Eight prison guards going on trial for allegedly staging inmate fights
FRESNO, Calif. – Eight guards accused of staging gladiator-style inmate fights for their own amusement go on trial Tuesday in the biggest brutality case yet to come out of one of California’s toughest prisons.
Four of the Corcoran State Prison guards face possible life sentences for the shooting of an inmate during one of the 1994 brawls, moments after a guard allegedly said: ”It’s going to be duck hunting season.”
The federal trial has been a long time coming. The guards were indicted in 1998 after years of internal investigations, legislative hearings and a state grand jury probe produced no charges. The FBI accused the state of trying to block its investigation – a charge corrections officials denied.
”The real subject of this trial will not be the individual officers, but will be the Department of Corrections,” said Catherine Campbell, president of the watchdog group California Prison Focus.
Guards at Corcoran, about 40 miles south of Fresno, wounded 43 prisoners and killed seven others between 1989 and mid-1994. Only eight other inmates were killed by guards in the nation’s eight largest prison systems during that period, California Prison Focus said.
The defendants allegedly conspired to brutalize the prisoners by setting up two fights between rival gang members.
Defense attorneys say the guards were just following the state’s since-rescinded ”integrated yard” policy, which forced inmates of different ethnic and geographic backgrounds to exercise together.
”They have to prove that our clients intended to violate inmates’ constitutional rights. We don’t believe that’s the case,” defense attorney Curtis Sisk said.
FBI agent James Maddock has said that ”it appears the fights were staged, even provoked, for the amusement of correctional officers or retribution against inmates.”
Jury selection begins Tuesday.
To get convictions, prosecutors must persuade the jurors to trust the word of violent criminals over law officers who routinely risk their lives to maintain order.
Also, jurors in California’s Central Valley tend to be sympathetic to guards, because prisons provide much of the region’s non-farm employment – as many as 10,000 jobs. In November, four Corcoran guards were acquitted of setting up the rape of an inmate by a prisoner known as the ”Booty Bandit.”
Sgt. Truman Jennings and officers Michael Gipson, Timothy Dickerson, and Raul Tavarez face up to 10 years in connection with a fight. Lt. Douglas Martin, Sgt. John Vaughn, officer Jerry Arvizu and officer Christopher Bethea face life sentences plus 10 years in the death of Preston Tate, who was shot in the head by Bethea during another brawl.
Tate’s death, which led to an $825,000 settlement for his family, has already led to key policy changes in California’s prisons.
Prisoners who feel endangered can now choose not to exercise with rival inmates, and guards try to keep gangs separate. Misconduct accusations now get investigated by the state inspector general. And prison officials are seeking the advice of inmates on reducing violence.
”The administrative and management responses to these kinds of problems are enormously more important than the criminal trials that may ensue,” said Franklin Zimring, professor of law and director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.