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For Celebrity Convicts, a Safe Space Behind Bars

Times Staff Writers

If Michael Jackson is acquitted of child molestation and related charges, he’ll probably return home to his whimsical Neverland ranch in Santa Barbara County.

But if he is convicted of any of the 10 felony counts against him, he will probably land in the most secure prison unit in California, designed to protect famous convicts from attack by other inmates, prison officials say.

Corcoran State Prison is set in the middle of America’s richest cotton fields, about 50 miles south of Fresno.

Its Protective Housing Unit is considered the safest place for an inmate in the California prison system, and therefore the home for mass murderers such as Charles Manson and Juan Corona -- and any inmate whose notoriety would make him a trophy for other inmates, Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.

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The special housing unit at Corcoran is a strange prison within a prison, where some of the nation’s most infamous criminals and gang turncoats rub elbows, play board games and devise elaborate legal strategies they hope can one day set them free.

Those who were once fearsome criminals, however, are largely defanged inside this weird setting known as the PHU, opened in 1992. Although former guards and inmates assigned to the unit agree it is safe, they say it requires a high degree of wariness and guile to survive.

Counting Manson and Corona, 20 inmates are living in the unit at the far rear of the sprawling facility, surrounded by miles of San Joaquin Valley farmland.

Sirhan B. Sirhan, who assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and was one of the first inmates placed in the unit, spent years playing chess and working as an administrative clerk for 13 cents an hour.

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Last year, after an infraction, he was moved to a segregated housing unit within the Kings County prison.

“Inmates in the PHU basically can’t live on any other yard in the state,” Thornton said. “It is the only true protective housing unit.... It is the highest protection we offer.”

California prison regulations set several basic requirements for eligibility for the special unit, Thornton noted: “The inmate has notoriety likely to result in great bodily harm to the inmate if placed in the general [prison] population,” and “There is no alternative placement, which can ensure the inmate’s safety and provide the degree of control required for the inmate.”

The Corcoran unit can house a maximum of 47 inmates, some in single cells. Each cell has a concrete bed, sink, desk and toilet.

For years, the residents have included Manson, who orchestrated the grisly murders of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate and coffee heiress Abigail Folger in 1969; and Corona, found guilty of murdering 25 migrant farmworkers in the 1970s. Manson and Corona are now in their 70s.

The Protective Housing Unit sits alongside a section known as the Security Housing Unit, where California incarcerates what officials consider some of its most violent and problematic inmates. The only thing that separates the security unit inmates from the protective unit is a single door operated by remote control.

In 1999, a guard left the door open and several security unit inmates ran into the protective unit yard, beating Corona and smashing Manson’s guitar.

But, in general, the unit is a cocoon. The incident was the only one prison officials could recall in which the protective unit’s security was breached.

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“It’s a quiet, well-behaved yard. They rarely have any incidents,” Thornton said.

In most prison settings, said Richard Caruso, a former correctional officer at Corcoran who guarded protective unit inmates in the early 1990s, informing on a fellow inmate would probably result in quick reprisal or even death. But inside the unit’s safe confines, many snitches operate with impunity.

“The PHU inmates are always telling on each other, trying to make themselves look good in the eyes of staff,” he said.

For several hours a day, the inmates are free to roam and eat inside a large day room with metal tables and chairs. During a tour of the unit in the late 1990s, a reporter encountered Manson, wearing Birkenstocks and pleading with top corrections officials that his guitar be returned.

Nearby, a gang hit-man-turned-informant, his body covered with tattoos, wanted his photo taken as he held up a Bible. In the corner, Corona was mumbling that guards had denied him access to a plot of chili peppers he had planted in the yard. In the center of it all, a child molester had two tables piled high with legal documents as he prepared another appeal. “Welcome to my law office,” he said with an ironic grin.

“It is like a Beckett play,” said Fresno attorney Catherine Campbell, referring to late Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett, known for plays about people in absurd situations. “It is full of very strange people, packed in together.

“Each one has an amazing and interesting life story.”

Campbell, who filed a successful damage suit against the prison in the mid-1990s, said the Protective Housing Unit, which she has visited several times, is a “weird and claustrophobic place,” but for all that, safe.

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“I have never seen anything like it in all my years of going into prisons,” she said. “You felt like you were walking into a benign mental health ward. It was not frightening. I have been more frightened by prisoners behind glass than by these prisoners. They seem so removed, so declawed.

“Their only reason for being together is their celebrity status,” Campbell said.

State prison officials will not divulge the names of many of those in the unit because they have testified against other inmates “and they have hits on them,” Thornton said. Some of these inmates, she said, are “high-ranking former gang members.”

Among the inmates listed by prison officials as current residents are Dana Ewell, who is serving a life term for the 1992 murders, with the help of a college dorm mate, of his parents and sister in Fresno in an attempt to inherit the family’s $8-million estate. Ewell was the subject of a network movie and a book.

Another is David Arnold Brown, sentenced to life in prison in 1990 for orchestrating the 1985 murder of his wife in Garden Grove. Brown likewise was the subject of a TV docudrama and a book by true-crime author Ann Rule.

Among the former residents, according to an inmate who spent time in the unit, is Patrick W. Kearney, the so-called Trash Bag Killer, a former aerospace worker from Redondo Beach who pleaded guilty to cutting up 21 young male victims in the 1970s and leaving their body parts in trash bags along Southland freeways.

There’s also Michael Thompson, a handsome and charming sociopath who once led a faction of the Aryan Brotherhood until he turned informant and helped state and federal officials prosecute the Hells Angels for several unsolved murders. Thompson, a former Orange County high school football star, concocted a story about Manson being involved in a plot, hatched inside the unit, to kill former President Clinton.

Keith Wattley, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Project in San Rafael, Calif., said “it is difficult” for some inmates to gain admission to the protective unit “even if they have been attacked. There is a long screening process. I know people who are repeatedly petitioning the department to get in there.”

A California Department of Corrections video, produced for distribution to the media, shows an unidentified Latino inmate in the unit saying: “It’s been real nice for me. It’s a peaceful environment. It’s almost like being free on the street.”

Thornton said the California prison system also offers “special needs units” for inmates who might be at risk, including parent killers Erik and Lyle Menendez and some of the 7,200 child molesters incarcerated in the state. But those units are much larger; a Lancaster facility has 1,100 inmates.

The tiny population at the Corcoran unit helps prison officials make it what they consider the safest of the safe environments, authorities said.

Prison official Thornton said that all protective unit inmates are given a copy of the department’s very detailed “Director’s Rules,” known as “The CDC Bible.” The 157-page document covers inmate conduct and discipline, grooming, regulations for visits and interaction with the media, among other subjects.

The standard prison attire is denim jeans, blue shirt and brown boots. Inmates also are provided with white T-shirts, white boxer shorts and a denim jacket.

One thing that distinguishes the special Corcoran unit from other prison settings is that only staff members prepare or serve food. Inmates at other prisons participate in cooking and serving.

In other respects, the unit regulations are no different from those of other prisons, according to Sabrina Johnson, Corcoran’s spokeswoman.

Televisions and radios are permitted if inmates can afford them; prisoners can shower once a day, have access to a law library, are entitled to visits on Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., can have books sent to them as long as the books do not contain nudity or profanity, can receive newspapers “as long as it does not violate the safety of the inmate or the institution,” and are permitted to exercise in the morning and the afternoon, Johnson said.

The inmates are entitled to make calls during a specified period. They have to share a phone, but have easier access to one than inmates in the general population, Johnson said.

The exercise yard has a basketball court and a dip bar where inmates can do chin-ups. However, there are no free weights.

Johnson said the cells are approximately the same size as those for the general population, about 8 feet by 12 feet.

The inmates are awakened at 6 a.m. Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 7 a.m. At that time, the protective housing residents are given sack lunches that they can eat whenever they choose. Dinner is served from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Inmates can eat in the day room or in their own cells, Johnson said.

The inmates must be back in their cells by 8:45 p.m., Johnson said, but “we don’t officially have lights out.” Inmates have night lights and can read as late as they wish, she said.

The unit may have the official status of being the safest in California, but some legal analysts said they find it peculiar that, if convicted of a felony, Jackson could wind up being housed with some of the most notorious murderers in California.

“It’s a little bizarre,” said Frank Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, who has studied the California prison system.

“Here is a man whose terrible problem for the prison system is his vulnerability, not his threat to others,” Zimring said.

*

Arax reported from Corcoran and Weinstein from Los Angeles.


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