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(The following article first appeared on the World Socialist Web Site)

A very interesting pair of stories appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 23. The articles, both very brief Associated Press releases, did not appear on the same page and no indication was given that there was any connection between the two. Taken together, however, these two clippings paint a revealing portrait of the American civil and criminal justice system.

The first of the two, appearing on page A29, concerns a civil rights lawsuit brought by an inmate at California’s Corcoran State Prison against five of the prison’s guards. The inmate, Ronnie Dewberry, had been representing himself in the case, which was dismissed by Judge M.D. Crocker on March 21. To understand the nature of Mr. Dewberry’s suit, it is necessary to review the recent history of Corcoran Prison.

Corcoran is probably the most brutal of all of California’s prisons, a state that leads the nation in the rush to incarcerate ever greater numbers of people in increasingly harsh conditions. Nowhere in the world is the prison population rising faster than in California. In December of 1998, the Atlantic Monthly reported that in just 20 years the inmate population in the state had grown from 19,600 to 159,000 – an eight-fold increase – and that the “state holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.”

These numbers are expected to increase rapidly in the next few years. The Los Angeles Times reported on August 16, 1999 that California is in the midst of the nation’s largest prison building program. This $5 billion plan is scheduled to give the state an additional 64,000 prison beds. The key role that the prison system increasingly plays in US social policy, particularly in the state of California, can be judged from a report by the Justice Policy Institute – from October 1996 – which stated: “From 1984 to 1994, California built 21 prisons, and only one state university … the prison system realized a 209% increase in funding, compared to a 15% increase in state university funding.”

And yet even within the vastness of California’s penal system, Corcoran State Prison managed to stand out. It first attained notoriety a few years ago when allegations began surfacing that guards at the prison had forced prisoners to stage ‘gladiator’ fights in the prison yard, and that these same guards had regularly shot those prisoners who did not perform adequately. Amnesty International has reported that at least seven prisoners were shot dead at these fights. Esquire magazine added, in September of 1999, that “forty three more Corcoran prisoners were shot and seriously wounded, some paralyzed.”

Other reports on Corcoran tell of the prison’s so-called ‘Booty Bandit,’ a very large and sadistically violent inmate. There have been repeated allegations of guards ‘disciplining’ other inmates by locking them up for a few nights with the ‘Booty Bandit,’ with the full knowledge and expectation that the inmate would be repeatedly raped and beaten. Other witnesses have charged that new arrivals at the prison were routinely forced to run a gauntlet of prison guards, who savagely beat, kicked and clubbed the new inmates as an initiation into the prison.

All of this was rather candidly acknowledged in the Esquire piece by former Corcoran guard Roscoe Pondexter, the most feared and respected of the prison’s guards, nicknamed ‘Bonecrusher.’ Interviewed for the article, Pondexter candidly admits that all such activities were indeed standard procedure at the prison, and that he was an active participant. The article also notes that “after each killing, an internal review board would determine that the use of force was necessary, that the shooting had been a ‘good shoot,’ and then things would carry on as usual.”

Also included was a rather chilling quote from Pondexter concerning the attitude among the guards and the atmosphere of brutality at the prison: “It didn’t matter to us. Who we killed, who was killed. It didn’t matter and everybody got cleared.” Pondexter was at the time of this article scheduled to appear to offer this testimony in a series of suits brought by Corcoran inmates. Suits very much like that of Ronnie Dewberry, who had alleged that he was wounded when shots were fired after he was placed in the prison yard with his known enemies and a fight ensued.

The AP release notes: “The inmate argued his case before a civil jury, but was frustrated in his continued attempts to question correctional officers about how many times weapons were used to break up fights, if rival gang factions were placed together and how many times black inmates were shot at.” Though not explicitly stated, the implication is clearly that the judge and/or the state’s attorney repeatedly blocked Dewberry’s attempts to introduce relevant evidence revealing the barbaric nature of the prison and its guards.

Following Dewberry’s attempted presentation of evidence, the state’s attorney moved that the charges be dismissed, and the judge concurred, stating: “I just don’t think the facts added up to a violation of your civil rights.” Interestingly enough, on page A30 of the same edition of the Times, another story appeared concerning the conviction of Francisco Gavaldon on charges that he had arranged to have his estranged wife killed. He was also convicted on a conspiracy charge, stemming from a plan of Gavaldon’s to “get his son – 14 years old at the time – to hit his wife’s daughter – 10 at the time – in the mouth and blame Donna Gavaldon for the injury.” The plan was formulated “in an effort to improve his chances for child custody.”

And how is this related to Mr. Dewberry’s case? By the fact that Francisco Gavaldon is, as is duly noted, “a former Corcoran State Prison guard.” Such is the caliber of men chosen to guard California’s most notorious prison. But no matter. As Dewberry’s case – as well as those of numerous others – amply illustrates, in the nation’s courtrooms – as in Corcoran Prison – it doesn’t matter and everybody gets cleared.

1. Associated Press “Judge Dismisses Corcoran Prisoner’s Civil Rights Lawsuit Against 5 Guards,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2000
2. Associated Press “Former Prison Guard Gets 10 Years for Plot to Kill Wife,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2000

Postscript: On June 10, the Los Angeles Times reported that: “Eight Corcoran prison guards accused of setting up inmate gladiator fights were acquitted Friday of federal civil rights abuses, a resounding verdict that all but ends one of the most troubled chapters in California prison history.” (1)

The eight guards faced a total of over 30 counts in what was “one of the largest prosecutions ever of state prison guards.” (1) The jury took just six hours to clear the men of all charges, based on an anemic prosecution that was obviously intended to throw the case.

Of course, they got some help from the judge in that regard as well. Beginning with jury selection, “Judge Ishii allowed several people to sit on the jury even though they had reason to lean toward the guards’ side.” (1) One of these was a corrections officer herself, and another had an application pending to become one.

The judge’s pretrial ruling that barred any testimony about a ‘code of silence’ among prison guards didn’t help the prosecution’s case much either. Such testimony would “have helped the jury understand why at least one former guard called as a government witness backed away from her grand jury testimony. The witness then went out of her way to praise the accused officers in open court.” (1)

This was one of only nine prosecution witnesses called, although there were 60 names on the state’s witness list. And “in the end, the government called only one of the whistle-blowers during the trial for limited questioning.” (1) This was Richard Caruso, one of the guards who initially brought the practices of the prison to the attention of both the FBI and the Los Angeles Times.

And how was this star witness handled by the prosecutors? For starters, Caruso complained that he was not adequately prepared by the state’s attorneys. And once on the stand, he was handled in a way that seems rather obviously intended to damage his credibility as much as possible.

“One by one, defense attorneys began to question Caruso’s motives as a whistle-blower, pointing out that he had signed a recent movie deal potentially worth more than $500,000. Caruso testified that he didn’t care if a movie was made, didn’t care if he received the $500,000.

“Defense attorneys shouted ‘liar,’ and prosecutors sat in silence as Caruso was left shaking his head in the witness box. When it came time for prosecutors to repair the damage, they never elicited testimony from Caruso that the reason he didn’t need the money was that the state recently paid him $1.7 million to settle his lawsuit alleging retaliation for taking his allegations public.

“It was the largest amount ever given to a whistle-blowing officer in California and the jury never heard about it.

“…Another damaging moment for Caruso was when an FBI agent contradicted his testimony about a high-speed chase. Caruso had testified that the day he turned over documents to the FBI, he and an agent were pursued by state prison investigators. Agent Jennifer Murphy testified that the chase never happened. Caruso said he has a tape-recording in which he and Murphy discussed the chase.” (2)

This type of prosecutorial behavior is hard to explain away as mere incompetence. Failure to introduce evidence of this nature is unfathomable. How could the prosecution have allowed their key witness to be destroyed when unimpeachable evidence existed to contradict those who were inflicting the damage?

As Caruso himself told reporters, “The prosecutors did nothing to enhance my credibility to the jury, and they had plenty to work with. I was on the honor guard at Corcoran and my record was outstanding. Instead, they let me twist in the wind while the defense attorneys called me a liar and a cheat.” (2)

And how did the prosecutors account for this shabby handling of its main witness? One of them said: “By the time we got around to talking to Caruso, it was too late to pursue some of that stuff. Maybe I would have changed a few things, but we did the best we could.” (2)

By the time they got to the key witness it was too late to pursue the main elements of the case? And too late as well to bring in any other whistle-blowers, or any of the other fifty witnesses on the prospective witness list? Even after prosecutors could see that the nine witnesses they had allowed to testify could not garner convictions?

I think it fairly safe to conclude that the prosecutors did not, in fact, do the best they could. And neither did the prosecutors in “another highly publicized trial of Corcoran prison guards. In November (of 1999), four Corcoran guards were acquitted of setting up the rape of an inmate by a notoriously violent prisoner known as the ‘Booty Bandit.'” (3)

Despite this pattern of court decisions, the brutality at Corcoran prison has been documented. “State legislative hearings in 1998 confirmed a pattern of brutality at Corcoran, and an independent panel found that nearly 80% of the shootings were unjustified and never fully investigated by the state.” (1)

But once again, Roscoe Pondexter’s words have proven prophetic: “It didn’t matter and everybody got cleared.”

1. Mark Arax “8 Prison Guards Are Acquitted in Corcoran Battles,” Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2000
2. Mark Arax “Defense Landed All the Punches in Corcoran Case,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2000
3. Kiley Russell “State Prison Guards Win Acquittal,” Los Angeles Daily News, June 10, 2000