A state senator on Thursday released a videotape showing two correctional counselors beating two inmates at a California youth prison and called on prosecutors to stop “punting” the case and file criminal charges.
State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said she had decided to make the tape public because it raised “profoundly serious” allegations of abuse by law enforcement officers who had been hired to rehabilitate young offenders.
“At some point we must say enough is enough,” Romero said. “We’ve held hearings. We’ve read expert reports....To remain silent any longer is to admit that our past efforts to reform youth corrections have been hollow rhetoric.”
Romero acknowledged that she would be criticized by those who thought making the tape public might impede an investigation. Indeed, a top deputy to Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who is reviewing the incident, visited Romero’s office early Thursday and asked that she not release it.
“It’s not helpful,” Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin said later in the day. “It’s this sort of thing that provides ammunition to a defense attorney if charges are eventually filed.”
The tape, displayed on multiple screens in a Senate hearing room, was recorded by cameras that run continuously inside the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, as at other juvenile prisons.
Start Is Unclear
Shot inside a housing unit, the tape shows the Jan. 20 scuffle between two correctional counselors and two inmates erupting in a small office before spilling into a lounge. It is unclear from the tape what started the fight, though California Youth Authority officials have said it began when one of the youths threw a punch and struck Counselor Delwin Brown in the nose.
After the counselors and inmates wrestle in a standing position for several seconds, the tape shows the staff members taking the youths to the floor, facedown. Brown then sits astride Narcisco Morales, 21, and begins punching him with alternating fists, landing a total of 28 blows. At one point, Brown can be seen lifting Morales’ head by the hair in what looks like an effort to get a better angle for his punch.
A few feet away, the tape shows Counselor Marcel Berry slugging Vincent Baker, 19, and using his right knee to pummel him in the neck area as the youth lies motionless. After handcuffing Baker, Berry stands and makes a kicking motion toward the inmate’s face, leaving what investigators say was a bruise.
Although several other staff members surrounded the fracas, none initially tried to intervene, either to handcuff the youths -- the priority during any fight, according to CYA policy -- or to restrain their colleagues. Instead, one officer is seen shooting the youths with a gun that fires balls of pepper spray, while another sprays their faces with mace.
As security personnel from outside the unit arrive, the tape shows Brown getting off Morales. But seconds later, the counselor can be seen walking back toward the prone, handcuffed inmate before another staff member takes Brown’s arm and leads him from the room.
Noting that the CYA’s mission is to turn around the lives of troubled young men and women, Romero said the footage depicted conduct that was “the farthest thing from rehabilitation.”
She said the case also underscored concerns that a “code of silence” within corrections was a serious roadblock for managers seeking to rein in abusive officers. The code of silence has been among numerous problems emerging in a wave of criticism leveled at California’s adult and juvenile prisons recently by legislators, whistle-blowers and the courts.
In this episode, the four employees witnessing the melee filed written reports described by internal CYA investigators as “misleading” and “factually false” because they conflicted with the tape.
“It’s disturbing,” said Davey Turner, a lawyer for Baker who is preparing to sue the state over the incident. “They’re supposed to be rehabilitating these kids, but instead you see guards acting as look-outs while the other guards beat up the inmates.”
Turner praised Romero for releasing the tape, saying that “taxpayers need to see what’s going on with kids in these facilities.”
Baker’s mother, Lori, agreed, and said it had been “very tough” to feel “helpless” as she watched her son being assaulted on tape.
CYA Director Walter Allen, who has called the footage “very troubling,” declined to comment Thursday, saying in a statement that he did not want to compromise a possible criminal prosecution. The guards being investigated have not commented.
From the beginning, however, CYA leaders have declared the conduct of the officers out of line. Only hours after the incident, Chaderjian’s assistant superintendent, Timothy Mahoney, concluded that “staff used excessive force,” according to a confidential CYA report.
A Youth Authority investigation confirmed that assessment, and the CYA asked the San Joaquin County district attorney to file criminal charges. He declined, saying he did not believe the behavior had risen to the level of criminal assault.
On Thursday, Romero asked prosecutors to reconsider that decision. But Jim Willett, assistant district attorney, said that would not happen.
“We made our review based on all of the evidence, not just material on the videotape,” Willett said. “And based on all of the evidence, we concluded there is no reasonable likelihood of conviction.”
The matter now rests with Lockyer. Under a long-standing policy, the attorney general is reviewing the case only to determine whether local prosecutors abused their discretion in choosing not to file charges.
To aid its review, the attorney general’s office has asked technicians to enhance parts of the tape. Among the details being sought through enhancements are what triggered the fight inside the office; whether Berry’s kick actually struck Baker’s face; and at what point the pepper-spray shots were fired.
Romero said Lockyer needed to play a more active role in cases of prisoner abuse. She said she plans to introduce legislation that would compel the attorney general to file charges in such instances if the evidence could sustain a conviction.
Meanwhile, a representative of the prison guards’ union, which represents the counselors, called it premature of Romero to release the tape and said the employees had been acting in self-defense.
“I don’t think anyone has any idea of the violence we face,” said David Darchuk, who is the chapter president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. at Chaderjian.
The six employees in the case remain on paid administrative leave. While the CYA’s criminal investigation is concluded, an internal disciplinary probe continues. It could lead to sanctions as severe as firing.