Six correctional counselors involved in a videotaped beating of two inmates at a state youth prison in Stockton have been fired for misconduct during and after the episode, officials said Thursday.
Capping a case that drew national attention, the California Youth Authority dismissed the employees after an internal investigation concluded that they had used unnecessary force and made false statements about the Jan. 20 episode.
"The administration will not tolerate abuses against wards, and we will go after misconduct aggressively," said youth authority Director Walter Allen III. "But the majority of our employees are dedicated and are providing therapeutic services to a very difficult population."
The graphic videotape was unveiled at a dramatic Capitol hearing in April. It quickly turned up on network newscasts and fueled calls for reform of California's scandal-plagued prison system.
The six counselors plan to appeal their terminations to the state personnel board, said David Darchuk, an official with the prison guards union who said his organization was outraged by the dismissals.
The employees are "people of high integrity who were trying to do the right thing," he said, adding that their firings had demoralized staff at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Center, where the incident occurred.
"We feel unsafe, we feel unsupported by this administration," said Darchuk, a chapter president for the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. "Most people think the guys in the youth authority are bad boys. Let me tell you, these are not a bunch of bicycle thieves, not a bunch of runaways, not a bunch of incorrigibles. These are bad people. And we try to make them better."
A relative of one of the youths involved in the episode, however, said the counselors deserved to be dismissed because they had clearly used excessive force.
"It's obvious to everybody who saw that videotape that they went way over the line," said Lisa Baker, whose nephew, Vincent, was hit and kicked while lying face-down and motionless. "Vincent wasn't even fighting back. They could have controlled that situation much differently."
The incident began as two correctional counselors were talking with inmates Narcisco Morales, 21, and Baker, 20, in a small housing unit office at the Stockton facility. After Morales punched one of the counselors in the nose, a scuffle ensued, spilling out into a lounge area that is monitored by a security camera.
A videotape showed the counselors wrestling the inmates to the floor, where one counselor, Delwin Brown, sat astride Morales and punched him 28 times in the head. A second counselor, Marcel Berry, drove his knee into Baker's neck several times and appeared to kick the inmate in the face after he had been handcuffed.
Two other counselors surrounded the fracas, but none initially tried to intervene or handcuff the youths -- the priority during any fight, according to CYA policy.
Instead, one counselor shot the youths with a gun that fires balls of pepper spray, while another sprayed their faces with a chemical agent.
State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of an oversight committee on corrections, applauded the youth authority's disciplinary action. "It shows we are serious about misconduct, we're serious about the appropriate use of force, and when you step over the line, there will be consequences."
From the beginning, CYA leaders said the officers' conduct was out of line. They placed the employees on paid administrative leave and asked the San Joaquin County district attorney to file criminal charges. He declined, saying he did not believe that the behavior amounted to criminal assault.
Prison officials then asked Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to file charges. But he declined to take the case.
Meanwhile, the internal disciplinary investigation was proceeding, leading to the decision to dismiss Brown and Berry as well as counselors Daniel Torres, Linda Bridges, Stevie Chiu and Robert Dutra.
In addition to the finding of unnecessary force, the youth authority concluded that the counselors' descriptions of the beatings were in conflict with the videotape. The reports were "misleading, factually false and contradicted by witness statements and the videotape evidence," one report by special agents said.
Two of the employees, for example, suggested that it was necessary to fire rounds from a gun that shot balls of pepper spray at Morales, striking him in the arms, because he was "noncompliant."
The investigative report, however, said the videotape showed that the three pepper-ball rounds were fired after Morales was face-down with his hands on his head and Brown on his back.
Youth and Adult Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman said the counselors' reports were troubling, underscoring the agency's effort to wipe out a "code of silence" that protects rogue guards.
"We as peace officers have the responsibility to, at times, hold our peers accountable and help them succeed," Hickman said. "To me, this is a case where not only did people not assist their peers in succeeding, they exacerbated problems through their behavior in the aftermath."
Darchuk, the union official, said CYA had mischaracterized the January incident as an isolated event. Instead, he said, inmates with ties to gangs had long planned to methodically assault staff members, including Brown.
"This is a stand-up guy, someone respected by staff and inmates," Darchuk said. "But imagine the stress he was under, knowing he could be assaulted or killed at any time."