’ll admit that some of my staff have gone crazy,” Smith said. “But it was only a few who screwed up. We’ve got 1,700 good employees.”
Of his former supervisors who have gone to the FBI with reports of ingrained abuse, Smith said: “They’re disgruntled employees. It’s that simple.”
According to whistle-blowers and investigators, Corcoran’s problems began during the five years that Smith was chief deputy warden, and worsened after he was elevated in February 1993. He knew of the abuses, they said, but didn’t want to be bothered with the details. His nickname among the staff was “Mushroom George” because, in the words of one captain at Corcoran, “mushrooms like to be kept in the dark.”
Some of the whistle-blowers said they took their complaints to the Department of Corrections, but administrators sided with Smith and his inner circle. James H. Gomez, the department’s director, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed, citing pending lawsuits.
The accounts of what took place within Corcoran’s walls emerge from interviews with prison officials, attorneys, prisoner rights groups and five of the officers cooperating with the FBI, and from thousands of pages of prison and legal documents.
The unmasking of Corcoran as the most troubled of the 32 state prisons began when a young gung-ho officer, Richard Caruso, said he became convinced that his superiors were covering up the Tate slaying. One night in 1994, he sneaked out of the prison with an armful of incriminating documents and gave them to the FBI, which began an unusual federal civil-rights investigation of inmate abuse inside a state prison.
Two years later, the grand jury in Fresno continues to weigh possible criminal indictments of prison staff. The FBI would not comment publicly on the case, but federal sources say accounts of the cooperating officers form a key part of the probe. In the meantime, Caruso and other whistle-blowers have become pariahs and seen their careers suffer.
“I knew I was going to pay a price,” said Caruso, 32, who transferred to another prison last year. “I just didn’t know it was going to be this steep.”
Prison Within a Prison
For guards and inmates alike, Corcoran is as much an attitude as it is a place. Nowhere is this more true than in the Security Housing Unit, a kind of prison within prison that houses the baddest of the bad--about 1,800 problem inmates.
Tiers in the SHU are arranged so that one guard can look into every cell from a single vantage. An officer with two weapons hovers above the concrete sliver of a recreation yard. Seemingly nothing is left to chance.
But it is here where the trouble began.
In November 1989, guards wanted to inspect the cell of Reginald Cooke, who had spit on a male officer and exposed himself to a female officer. But Cooke would not budge until an “extraction” team came to forcibly remove him. He put up a small fight but finally yielded.
The incident appeared over when guards carried Cooke, his arms and legs shackled, to the unit’s rotunda. More than 20 correctional officers watched as a lieutenant ordered Cooke’s pants lowered and delivered a jolt to his genitals with a Taser gun.
When it came time to report the incident, another lieutenant told the extraction team to omit any reference to the Taser. Kings County prosecutors tried to investigate but ran into a wall of silence. The correctional officers’ union had pressured witnesses not to cooperate, prosecutors said.
With the help of one Corcoran supervisor, prosecutors eventually won convictions of both lieutenants for assault under the color of authority and covering up the crime. The judge lamented the “collective mendacity” that had worked its way into Corcoran.
Bigger troubles inside the SHU already were brewing.
The premise of the unit is to make a prison safer by segregating the most violent inmates. Yet when it came time each day for SHU inmates to go to the exercise yard--two at a time, 20 to a session--bitter rivals were put into the same cramped space.
The rationale for packing known enemies together is that if SHU inmates could learn to get along, they might be able to return to the main prison. But in reality, there is little mixing in the bigger setting. The main yard is large enough that each rival group negotiates turf. The SHU yard, by contrast, is the size of half a basketball court.
“The [integration] policy was a loser,” said Ralph Mineau, a captain at Corcoran from 1989 to 1995 who is cooperating with the FBI. “Inmates were being forced to fight. And officers were being forced to make split-second decisions on life or death.”
Guards watching the yard were armed with a .37-millimeter gas gun that discharges five small wood blocks and a .9-millimeter carbine rifle. The blocks were not meant to kill, but to break up fights in which one inmate threatens “imminent great bodily harm” to another. If the gas gun did not stop the fighters, the deadlier carbine was to be used.
But guards said they were unclear on what constituted the threat of great bodily harm. One guard said he was told a wound that required seven stitches qualified; another was told that if one fighter carried a weapon as small as an ordinary staple, that would dictate use of the gas gun.
Further confusing the guards was the state’s shooting policy, which also contained the less restrictive language that firearms could be used to stop “physically assaultive behavior” and other “disturbances and disorders.”
As a result, officers in the SHU reacted differently to inmate fights. Some simply issued verbal orders and let the inmates fight until exhausted. Others fired the wood blocks at the inmates’ feet but never used the carbine. Some resorted to the carbine almost immediately.
“I didn’t know if I was coming or going,” said Caruso, a SHU gunner. “One supervisor told me to just let them fight. Another threatened to write me up for not firing the gas gun. It was crazy.”
Inmates relied on the knowledge that the first shot would come from the less lethal gas gun and kept fighting even as the wood blocks flew all around. Indeed, gang code required them to do so.
This uncertainty over the shooting policy, and putting enemies together in the yard, became a volatile mix.
“We were having four or five shootings in an eight-hour shift,” said Robert Talbot, a lieutenant who retired in 1994. “Officers would tell me, ‘Well boss, we’re going to have a war today. So-and-so is going to the yard with so-and-so and they’re all enemies.
“I finally went to my supervisor and said, ‘These guys are going to fight. We’re doing nothing but shooting at them and writing incident reports. It’s a lot of senseless bloodshed.’
“He told me, ‘We can’t segregate the yard. You know the policy. If they fight every day, so be it. They’ll get tired sooner or later.’ ”
Talbot said guards had a take on every fighter. Some were sneaky street fighters, some refused to quit. “It got so bad that we had medical staff standing by waiting for each incident to happen,” he said.
In Corcoran’s first six years, six SHU inmates and one elsewhere in the prison were killed by carbine fire. More than 50 inmates were wounded by the carbine and the gas gun, most in the SHU yard. Four fatal shootings occurred in the 15 months after Smith became warden.
A sampling of incident reports showed that in more than two-thirds of shootings neither inmate carried a weapon or faced imminent great bodily harm. In five of the shootings examined--three that ended in injury and two that in death--the wrong inmate was shot.
A majority of the SHU shootings were not justified, in the opinion of Talbot and other supervisors cooperating with the FBI. Even in fights where one inmate was dominating, the loser typically suffered not much more than a swollen lip. “The only great bodily injury inflicted a lot of times was with our guns,” said Tom Simpson, a captain at Corcoran who is cooperating with investigators.
As early as October 1989, a few supervisors suspected something more sinister than confusion and ill-conceived rules.
In a ritual they say became known as “gladiator day,” officers in the SHU and their supervisors staged fights between inmates. Rather than release inmates sequentially, officers would send known enemies from different tiers into an empty yard.
The brawls became such events that officers came from other units to witness them and sometimes bet on the outcomes. Sometimes, supervisors delayed a fight until a female officer or secretary arrived.
In late 1989, SHU inmates complained about being released from cells out of order by an officer and union leader named Pio Cruz. He played the role of fight announcer, calling out the combatants’ names as they entered the yard, according to a supervisor who testified at a 1990 administrative hearing.
One morning, after sending two rivals into the yard, Cruz ran up to the gun post, took the gas gun from the gunner’s hand and fired wood blocks at them. The gunner testified that Cruz ordered him to lie about the shooting.
An internal investigation ordered by then-Deputy Warden Smith led to Cruz’s dismissal, but the culture of condoning and staging fights remained.
Dimas DeLeon, a SHU inmate from December 1988 to March 1990, said his boxing skills made him a favorite among some officers. He said he was involved in 11 staged fights during that time, often against the same rival.
“I was made aware by the officers that there was money riding on me to win,” DeLeon said in an affidavit . “I was even thanked by officers for making them a bit richer.”
Fights on 2nd Watch
Fights between rival black and Latino inmates in the SHU became more common in 1993 after Smith became warden and his close ally, Associate Warden Bruce Farris, oversaw the security housing unit, according to officers who cooperated with the FBI.
The worst violence took place in one unit of the SHU during the second watch from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. In one eight-month period in 1994, according to logbooks, 85 fights broke out in the 4-A, 4-left building during the second watch. By contrast, the third watch saw only eight fights.
Rigg, who oversaw the third watch, told the FBI that he became convinced that the second watch was staging fights. He had overheard two supervisors betting on the outcome, he said, and many combatants had been moved to cells next to each other.
By stacking the tiers with known enemies, he said, staff could ensure that the fighters would be released to the yard at the same time. It was a less obvious way of staging fights.
“I told my sergeant to unstack the tiers so that known enemies wouldn’t be released to the same yard,” Rigg said. “But when second watch would come in the next morning, they would reverse everything I ordered and stack the tiers again.
“This happened all the time. I was trying to keep a lid on the violence, and they were adding more fuel to the fire. They wanted to create fights. I think they liked shooting at some of their troublemakers. They wanted to get that little ounce of revenge.”
Rigg said the supervisors who were stacking the tiers and staging the fights--and who are now under investigation--were part of a group loyal to Smith and Farris. The clique that controls a prison is known in officer parlance as a “car.” All prisons have cars, but the one that took root after Smith was named warden was especially unforgiving, officers said.
Smith projected the image of a tough warden, adorning his office with the likeness of John Wayne. He dazzled his staff with his capacity for Johnny Walker Red whiskey, according to supervisors who socialized with Smith.
He talked about the need for discipline, but he had a reputation for not confronting problems. Farris was more than willing to step into the void, said the former officers.
“George doesn’t like conflict,” said a high-ranking Corcoran supervisor who asked to remain anonymous. “If your version of a problem is more pleasant to his ears than my version, he’s going to believe you. No one understood this better than Bruce Farris. He spoke for the warden.”
A 1993 confidential state investigation into working conditions at Corcoran found that Smith had fostered an “atmosphere of hostility” by turning a blind eye to the intimidation tactics of Farris and other top administrators. He “failed to meet his obligation as warden of Corcoran State Prison,” the report concluded.
Before an officer can climb in the “car,” there is a test of loyalty. At Corcoran, this was the readiness to play rough and keep quiet, the whistle-blowers said. One rite of passage was to greet the buses bringing new SHU inmates.
“Young officers would tell older ones, ‘I want to do a bus,’ ” said Caruso. “Once the veteran guys got some dirt on the younger ones, they knew they could trust them. ‘You bleed in front of me and I’ll bleed in front of you and then we can go out and drink together.’ ”
Caruso, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound former Marine police officer, arrived at the SHU in late 1989 and became part of the “car.” He said he witnessed a number of bus incidents in which guards donned black leather gloves and manhandled new inmates shackled head to toe while yelling, “You’re at Corcoran SHU now!”
Caruso said as a gunner he fired the .37-millimeter gas gun more times than he can count. “I did what I needed to do to stop a physical altercation,” he said. “I did things ‘the Corcoran way.’ ”
His supervisors kept their end of the deal and backed up the gunners, he said. Time and again, Caruso and other officers saw proof of this internal solidarity:
* When inmate Michael Mullins was shot dead by an SHU guard trying to stop a fight in April 1993, at least one captain and a lieutenant protested that the wrong inmate was killed. Both the internal investigation and an outside shooting review exonerated the officer.
* In early 1994, two lieutenants grabbed .37-millimeter gas guns from guards and fired rounds at an inmate who refused to return to his cell, Rigg said. One of them later showed off photographs of the battered inmate, he said.
“They could have used pepper spray on the guy,” Rigg said. “Instead, they went in the control booth, took the .37-millimeter and fired 7 times, 35 projectiles. The guy was tortured, and here’s this lieutenant showing off photos and bragging about it.”
No action was taken against the lieutenants even though they were involved in a second allegedly similar case. The FBI has the photographs and is investigating.
* The shooting review boards made up of three officials from other prisons became “vehicles for whitewash,” critics said. Of the scores of shootings that ended in injury or death at Corcoran since 1989, they could not recall one that was found to be unjust.
“The shooting review boards are nothing but a rubber stamp,” said Capt. Simpson. “You don’t go into another man’s house, his prison, and tell him his floor is dirty. You’d be stupid to anger the warden at Corcoran because at some point he’s going to be on a panel to judge your prison.”
One of the cliches of prison life is that every “car” must crash.
In April 1994, a carbine shot rang out in building 4-A, 4-Left, second watch. This time the victim was Preston Tate, a 25-year-old gang member from South-Central Los Angeles who had raped a teenage girl in a funeral home parking lot.
In the official videotape at the center of a civil-rights lawsuit against the state, Tate and his cellmate are seen waiting for the charge of two Latino gang members. The tape shows shots being fired into the brawlers, then Tate being hit in the head by a bullet intended for the aggressors , according to the incident report.
Rigg, a 44-year-old former Marine, said he believed from the beginning that the Tate fight had been arranged. It happened in 4-A, 4-Left, the so-called shooting gallery. Tate recently had been moved to the cell next to the two Latinos. And when he arrived at work, Rigg saw a lieutenant schooling the gunner on how to write his report. The shooting review board exonerated the gunner.
Rigg said he learned later that a number of supervisors had gathered in the control booth before the fight, a telltale mark of “gladiator day.” Indeed, there was a fight that morning between another pair of rival inmates. One of the officers who had come to watch was a woman from another unit. At the last minute, the gunner on duty had been replaced by a more experienced gunner.
“Mr. Tate was a loudmouth and very disrespectful to staff,” Rigg said. “But the man didn’t deserve to be murdered.”
Catherine Campbell, one of the Fresno attorneys suing the state on behalf of Tate’s family, said the killing was inevitable. “Everything that was wrong with Corcoran--the flawed shooting policy, the flawed integration policy, the lack of training and supervision, the divisions in staff, the brutality of the place--all came together in that one moment,” she said.
After the Tate killing, Rigg and the small group of bewildered supervisors made several appeals to Warden Smith and Associate Warden Farris. They argued that most of Corcoran’s troubles could be checked by tightening the shooting guidelines and not placing rival gangsters in the SHU yard.
But Smith and his staff refused to budge, according to internal memos, insisting that Director Gomez’s office in Sacramento was firmly behind them. Rigg and the others tried appealing to David Tristan, a deputy director under Gomez. But Tristan reiterated the administration’s support for the integration and shooting policies practiced at Corcoran.
Frustrated, Rigg and Talbot began holding shooting classes to remind officers under their command that serious bodily injury had to be imminent before they could use the gas gun. Rigg said he was told to stop the classes.
“The warden chastised me, threatened to fire me,” Rigg said.
Rigg said he felt he needed an ally from the gunner ranks. He picked Caruso, a fellow Marine under investigation for firing a single round of wood blocks at an inmate.
Rigg figured Caruso’s transgression paled in comparison to what others had gotten away with and called him into his office. Caruso had filed a grievance against Rigg the day before and was skeptical.
“I felt harassed by Rigg because he was telling me not to use the .37-mm,” Caruso said. “I told Rigg, ‘I don’t trust you. You bleed for me and I’ll bleed for you.’ That’s when he reached into a file and pulled out photos of one of the inmates tortured by the .37-mm.
“ ‘Here,’ he said, ‘this is what the lieutenant who’s going after you did to an inmate. Take this in front of your hearing board and ask them why are they pursuing a case against you and ignoring a case against the lieutenant.’ ”
That night, Caruso and Rigg talked on the phone until 2 a.m. about the Tate killing and other rumored bad shootings. The next morning, Caruso drove to the library and found a newspaper account of the Tate killing.
“My jaw dropped,” he said. “The prison’s press release said that Tate was the aggressor and that he was shot after failing to heed all warnings. Even the incident report said he was the victim.”
At Rigg’s request, Caruso gathered key files from prison offices. They made plans to go to the FBI. First, , Caruso wanted to see Warden Smith.
“I said, ‘I’m here to show my loyalty, George.’ I told him everything I did, everything I knew, everything I took, and my plans to meet with the FBI the next morning.
“I asked him, ‘Do you want me to still meet with them?’ Tears came to his eyes. . . . I think he saw the whole house of cards coming down.”
The next morning, two FBI agents knocked on Caruso’s door. They informed him that the prison felt that the evidence had been stolen and that state investigators were coming with a subpoena.
Caruso stepped out his front door, the agents at his side, when the prison investigators arrived. A state agent made a beeline for Caruso.
“Did you give them the stuff?” the state investigator asked.
“Yeah,” Caruso said. “I gave them the stuff.”
The state investigator shook his head in disgust and returned to his car.
Caruso found himself transferred to kitchen duty, the sole officer watching over some of the SHU inmates he had shot at. Warden Smith called a staff meeting and compared those cooperating with the FBI to children throwing rocks and then “hiding behind their mother’s skirts.” An associate warden announced at a staff meeting that “Mineau should be shot or killed,” according to a prison memo.
Even as the FBI drew its bead on Corcoran, reports of abuse continued.
Three inmates said they suffered third-degree burns last summer when they were processed into the SHU. In a federal civil rights complaint, they allege that guards forced them to stand without shoes and socks on the searing asphalt until their feet began to blister--an injury the prison blamed on “barefoot handball.”
On June 21, 1995, nearly a year into the FBI investigation, three-dozen officers--including the group known as “The Sharks” for their reputation for attacking without warning--waited for a busload of black inmates from Calipatria prison. Some donned black leather gloves and placed tape over their name tags.
According to a Department of Corrections inquiry, the greeting party wanted to teach the new arrivals a lesson. Associate Warden Farris and Capt. Lee Fouch had allowed false rumors to circulate that the 36 Calipatria inmates assaulted guards and were hiding weapons in their braided dreadlocks, the state inquiry found.
As the bus pulled into Corcoran, witnesses saw the Sharks doing warmup exercises and stretching. The shackled inmates were pushed off the bus one by one, and run through a gantlet of fists, batons and combat boots. Some were poked in the eyes and pulled by the testicles as guards shouted racial epithets. Other were rammed into windows and walls.
Lieutenants and sergeants joined in and often led the assaults, witnesses said. As a final taunt, guards with clippers sheared off the inmates’ hair and beards. Some of the injuries, including fractures, were not treated for almost a month.
“It was Corcoran at its worst,” said Fresno attorney Campbell.
Corcoran officials contended that nothing extraordinary had taken place, but the department’s probe ended in the firing of Farris, Fouch and Lt. Ellis McCant. Five lieutenants and sergeants were demoted or suspended.
The officers continue to deny the charges and are appealing in a state hearing. “I’ve never been the subject of adverse actions in my career,” Fouch told the hearing. “I believe this is a political cover-up.” Farris, through his attorney, declined to comment to The Times.
A federal grand jury in Fresno is meeting to determine if criminal indictments are merited. Prosecutors emphasize that it is not easy to prove that prison officials conspired to place inmates in situations that would likely lead to injury or death.
The whistle-blowers and Tate’s attorneys fear Corcoran officials possess an easy alibi: The shooting and integration policies handed down from Sacramento were flawed, and everyone from Warden Smith on down was a victim of that bad policy.
Caruso and the others argue that Director Gomez was reluctant to clean house at Corcoran for fear of angering the powerful correctional officers’ union. In 1990, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. contributed more than $1 million to the reelection of Gov. Wilson and key legislators in both parties.
“The union is very strong and militant at Corcoran,” said Capt. Mineau, a former union board member. “Sacramento didn’t want to believe there was a problem. It took a long time for the light to come on.” Union leader Don Novey did not return phone calls from The Times.
Over the past year, after Sacramento clarified the shooting policy to curtail the use of deadly force--and Corcoran stopped mixing rivals in the SHU yard--not a single inmate has been killed by guards.
“This is what we should have been doing all along and the fact that the shootings are way down proves our point,” said Capt. Simpson, who remains at the prison. “Things have improved because the heat is on and people are watching. But what happens to Corcoran when the FBI leaves?”
Caruso and others have left Corcoran--only to have the stares and taunts follow them. The week Caruso reported to work at Solano State Prison, he was confronted by a supervisor who knew Caruso was a whistle-blower.
“I was part of the honor guard at Corcoran. I was one of the chosen,” Caruso said. “But I couldn’t live with that lie anymore. So I told the truth and did the right thing and look what’s happened to me.
“I’m the kind of officer the state should be holding up as a shining example. Instead, my career’s ruined and I’m disposable.”