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Attack by Prison Dog Revealed

Times Staff Writer

California Youth Authority officials revealed Thursday that they were pushing prosecutors to file criminal assault charges against an officer for allowing his police dog to attack an inmate who was not resisting.

The episode marks the second time in four months that video cameras have captured possible misconduct by a guard at a troubled youth prison in Stockton.

Those who have seen the still-secret tape said it showed the canine officer letting his German shepherd bite a 20-year-old prisoner on the leg, even though the inmate was following orders and lying on the floor.

Since the incident, CYA Director Walter Allen III has suspended the use of dogs in juvenile prisons so the animals’ role can be reviewed. Although canine teams are mainly employed to hunt for drugs in cells and visiting rooms, CYA regulations allow their use for security and “crowd control.”

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“Because of this incident, it’s possible we may move to using dogs only for drug searches,” CYA spokeswoman Sarah Ludeman said.

Youth and Adult Correctional Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman, who oversees the CYA as well as the state’s adult prisons, called the biting episode “disappointing.”

“We have aggressively investigated this case and are working with prosecutors to make sure appropriate action is taken,” Hickman said. He added that the top two managers at the prison were recently replaced as part of efforts to change the culture of the institution and prevent future problems.

The episode took place at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility, the same Stockton lockup where a pair of counselors were taped punching and kicking two inmates in a January scuffle.

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In that case, San Joaquin County prosecutors and California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer declined to file charges, saying the likelihood of conviction was slim because the inmates started the fight and suffered only minor injuries. The FBI, however, recently opened an investigation into the beatings, which were televised nationally after the videotape was released by a state senator.

The dog attack took place Dec. 30 but was not made public. The videotape has not been released, but officials familiar with the case identified the bitten inmate as Manuel Renteria, 20, of Fresno and said he suffered multiple puncture wounds to the lower leg.

Renteria was treated at the facility’s infirmary. Ludeman would not comment on the extent of his injuries, his background or any other details of the case.

In a brief telephone interview, Maria Renteria, the inmate’s aunt and legal guardian, said she was worried about her nephew -- who has reported continuing pain and numbness in his leg -- but she would not comment on the attack.

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Attorney Davey Turner, who represents one of the inmates beaten in the other videotaped incident, called the biting scary.

“Using dogs in this manner is clearly excessive,” Turner said. “The purpose of dogs is supposed to be to sniff and find drugs. Apparently, the guards in this case elected to go way beyond that.”

Officials familiar with the case gave the following account:

The biting occurred in the lounge area of a housing unit, where about 18 inmates were sitting in rows of plastic chairs. When ordered to return to their cells, the inmates refused, apparently arguing that they deserved more time in the lounge. After issuing a warning, officers surrounded the group while spraying Mace and firing a “pepper ball launcher” -- a gun that shoots exploding balls filled with pepper spray.

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At that point, the inmates began scrambling to lie face-down on the floor, as they are ordered to do in such instances. Renteria was nearly prone but was partially blocked by another inmate’s leg. The canine officer, who was not identified, then approached the inmate and his German shepherd bit Renteria.

The officer said in a later report that Renteria was resisting, but the tape showed otherwise, according to those who have seen it.

The inmate “clearly was doing what he was being told to do -- all of them were,” said one official, who asked not to be identified because the case was still unresolved. “But the guy turned the dog loose on him anyway.”

The videotape, along with investigative reports, has been turned over to prosecutors. Jim Willett, assistant district attorney in San Joaquin County, said his office wanted to see a technologically enhanced copy of the tape from the CYA. He would not comment further.

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The CYA began using canine teams in 1986 to reduce the presence of drugs in youth prisons, spokeswoman Ludeman said. She said a total of six teams -- four of them at the Stockton prison -- are used primarily to search for drugs and assist other law enforcement agencies in emergencies. Less frequently, they are used to “control disruptions,” she said.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of an oversight committee on prisons, applauded the suspension of canine teams. Romero had not seen the video but said she was “stunned” to learn dogs were used in the CYA.

“When you’re dealing with youths in crowded, volatile conditions, I question whether it’s the best approach to use dogs,” she said. “Overall, what I’ve heard is disturbing and adds to my feeling that there are systemic problems in CYA.”

With about 4,000 inmates ages 12 to 25, the youth authority is struggling to reduce violence, improve education and healthcare, and make other reforms called for in a series of recent reports characterizing the juvenile system as broken. The problems were underscored in December when two teenage inmates committed suicide by hanging in the cell they shared.

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Last month, staff at all CYA facilities underwent a refresher course on “the lawful use of force,” training that leaders hope will reduce a reliance on physical methods inside youth prisons.

Other recent changes brought about by scrutiny from the Legislature and other critics include the closure of one prison’s notorious segregation unit, Tamarack Hall, which was described as “dungeon-like” because of its age and harsh conditions.

And as of last week, the CYA had also halted its controversial use of wire-mesh cages to confine certain youths in classrooms. Instead, the size of classes that include such unruly youths was reduced, and a correctional officer now stands guard.


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