Reporter's Notebook

On the Road to Corcoran

A Living Hell in California's Prisons

Revolutionary Worker #985, December 6, 1998

The RW received the following report from a correspondent in the San Francisco Bay Area:

On October 17, hundreds of people from all over California converged on Corcoran Prison in the state's largely agricultural central valley. Prisoner rights activists, family members of prisoners, former prisoners, relatives of those who have died at the hands of brutal enforcers (both police and prison guards), attorneys, health care professionals and revolutionaries caravaned from diverse parts of the state, stopping at prisons along the way. The caravan, sponsored by California Prison Focus, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, and others was the first protest ever held at Corcoran Prison--which has become notorious for nightmarish brutality by the guards. Conditions at Corcoran Prison are by no means unique and the participants in the caravan were determined to stop the abuse of men and women in the prison system and challenge the way the system criminalizes youth.

As the car I was in wound its way from the San Francisco Bay Area to our first stop at the huge prison complex for women in Chowchilla, we passed through cotton fields and I thought about how, after the U.S. Civil War, former slave states passed the infamous "Black Codes" which said that certain acts like "mischief" or "insulting gestures" were crimes if committed by "a free Negro." Mississippi's Vagrancy Act defined "all free Negroes and mulattos over the age of eighteen" as criminals unless they could furnish written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. These and other laws were used to imprison many former slaves. The former slaves were either bound in virtual slavery to former slave owners or other contractors who paid their fines or they were leased to railroad companies, coal mines, plantation owners and the like. The conditions for a leased Black convict were so brutal that they rarely lived for more than a few more years.

I also thought about how today, during another period of big changes in the U.S. economy, the prisons are again swallowing up a generation of our youth. I thought about how in California between 1984 and 1992 over 1,000 new laws have been passed increasing penalties for all sorts of crimes. Like the Black Codes of yesterday these laws, together with the "war on drugs," have resulted in an unprecedented number of Black and Latino youth being put in prison. In California between 1977 and 1998 there was a eight-fold increase in the number of people in prison--growing from 19,000 to 159,000. Over 70 percent of the prisoners in California are Black, Latino or of another oppressed nationality.

Today as you travel down the highway that runs 400 miles between Sacramento, the state capitol, and Los Angeles you are never more than 40 minutes from one of California's prisons--Folsom, Mule Creek, Vacaville, Stockton, Tracy, Chowchilla, Coalinga, Avenal, Corcoran, Delano, Wasco, Tehachapi, Lancaster. The California Department of Corrections now runs 33 prisons, 21 of which have opened since 1984. Each of these concrete dungeons houses thousands of our sisters and brothers.

Sisters Behind Bars

According to California Prison Focus and the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the prison complex at Chowchilla is the largest women's prison in the world. It is made up of two prisons--the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) and Valley State Prison for Women (VSP). Approximately 7,000 women are locked up in these two prisons. The number of women in prison nationwide has more than quadrupled in recent years--there are now 116,000 women locked up in prisons in the U.S.

Seventy-eight percent of the women in California's prisons are there for drug, property and other non-violent offenses. Many women are compelled to commit the offenses that land them in prison by the increasingly desperate economic situation they face, including attacks on AFDC and other benefits. One woman prisoner told the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, "When I talk with my kids they have told me `please don't steal, we can do without.' But my kids never did without. I stole for need. I would go to a store and open a package to get diapers." Many women are also in prison for killing abusive husbands or boyfriends. It is estimated that in California alone there are 600 women in prison for killing an abuser in self-defense.

Women in California prisons face inhumane health care and sexual abuse by guards. In 1995, 24 women prisoners, many with life-threatening illnesses, filed a suit against California Governor Pete Wilson and the Department of Corrections charging them with systematic denial of necessary medical care. Clarisse Shumate, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, suffers from sickle cell anemia and was denied basic medical care forcing her to go into repeated health emergencies. The case was settled in 1997 and the state promised to improve the medical care given to woman prisoners. In a recent article in the California Coalition for Women Prisoners Newsletter, The Fire Inside, Clarisse Shumate says that in many ways health conditions in the prison have gotten worse since the court settlement.

Sexual abuse of women in state prisons across the U.S. is widespread and condoned by the system. In December 1996, Human Rights Watch released a 347-page report documenting sexual abuse of women in state prisons. In the prisons in Chowchilla, strip searches are often conducted in full view of male guards. Women prisoners are prohibited from covering the windows to their cells for short periods of time while they are changing clothes. Male guards routinely watch women using showers or toilets.

Conditions are even worse for women in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at VSP. If a woman needs to go to the bathroom during an exercise period she must use a toilet that is directly below a guard tower that is usually staffed by a male guard. The showers are constructed so that male guards have an unobstructed view of the women showering. Women prisoners receive their medical exams, including their gynecological exams in the presence of male guards.

In recent months both California Prison Focus and Amnesty International received letters from women prisoners in the SHU (Security Housing Units) at Valley State charging an increase in sexual harassment and abuse in recent months. A spokesperson for California Prison Focus said, "We are alarmed by the reports of daily abuse and mistreatment of women SHU prisoners. This mistreatment, which includes sexual assault, improper touching, leering at women in showers, intimidation and constant verbal harassment must be stopped." The program director of Amnesty International's Americas Regional Program wrote a letter to the Director of the California Department of Corrections asking for an investigation of the women's charges.

As the caravan parked along the road that separates the two women's prisons in Chowchilla I heard a loudspeaker from inside CCWF call all women out of the yard. Apparently, the prison officials did not want the prisoners to know that there were hundreds of people that had come to support them. A picket line was formed in the middle of the street. Every few minutes a car would turn into the entrance of the prison. Someone, almost always a Black person or a Latino, was coming for a visit with a loved one held behind bars. Chants rang out: "The Human Rights Problem in the World Today is Right Here in the USA!" and "Health Care is a Human Right!"

Some women who had been in the prison in Chowchilla stepped up to speak. "I left this prison three years ago after spending 14 months inside of it," said a woman named Dana. "From what I saw I'm very fortunate that I didn't get sick. There are women in there who are very sick and can't get help. I see a poster going around here: Alice Quihuis. Alice Quihuis is a woman I knew. She died in that prison. Not because she had a terminal illness. She died because she couldn't get treatment for a disease that was treatable. Her three year commitment became a death sentence."

Cynthia Martin is another former Chowchilla prisoner. "I spent three years in this prison right behind me. I came into that prison in October of 1992 with 54% of my body burned....I laid in a hospital facility for approximately a month, where the doctor would come in once a day and I would continuously give him the list of things I needed--one of them being pressure garments that I was to wear so I wouldn't have badly scarred tissue....I'm lucky since I've been home I've had three plastic surgeries and I look okay. But I didn't know at that point how I would look. It's very frustrating when a doctor comes in and you tell him what you need and he walks out of the room and acts like it's a bizarre request. I was denied crutches. Because of the lawsuit I was given crutches just a couple of months before I came home. I spent four and a half years in a wheel chair and didn't know if I'd walk again or not. I still have a cast on my foot because I didn't get casting that I needed done while I was in there. We need to change medical care in the prison. I saw people that had critical things wrong with them die needlessly. They would go with heart problems to the medical facility and they were told to take a Motrin and go back to sleep and they would die of heart problems. I've seen people go into seizures and a medical technician would just kick them aside onto the grass..."

A statement to the rally from women political prisoners in the Woman's Federal Prison in Dublin was read. "Love and solidarity to everyone here and all men and women inside the California system. Because all of us have been locked up for over a decade in the women's federal system we are well aware that conditions within the California state system for men and women are even worse. We are excited and strengthened by the increased mobilizations about justice for prisoners and we hope everyone here will commit themselves to the long term fight for prisoners' rights." The statement was signed by political prisoners Dylcia Pagan, Alicia Rodriguez, Lucy Rodriguez, Carmen Valentine, Marilyn Buck, Susan Crane, Linda Evans and Laura Whitehorn.

As the demonstration got ready to leave, some women were seen walking across the prison yard and people shouted out our love to our sisters on the other side of the barbed wire fence. Before the caravan left everyone tied ribbons onto the fence.

"Welcome to Hell"

I was particularly glad to demonstrate at Corcoran because I was aware of its record of brutality. Corcoran Prison lies midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is the site of one of California's Security Housing Units (SHUs), supermaximum security prisons within a prison. Prisoners in the SHU are locked in their cells 23 hours a day.

Between 1989, when Corcoran prison first opened and 1995, guards staged hundreds of gladiator fights in the small exercise yard of the SHU. Prisoners were let into the yard with known enemies. One guard would often play the role of "announcer" calling out the combatants' names as they entered the yard. Supervisors from other units in the prison would come to watch the fights. Guards would bet on which prisoner would prevail.

Guards would sit in the tower above the exercise yards at Corcoran armed with gas guns which fire wooden blocks and 9mm rifles that fire bullets that explode in the body on impact. Guards would use the fights that they set up, which almost never produced any serious injuries, as a pretext to fire on the prisoners who were involved. Seven prisoners were killed and 43 were wounded by officers firing assault rifles at Corcoran during these years. One man lost his teeth from a wooden bullet. Another lost his eye. One guard, who has spoken out against the gladiator fights, told the Los Angeles Times, "I think they liked shooting some of the trouble makers. They wanted to get that little ounce of revenge."

The policy of mixing known enemies in the exercise yard at Corcoran was not merely an exercise in brutality by sadistic guards. It was a deliberate policy by prison officials. According to the Los Angeles Times, "by forcing such explosive combinations and cultivating an atmosphere of fear, officials believed that the gangs would brutalize each other into submission, according to internal memos and interviews with SHU staffers." The Times quotes a 1989 internal memo from Associate Warden Gary Lindsay which said, "The integrated yards [integration here refers to the prison policy of putting members of enemy gangs in the same yard--RW] are doing just what they were intended to do and inmate gang structures are left in confusion." In the same memo Lindsay predicted that prisoners would be shot and killed but didn't see this as a reason to stop the policy.

Another incident at Corcoran that has received attention is the use of inmate enforcers to rape prisoners. Eddie Dillard was a 23-year-old first time offender. While at Calpatria prison he was accused of kicking a woman guard and ended up in the Corcoran SHU where he was a marked man. A sergeant ordered 120 pound Dillard to be placed in the cell of Wayne Robertson, a 6' 3", 230 pound inmate with the nickname "Booty Bandit." A guard who accompanied Dillard to Robertson's cell told the L.A. Times: "Everyone knew about Robertson. He had raped inmates before and he's raped inmates since. He would tell us, `If you have any loudmouths or any inmates you can't control and need to be taught a lesson, put them in the house with me.' The Booty Bandit was just one of the tools of punishment that we used." Robertson was given extra food and tennis shoes by the guards in return for his services.

Over the next two days Dillard was repeatedly raped by Robertson. Guards ignored his repeated pleas to be let out of the cell. One guard even laughed in his face. Today Eddie Dillard is attending a Junior College. He lives with his wife, who is studying for her master's degree in psychology, and their young son. He told the L.A. Times, "They took something away from me that I can't replace. I've tried so many times to forget about it but the feeling just doesn't go away. Every time I'm with my wife it comes back what he did to me. I want to close the story. I want some salvation. But it keeps going on and on."

One guard who accompanied Dillard to Robertson's cell and who has since spoken out against the abuses at Corcoran said, "I didn't care if someone got raped or killed by the staff. It was just another day's work."

Other incidents of brutality at Corcoran have also come out:

  • November 1989, guards assembled an "extraction team" to inspect the cell of Reginald Cooke, who had allegedly spit on a guard and exposed himself to a female guard. After Cooke was beaten and shackled he was carried to the unit's rotunda. More than 20 guards watched as a lieutenant ordered Cooke's pants lowered and delivered a jolt to his genitals with a taser gun.
  • One rite of passage for rookie guards--used to prove their loyalty and brutality--was a ritual called "greet the bus." A team of guards would surround a bus arriving at Corcoran from another prison, don gloves, place tape over their name tags and beat the arriving prisoners. According to one guard, "We'd place them in a chin hold and tell them to look skyward, and any flinch to the left or right was reason to take them down. Whatever force was necessary we used. All the while we're yelling at them: `Welcome to the Corcoran SHU! This is a hands-on institution. You're in our house now. Whatever your life in prison was before it's over. Welcome to hell.' "

    In one incident inmates arriving at Corcoran were forced to stand barefoot on scorching asphalt until they collapsed from third degree burns. One prisoner had no bottoms of his feet left. The guards told the medical staff that the injuries had occurred while prisoners were playing handball.

  • There is a 10 cell unit in the Corcoran SHU for those with physical disabilities that is supposed to be equipped in accordance with the Americans with Disability Act. An article by Doctor Corey Weinstein of California Prison Focus on an April 1997 visit to Corcoran sums up the conditions in the `ADA SHU.' "This middle aged man is a quadriplegic as a result of strokes. He has partial use of his right arm and right thumb. He must crawl on the floor of his cell, eat with his thumb, and is unable to get up onto the toilet or his bed. He lives in his own excrement. Ants invade his large open bedsores that receive no regular nursing care. He gets no help with eating, bathing or self care. The guards abuse him. He injured himself when guards forced him to give himself a haircut with electric clippers. When he got angry about that two guards dumped him out of his wheel chair and beat him before throwing him back in his cell."
  • Despite these things becoming exposed, the brutality at Corcoran continues. According to the article by Dr. Weinstein, "Rather than taking heed from the discipline of the few guards finally punished for murder and mayhem, the staff taunt the prisoners saying the new abuses are in retaliation for the demotions and firings." The article documents more brutal "greet the bus" incidents, continuing setup fights in the SHU yard, and brutal cell extractions for trivial reasons with the beating of prisoners who are fully restrained and not resisting.

    Cover-up and Indictments

    The barbaric abuses at Corcoran came to light because of actions by prisoners who spoke out despite retaliation by guards, prison rights activists on the outside, attorneys representing prisoners and the families of prisoners killed by the guards, investigative reporters, and a few guards who have spoken out against the abuses. Every step of the way the prison authorities and the state officials have sought to cover up the brutality at Corcoran.

    It took seven years and seven deaths for the state to finally open an investigation into the killings. The corrections officer who supervised the investigating team has revealed that the governor's office and the prison guard's union sabotaged the investigation. "The union and the governor's office ran the investigation," Jim Connor, the corrections agent who supervised the team told the L.A. Times. "We would try and question a witness and the union was there blocking us. The union even told us how many interviews we could do, and our bosses in Sacramento backed them. This was no independent inquiry. It was just a sham."

    Instead, the state investigations focused on the guards who had spoken out against the brutality at Corcoran. According to the L.A. Times the investigations gathered more than 1,000 pages of information on the whistle-blowers. In fact, the corrections officials ended up investigating and disciplining only one officer involved in a shooting at Corcoran. Richard Caruso, one of the whistle blowers, was docked 90 days pay for firing wood blocks at a prisoner in 1993, a shooting that resulted in no injuries. Caruso told the L.A. Times, "I think it says a lot that out of 2,000 shootings [of wood blocks or bullets] they investigate just one, mine. After coming forward and losing my career as a correctional officer the state launches an investigation and comes after me."

    The officers who spoke out against their fellow guards at Corcoran have faced intimidation and death threats which have been ignored by prison authorities. Lt. Steve Riggs, one of the guards who spoke out, told a state panel, "I am a whistle blower and I'm not sorry for the action I took. I am sorry that I put my family through the horrors of the reprisals and harassment we have been subject to. My career came to an abrupt end. I am sorry I have been threatened with death or harm. I am sorry that my wife is frightened to sleep in our home at night and often sleeps on the bathroom floor fearing an ambush."

    Exposure and outrage at the conditions at Corcoran have forced charges to be filed against some prison guards and officials. However it is clear that powerful forces in the state are determined to stop any efforts to punish any guards.

    In February, eight officers were indicted by a federal grand jury for setting up fights at Corcoran "for amusement and blood sport." The indictments focused on only two of the many fights and shootings at Corcoran. The head of the state Department of Correction, C.A. "Cal" Terhune, has announced that he will spend more than one million dollars in state funds to defend the eight guards. Terhune said to not defend the guards would have "shook the whole foundation of our correctional system." He has also put six of the eight accused guards back to work. The other two guards took an early retirement and are now receiving a pension from the state.

    In September, a judge overturned a disciplinary case against guards who beat prisoners coming off a bus from Calpatria prison in 1995. The judge ordered the guards reinstated and that they be given back pay. Five guards have also been indicted on charges related to the rape of Eddie Dillard. And the California Legislature has recently concluded a series of hearings into the abuses at Corcoran. During the hearings former Corcoran Warden George Smith, who presided over Corcoran during most of the prisoner deaths, and who has likened prisoners at Corcoran to garbage, took the fifth amendment, refusing to answer questions that might have incriminated him.

    On November 25, a panel commissioned last summer released a report after examining events at Corcoran. Of the 31 fatal or serious shootings that were occurred at the prison from 1989 to 1995, 24 were found to involve the unjustified use of deadly force. The panel found that when it came to questionable shootings, no one outside the prison system scrutinizes them and "no one is required to render a decision concerning the legality of a shooting."

    Protest at Corcoran

    "Right now, behind us in these cement cells, brothers are being tortured. I want to let the god damn warden know that this ain't no show. We mean business here. If you think we're going to stand by and watch you pigs kill somebody else you got another think coming."

    Alade Djehuti-Mes, son of Charles Vaughn, Sr.,
    murdered by Seaside Police, speaking at
    Corcoran Prison October 17

    The car caravan from San Francisco met up with a car caravan from Los Angeles at Corcoran Prison. They were joined by other people who had come from throughout the San Joaquin Valley. A line of guards, including the warden, prevented people from getting close to the prison gate. A large number of people had loved ones either in Corcoran or in another prison and many people carried signs with their names and pictures. The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality set up the Stolen Lives Wall, which lists the names of those killed by police, prison guards and Border Patrol, along the side of the road.

    The L.A. caravan stopped at Wasco prison on the way to Corcoran. Gerry from the L.A. chapter of Families to Amend California's Three Strikes spoke about why they stopped at Wasco: "We got a letter, in an unmarked envelope from prisoners inside Wasco, announcing they had a lawsuit against the CDC and that they were calling on us for help because of the history of retaliatory action against prisoners in Pelican Bay, Corcoran and other institutions who have dared to speak for their rights. We were out there in front of Wasco. They saw us. We were loud and hopefully they got the message.....We have to do what it takes to get the point across that we don't have to live this way."

    I talked with a woman whose brother was in Corcoran. He had been shot three times by the San Francisco Police but he was the one who was doing time. She told me how he had done everything he was supposed to--he graduated college, he got a good job, he had never been arrested or even gotten a parking citation. Then he was railroaded by the courts and cops. She told me how when he arrived at Corcoran he had to sleep on a concrete floor for months. "They're railroading everyday citizens and it has to stop," she told me. "It's time for a change. I'm willing to do whatever it takes."

    Bill Tate's son Preston was shot and killed by guards in one of the staged gladiator fights at Corcoran. After four years federal authorities have indicted eight of the guards involved in Preston's murder. "I'm glad to be in death valley compliments of the warden over there and his fellow sharks," Bill Tate told the rally at Corcoran. "They brutally murdered my son four and a half years ago but now with eight indictments they are going to go down. Things have got to change...Warden, I've got you by the balls."

    After the rally in a park I talked with Bill Tate who spoke about what has been accomplished in the years that he has been fighting for justice. "I've been involved in my son's case for almost five years and I've never let up because I thought that some good would come out of it. Organizations like California Prison Focus, the Critical Resistance Movement and October 22 have gotten involved. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved. I was lucky that some whistle blowers inside the prison system came forward to aid me--without them I don't know where I'd be. It's not over yet but I'm optimistic that some good is going to happen. Eight indictments have already gone down [in my son's case] and five more indictments in the rape case."

    Bill Tate told me that his life has been changed forever by his fight for justice. "When Preston's case is finished I think my whole life is going to revolve around prisons and jails and fighting injustice. I would tell other families don't give up."

    On the four hour drive back to the Bay Area I thought over and over again about the 1.75 million of my sisters and brothers that are locked in prisons across the U.S. I thought of the young people, with bright minds and their whole life ahead of them being locked down and tortured. I thought of their families and friends. And I swore that I would do whatever it takes to rid the world of these prisons and the system that locks up a generation of our youth in such barbaric conditions.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
    Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
    Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
    (The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)