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Old 12-28-2003, 02:28 PM
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Default Despite State Promises, Reform Eludes Prisons

Despite State Promises, Reform Eludes Prisons
Court and State Senators Are Investigating Coverup Allegations
By Mark Arax and Jenifer Warren
Times Staff Writers

December 28, 2003

Five years ago, after prison scandals gripped California with tales of guards setting up inmates in human cockfights and then shooting them dead, the state Department of Corrections vowed to change its ways.

Whistle-blowers would be protected, not punished. Internal investigators would be encouraged to pursue abusive guards. And the correctional officers union no longer would have a hand in dictating policy.

That new day never came, interviews and documents show.

California guards did stop shooting at inmates engaged in fistfights, a practice that had turned Corcoran State Prison into the deadliest lock-up in America.

But the Corrections Department remains troubled by allegations that rogue guards still go unpunished, union bosses continue to exert strong influence, and top administrators still thwart whistle-blowers.

This month, the department's beleaguered director, Edward Alameida, abruptly resigned, citing personal reasons. Alameida was known among some employees as "Easy Ed" because of his reputation for acceding to the wishes of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. — a union that gave millions to the campaigns of former Govs. Gray Davis and Pete Wilson.

Whether his departure clears the way for much-needed change is an open question, say civil rights attorneys, watchdog groups and whistle-blowers. The culture inside the nation's largest state prison system — from top administrators in Sacramento to wardens in the field — resists easy reform, they say.

The department now finds itself in the crosshairs of two inquiries that could bring new disclosures of wrongdoing.

A federal court in San Francisco is looking into allegations that Alameida and his top staff, in the face of union pressure, stopped internal investigators from delving into a code of silence that protected brutal guards at Pelican Bay State Prison.

And two state senators have scheduled hearings next month on allegations of brutality and cover-ups at the California Institution for Men in Chino and other state prisons.

"Corrections needs correcting," said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who heads the prison oversight committee. "We intend to start the new year off with a bang and take a hard look at everything. We have a great opportunity with the new administration to make some real changes."

The union disputes any notion that it stymies investigations of brutality or controls the Corrections Department. "Yes, we take the lead in pointing out the blemishes in internal investigations," said Mike Jimenez, union president. "But to say we're running the department — I find that comical."

The code of silence makes it difficult to know the extent of misconduct in the vast prison system. But in addition to recent troubles at Pelican Bay and Chino, The Times has learned of more cases in which whistle-blowers were punished and abusive guards were not.

• Richard Krupp, a systems analyst, tried to save the state millions of dollars by revealing alleged abuses in sick leave and overtime pay to guards. Krupp, a 31-year corrections veteran, was stripped of his duties in 1999 because of his disclosures to state auditors, according to the state inspector general's office.

Top corrections officials ignored his ideas for fixing what was then a $50-million-a-year problem and today costs taxpayers $250 million annually — about half the department's reported deficit. "This is an employee who should be held up as a hero," said John H. Scott, Krupp's attorney. "Instead, the department is treating him like a pariah."

• The department made an unusual reversal in the 1998 shooting death of inmate Octavio Orozco at Pleasant Valley State Prison. The shooting review board found that the guard who had fired the fatal bullet had used deadly force without proper cause. A decision to rule the shooting unjustified and suspend the guard was reversed later without formal review. "To go back in all these years later and change the finding is outrageous," said Catherine Campbell, a Fresno attorney who represented Orozco's family.

*

Reforms in Late '90s

Some of the episodes now in focus are sequels to cases that led to reforms in the late 1990s. Under then-Director James Gomez and his top administrator, David Tristan, California prisons had become synonymous with brutality.

No other state allowed guards to shoot at inmates engaged in fistfights and melees. Other states broke up fights with pepper spray, tear gas and officers on the ground. In California's 33-prison system, 39 inmates were fatally shot by guards during the 1990s.

At Corcoran State Prison alone, seven prisoners were killed and 43 were wounded. In a series of articles, The Times traced the Corcoran deaths to the practice of mixing rival gang members in small exercise yards used by the most violent inmates. Gomez and Tristan defended the shootings as the Wilson administration investigated them. But investigators said the probe had been stymied by the corrections officers union.

Corcoran was not an anomaly. Internal affairs investigators at Pelican Bay uncovered evidence in 1995 that several officers were directing a group of inmates to stab and beat other prisoners, many of them convicted child molesters.

A few months into the investigation, the union president and vice president at the prison accused the internal affairs team of doing shoddy work and demanded that the investigation be halted. The warden cut short the probe, and the investigators found themselves the subjects of repeated probes by the Corrections Department.

Ultimately, the FBI pursued two officers in federal court, where they were convicted of civil rights violations.

Citing the breakdowns at Corcoran and Pelican Bay, legislators from both political parties pushed for reforms in the late 1990s. Cal Terhune, who replaced Gomez as director of the Corrections Department, responded with several changes.

Prospective guards would now go through a more extensive training academy. The shooting policy would be tightened so that deadly force would no longer be used to break up fistfights. Investigators would pursue dirty officers, whether the union objected or not.

A new chief would oversee an expanded internal affairs unit. And the state inspector general's office would be given more troops to carry out a new mission: investigating retaliation against whistle-blowers.

As the changes took hold, Tristan and much of the old guard retired.

"We had a honeymoon period that lasted about 2 1/2years," recalled Rick Ehle, head of internal affairs from 1997 to 2001 and now police chief of Capitola. "The press was watching and the Legislature was watching, and we were pursuing a lot of staff misconduct.

"But some of the wardens didn't like the scrutiny, and the department started watering down our role," he said.

Earlier this year, a new set of whistle-blowers alleged new cover-ups at Chino; the allegations were reported in The Times and other newspapers.

Internal affairs investigators in Southern California went public last June with allegations that top department officials had blocked an investigation of beatings of inmates by guards at Chino. Four of the investigators later testified at legislative hearings that they had been ordered to turn over their case files to the union. They refused, saying the action would endanger witnesses.

The investigators then became the targets of internal probes, and their office in Rancho Cucamonga was threatened with closure. The chief deputy director urging the shutdown was Tristan, who had come back from retirement.

A few weeks later, internal investigators in the Sacramento office alleged that the union was interfering with their work.

Their complaints centered on the old Pelican Bay case involving inmate beatings. During the federal trial that led to the conviction of the two officers, several guards had been suspected of lying to protect them. A perjury investigation landed in the lap of corrections investigators in Sacramento.

Last March, investigator Bob Ballard was preparing to take the perjury case to prosecutors when he was called to a rare meeting with department attorneys, high-ranking administrators and Director Alameida.

Ballard said the meeting was called the day after he had notified the union that he was pursuing a criminal case against one guard. In a recent federal court hearing, Ballard testified that Alameida wanted the investigation dropped. "How do we make this go away?" Ballard quoted Alameida as saying at the March 27 meeting.

Testifying last month in the federal inquiry, Alameida denied having shut down the case at the behest of the union. He acknowledged having talked briefly on the phone with the union vice president who had worked to block the original investigation at Pelican Bay.

But Alameida said he had decided not to pursue sanctions against the officers after participants at the meeting agreed that the case was old and weak — a contention that Ballard and others strongly dispute.

*

Similar Themes

Now, as legislators prepare to hold their hearings, The Times has found other cases with similar themes.

In the last year, according to state documents and interviews, the department has reversed its demotion of two sergeants at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe.

After a long internal probe, the department originally moved to terminate Jesse Lara and Glenn Barr for tying up a fellow officer, spray-painting his body with obscenities and then displaying photos of the hazing. But after the two admitted that misconduct, the department agreed to demote them instead.

Later, in a move that stunned the internal affairs unit, the two officers were given back their sergeant's stripes and back pay. Russ Heimerich, the department's spokesman, said in an interview the decision to promote Barr and Lara within 15 months of their demotions had been made by wardens at their respective prisons: "It's not something that the director got involved in."

But Monrow Mabon, counsel for the internal affairs unit, said the culture of the institution is dictated from the top. "The promotions send the absolute wrong message that even when you do wrong, it doesn't matter in the Department of Corrections. You'll be quickly forgiven."

In the case of Krupp, the systems analyst who alleged abuses of sick leave and overtime, Heimerich said the department could not comment because the matter was still before the State Personnel Board.

But both the state board and the inspector general have found already that Krupp was retaliated against after the department tried and failed to thwart his study in 1999. Krupp had taken the sick leave and overtime figures to top corrections officials Wendy Still and Teresa Rocha; Rocha would later become interim director.

State records show that the two administrators produced numbers suggesting that overtime and sick leave were declining. "They were trying to cook the books," Krupp said. "Sick leave and overtime weren't falling. They were doubling."

Krupp took his own figures to state auditors, who confirmed his findings in published reports that embarrassed the department. He was promptly shipped off to another office far from the data and given nothing to do. "So, I read over 200 books in 15 months — nonfiction mostly," he said.

The department still refuses to consider Krupp a whistle-blower, and opposes his claim for a retroactive promotion with back pay. His experience, according to state investigators, is just one of many instances in which the inspector general found retaliation against whistle-blowers, but the Corrections Department refused to work out a remedy.

"It's as if the reforms that grew out of the Corcoran hearings never happened," said Scott.

The department has stood firm in its reshaping of the shooting policy. Since 1999, only two inmates have been killed by guards; both incidents involved melees, not standing fistfights. But civil rights attorneys question the commitment of top administrators to fully investigate future shootings after the flip-flop in the 1998 killing of Orozco at Pleasant Valley.

The 23-year-old was serving a nine-year sentence for dealing drugs when he was gunned down by Officer Bruce Brumana during a fight at Pleasant Valley State Prison, according to the prison's official shooting report.

A few months later, the department's shooting review board ruled the killing unwarranted. The fight posed no "imminent great bodily harm" to inmates or staff, the board found, and could have been stopped without a gunshot.

The department suspended Brumana for 90 days. It was the first time a shooting review board ever ruled against a guard.

Union representatives weren't pleased, but Director Terhune stood firm, assembling an executive review committee that ratified the finding. The case ended — or so it seemed — with Brumana agreeing to his punishment before the State Personnel Board.

"It was signed, sealed and delivered," said Bob Navarro, co-counsel for the Orozco family. "It went all the way up to the director."

Then late last year, Robert Borg, a former warden and longtime corrections analyst, took it upon himself to dig back into the case. Borg had remained a defender of the old shooting policy. After reading the accounts of inmates and staff, Borg decided that Brumana had been justified in using deadly force.

Borg said the victim of the fight had been knocked to the ground and was being kicked by several inmates. The fact that he hadn't suffered any serious injuries wasn't relevant, Borg said. The victim still had faced "imminent great bodily harm" in Brumana's eyes. Borg said the shooting review board had ignored this evidence. He took his findings to Tristan.

In a unilateral decision outside department policy, Tristan assigned an internal investigator to review the shooting. Three months ago, after the investigator arrived at the same opinion as Borg, Tristan reversed the finding. Brumana was awarded back pay.

"It is extraordinary; I will admit that," Tristan said. "But after taking another look at all the evidence, I felt I had to do right by this officer. I couldn't let the adverse action stand."

Tristan said he never told Alameida about his decision, although he did tell a union official.

In an interview before he announced his resignation, Alameida said he had already made at least one important reform. He had placed the internal affairs units in the hands of six hard-charging agents from the inspector general's office.

"I've done something that's never been done. I've brought in the core from an outside agency and asked them to take over our investigations," Alameida said. He said he wanted a unit "that doesn't have internal or external influences And we're going to get there."


If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at latimes.com/archives.
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