State Agrees to Pay $2.2 Million to Inmate Shot at Corcoran Prison
In one of the largest prison brutality settlements ever, the state of California has agreed to pay $2.2 million to an inmate paralyzed for life by a guard’s bullet during a yard fight at Corcoran State Prison in 1993.
Vincent Tulumis, 33, was shot in the neck during a fight allegedly set up by officers in the prison’s Security Housing Unit, according to depositions in the case. Neither Tulumis nor his rival was carrying a weapon or posing serious harm to each other when the gun post officer fired the 9-millimeter bullet.
In agreeing to settle the lawsuit this month--one of several recent cases in which the state has paid large awards for inmate deaths and injuries--the Department of Corrections admitted no wrongdoing.
“It was clearly in the best interests of the state to see if a settlement could be made short of continued litigation,” Corrections Director Cal Terhune said.
Tulumis, who was serving a three-year sentence for drug possession, was nine months shy of his release at the time of the shooting. Paralyzed from the neck down, the 6-foot, 4-inch Hawthorne resident said the settlement doesn’t come close to compensating him for all that he has lost.
“My life today is worse than incarceration. You’re looking at a man who can’t even wipe a tear from his eye, who can’t blow his nose,” he said. “I’m constantly going to the bathroom on myself, constantly needing to be changed like a baby. Corcoran State Prison took away all my pride, all my dignity, and all they got was a slap on the wrist.”
Tulumis said the May 1993 fight was instigated by two officers who approached his cellmate, a Mexican gang leader, and demanded that a Mexican inmate be punished for bad-mouthing guards. The cellmate then ordered Tulumis to “take care of business” on behalf of the officers. Just prior to the fight, Tulumis testified, the gun post officer approached him and said, “Today is the day.”
From 1989 to 1995, seven inmates were killed and 43 were wounded by guards firing assault rifles to stop inmate fights at Corcoran. Like Tulumis’ case, many of the fights occurred in the Security Housing Unit with the knowledge or approval of correctional officers.
The practice of guards pairing off rival inmates in tiny concrete exercise yards became known as “Gladiator Days.” When the combatants then failed to heed the call to stop fighting, officers opened fire in the name of preventing inmate injuries.
Shooting at inmates engaged in fistfights, unheard of in other states, wasn’t limited to Corcoran. At maximum security prisons statewide, 39 inmates were killed and more than 200 were injured from 1989 to 1998. In nearly every instance, review boards made up of prison officials deemed the shootings justified.
It wasn’t until last year, when a series of stories in The Times detailed the failure of state officials to stop the shootings, that a new review was ordered. An independent panel of law enforcement officials examined 31 deadly and serious shootings at Corcoran and found that nearly 80% were not warranted. Since the articles, not a single inmate has been shot or wounded in California.
In November, a San Francisco jury awarded $2.3 million to the family of inmate Mark Adams, who was killed while fighting another San Quentin inmate in March 1994. Last year, the state also agreed to pay $825,000 in the April 1994 shooting death of Corcoran inmate Preston Tate, who was mistakenly killed by a bullet intended for his rival.
Last month, the Corrections Department requested more than $91 million in additional funds from the state Legislature to cover a deficit partly due to unforeseen legal costs associated with brutality cases and inmate medical costs.
The Tulumis case presented a stiff challenge to corrections officials because of the extent of his injuries and the fact that the gun post officer was involved in a second shooting, this one deadly, a few months later.
Tulumis recalled that his cell door was opened by remote control around 10 a.m. on May 14, 1993, and he headed for the exercise yard. Before he got there, he was strip-searched as usual and checked with a metal detector. A few seconds later, he said, the gun post officer looked down from his fortified position and asked if the fight was going to happen as scheduled.
The officer denied in a deposition making such a comment. Tulumis, who had been involved in prison brawls before, said everyone knew that the fight was going to happen. Before the yard even opened that day, he said, the gun post officer and another guard had approached his cellmate.
He said the officers told his cellmate that an inmate from Los Angeles named Alberto Beltran was talking rudely to female staff and had to be taught a lesson.
“They told my cellie that Beltran needed to be dealt with, and my cellie turned to me and said, ‘I want you to take care of it,’ ” Tulumis recalled. “I was being used to get back at Beltran, and I had no choice but to fight.”
Beltran, a foot smaller than Tulumis, stepped up and they began trading blows. According to the incident report, the gun post officer said he yelled several times to stop the fighting but the two combatants ignored him. Fearing that Beltran was in “imminent great bodily harm,” the officer said he chambered a round into his 9-millimeter assault rifle and fired once, striking Tulumis in the back of the neck and shattering his spine.
The officer did not fire the customary warning shot from a 37-millimeter gas gun that discharges wooden blocks.
Rather than wait for medical help, a supervising officer ordered several inmates to carry Tulumis out of the yard by his legs and head, possibly compounding his injuries, Tulumis’ attorney contended.
“The next thing I remember is being slapped in a helicopter by someone yelling, ‘Don’t die, don’t die,” Tulumis said.
Beltran suffered only scratches in the fight, records show.
“Vincent is going to pay for the rest of his life for a shooting policy that wasn’t even clear to correctional officers,” said Marina Dini, a Los Angeles attorney who, along with her partner, Robert Bastian, represented Tulumis. “The policy allowed for tremendous discretion on the part of officers who weren’t even trained properly. It was almost shoot first and ask questions later.”
Stephen Perkins, the assistant attorney general who defended corrections officials, declined to comment.
Dini said the $2.2-million settlement will barely cover Tulumis’ medical costs over the next two decades. He has undergone half a dozen surgeries to deal with the effects of being a quadriplegic. Despite the operations and physical therapy, his fingers have begun to curl into his palms.
“I was 6 feet 4 and 280 pounds. Now I have no life and I depend completely on others,” he said. “My mother is going to be 70 years old and she is taking care of me, working full time. That’s what I mean by humiliation.”
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