Guards Tell of Retaliation for Informing
Guards who witness abuse and other misconduct in California prisons rarely report it for fear of isolation by fellow officers and reprisals from superiors, three current and former Department of Corrections workers testified Tuesday, their voices shaking with emotion.
The testimony came at a daylong Senate hearing on the state’s troubled prison system. The whistle-blowers’ revelations focused largely on a riot at Folsom State Prison that, an independent watchdog agency found, could have been prevented and was the subject of a cover-up by those charged to investigate it.
The 2002 riot, between rival gangs on the exercise yard, lasted just 90 seconds. But it left 24 inmates injured and one prison guard permanently disabled -- and may have played a role in the suicide of another officer.
The fracas also led to the recent firing of Folsom Warden Diana Butler, who was ousted soon after a report on the incident by the state inspector general’s office. That report said Butler had bungled the riot’s aftermath by failing to discipline any staff or refer the case for possible prosecutions
On Tuesday, Department of Corrections officials acknowledged the problems at Folsom and announced a shake-up involving 10 officials, from deputy warden down to the captain level. Acting Corrections Director Richard Rimmer said that the staff would be temporarily reassigned and that Dave Runnels, the warden at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, would be brought in to run the Folsom lockup temporarily as investigations there continue.
The changes at Folsom come as California’s penal system, the nation’s largest, weathers a wave of scrutiny, from a scathing report released last week by a federal court master to Tuesday’s hearing.
As an overflow audience looked on, two Democratic senators spent the day hearing testimony from corrections employees and others as part of their effort to reform the vast penal system, which includes 33 prisons and runs on a budget of about $5.3 billion a year.
Sens. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said their review of the Department of Corrections and its record of tackling wrongdoing by guards has brought threats from those who, in Speier’s words, “believe we have gone too far.”
But noting that the whistle-blowers who agreed to testify did so fearing for their jobs and personal safety, both lawmakers said they are determined to force changes in the system.
“I am not giving up on this department, not just for the victims and our families, but so too for the inmates who serve their time and the staff who work day in and day out, most of them with great honor and integrity,” Romero said.
Heavy security marked the hearing. Witness Max Lemon, an associate warden at Folsom and perhaps the harshest critic of the department, had requested protection from the California Highway Patrol in recent days because of concerns about retaliation.
Opening the hearing was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recently named secretary of youth and adult corrections, Roderick Q. Hickman, who said he was “appalled” by the special master’s report.
Hickman, whose appointment must still be confirmed by the Senate, pledged to “restore credibility and confidence” to the penal system and “create an environment where employees feel they can and should report misconduct.”
He also acknowledged the senators’ concerns about the elimination of the inspector general’s office in Schwarzenegger’s recently released budget. That office -- which produced the critical report on the Folsom riot -- is the only independent watchdog that investigates complaints against correctional employees. The governor has proposed re-creating it in a vastly smaller size within Hickman’s agency.
“This isn’t independence,” Speier said. “It’s insanity.”
But the principal focus of the hearing was a series of cases that the senators believe illustrate obstruction of justice within the department. Most prominent was Folsom.
Witnesses said the riot broke out as the prison began integrating members of two rival gangs who had been locked in their cells for months: the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia. Instead of releasing inmates of each group a few at a time to maintain control and ensure that no fights broke out, more than 80 inmates with gang affiliations were released all at once.
Capt. Douglas Pieper, who was on duty that day, noticed that the release was not going as planned. When he saw Mexican Mafia members moving toward rivals in a threatening manner, he asked Associate Warden Mike Bunnell if he should “shut ‘em down,” prison code for ordering inmates to lie face down on the ground.
According to a videotape of the event played at the hearing, Bunnell replied, “Not yet.” At that point, the melee erupted, with some inmates stabbing one another with makeshift knives.
About a month after the riot, Lt. Sam Cox, who worked in the prison’s investigative unit, viewed the tape at a meeting with a Department of Corrections special agent, a district attorney’s investigator and a sergeant. Testifying Tuesday, Cox said the special agent commented that the tape “did not reflect favorably” on the prison because “it looked like [the riot] should have been stopped.”
Soon after, Cox said, his superior told him to remove the audio portion of the tape. Cox said he refused because “it gave the impression of trying to cover something up.”
“For me, to receive those instructions on the heels of that conversation, it stunk,” Cox said. “It didn’t pass the test.”
Instead, he wrote a memo to Associate Warden Bunnell, who had delayed shutting down the yard just before the riot erupted, explaining what he had done. Bunnell told Cox he had done the right thing, but six weeks later, Cox said, he was transferred without warning to a night shift -- “a much less favorable job.”
Angry and frustrated, he spoke with Butler, the Folsom warden, about it. She seemed sympathetic and, according to Cox, said he “had just gotten caught up in something.” Asked by the senators whether there was a connection between his refusal to alter the tape and his demotion, Cox said, “There’s not a doubt in my mind.... It’s been catastrophic, I can’t tell you. The sleepless nights.... I can tell you at Folsom State Prison I was directly affected by a code of silence.”
Pieper, the captain who had anticipated trouble and asked his supervisor if he should shut down the yards, was also affected by the riot, testified his widow, Evette. Pieper committed suicide a year ago. He left a letter that blamed certain employees for the riot and said, “My job killed me.”
Evette Pieper said her husband lost 50 pounds after the melee and could not sleep. “He wasn’t the same person, it seemed to eat away at him,” she said. When he began asking questions about why the riot happened and why it wasn’t more fully investigated, she said, Butler threatened him.
Ultimately, he was demoted and pressured to sign a document that said he wanted to change jobs, his widow said.
One day, after his shift, the 46-year-old second-generation prison officer locked himself in his garage and shot himself, leaving his wife, a son and a daughter behind.
“I don’t want any other staff member to feel the stress and pressure my husband did, and that ultimately led to his death,” Evette Piper said.
The hearing continues today in Sacramento with recommendations for reforms.
Meanwhile, the department confirmed that the warden at the state prison at Lancaster was removed Friday; the warden at Avenal State Prison in Central California retired last week.
Michael Yarborough, Lancaster’s warden since August 2002, was expected to be reassigned within the Department of Corrections. Scott P. Rawers, also appointed warden in August 2002, opted to retire from Avenal after 30 years in the department, corrections officials said.
“It has that appearance” of a housecleaning, said Tip Kindel, assistant secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. “But I think what the department is doing is taking appropriate action when it finds a problem.”
Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.