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Guard’s Shooting of Prisoner at Lancaster Probed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state Department of Corrections is investigating a guard who shot and wounded an inmate during a melee earlier this month at California State Prison, Los Angeles County.

It is the first incident in which an inmate was wounded since the state prison system overhauled its shooting policy and practices a year ago in response to mounting criticism.

Investigators from the department’s internal affairs unit are trying to determine if the guard violated the new policy when he failed to fire nonlethal warning shots to stop the June 4 melee. The fight involved 100 white and Latino inmates in a recreation yard at the Lancaster prison.

After trying to stop the melee with shouts and whistles, officials said, the guard aimed his Mini-14 assault rifle and fired four bullets, striking inmate Serbando Raygoza, 24, of Los Angeles in the right shoulder. Raygoza, who is imprisoned for voluntary manslaughter, was hospitalized and later released back to the prison.

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The state’s new shooting policy calls for the use of deadly force only as a last resort after less lethal means--including discharging wood blocks from a gas gun--are used. The policy also forbids the use of deadly force to stop inmate fistfights, but it allows a guard to respond with firepower if one inmate is about to kill or seriously injure another inmate with a weapon.

Although several knives were recovered from the scene, officials said, investigators are still trying to determine if Raygoza was wielding a weapon when he was shot.

“Internal affairs is still investigating the shooting, and I’d characterize it as a vigorous investigation,” said Kati Corsaut, chief representative for the Corrections Department.

In a letter to The Times, an inmate at Lancaster contended that prison officials created problems by mixing medium- and maximum-security inmates. He said the incident was preceded by another disturbance involving 14 inmates a few months earlier.

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“You cannot house Level 1 inmates with Level 3 inmates,” the prisoner said. “It’s a major security issue.”

Corrections officials said that a small number of murderers and other maximum-security prisoners are housed with lower-security inmates in a separate dorm-style setting at Lancaster but that these inmates had nothing to do with the melee this month. The cause of the violence was not inmate mixing but bad blood between white and Latino prisoners, officials said.

California is the only state in which correctional officers have resorted to lethal force to stop fistfights and melees involving unarmed inmates. Most states limit firearms to a few guard towers that ring a prison and require guards to use batons and pepper spray to break up inmate fights.

During the last decade, California’s practice of mixing rival gang members into the same small exercise yards and then shooting them if they did not stop fighting resulted in 39 inmate deaths and more than 200 woundings.

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After a series of stories in The Times last year detailing the shootings statewide and incidents of brutality and cover-up at Corcoran State Prison, the Corrections Department overhauled the shooting practice and began retraining thousands of guards.


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