Less than two years after a federal judge declared brutality at Pelican Bay State Prison out of control, the institution once again finds itself engulfed in an excessive-force scandal.
This time, there are allegations that a few correctional officers at the isolated prison along the Northern California coast enticed some of the more predatory inmates to beat up child molesters.
One officer faces a five-count felony complaint, two others have been fired and two more have been identified as suspects. An FBI spokesman in San Francisco said the case is under “active investigation.”
“Child molesters and other inmates being set up for assaults has been a serious problem at Pelican Bay,” said Steve Fama, an attorney with the Prison Law Office in San Rafael. “What it essentially is is the establishing of a kangaroo court of justice, where individual officers decide who should receive extra punishment, or, in the most extreme cases, who should live or die. It’s about as serious a problem as one could imagine in prison.”
Fama said the allegations of officer-arranged molester beatings, coming so soon after the findings of previous wrongdoing at Pelican Bay, “points out some fundamental problems” with the entire prison system’s hiring and training of its staff.
Pelican Bay officials are saying little about the case, other than that it exists, and the spokesman for the Department of Corrections in Sacramento said the matter proves that the agency moves quickly to discipline rogue officers.
But representatives of the prison officers’ union said the case is the product of a faulty internal investigation. They charged that Pelican Bay’s internal affairs investigators falsified reports, deliberately misinterpreted officer interviews and induced testimony from a string of suspect inmate witnesses to make the case against its own employees.
“It’s the dirtiest IA investigation I’ve ever seen,” said Rick Newton, vice president of Pelican Bay’s chapter of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
There appears to be little doubt, however, that child molesters - always marked for mayhem by other inmates - were getting slashed, stabbed and bashed far out of routine proportion.
One Pelican Bay correctional counselor testified that as many as 10 molesters were getting hit each month between December 1994 and March 1995, compared with the regular rate of one such beating every two or three months. The beatings continued through January 1996, according to court testimony and internal prison reports.
In January 1995, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson issued his ruling against Pelican Bay. In resolving a class-action lawsuit, Henderson recounted testimony of prison officers burning one inmate in scalding water, caging others naked outdoors and isolating prisoners already on the verge of psychiatric breakdown in the institution’s punitive Security Housing Unit.
Henderson allowed the prison to continue operating the SHU, but he found that excessive force at Pelican Bay “appears to be open, acknowledged, tolerated and sometimes expressly approved.” He appointed a special master to force the prison to correct its transgressions.
Department of Corrections officials in Sacramento began investigating molester beatings in March 1995, a probe that so far has resulted in the felony charge and two firings.
“What it tells you is that the department, when it’s allowed to investigate, will find out the facts, and if the facts are there, it will take action against the staff,” said Department of Corrections spokesman Tip Kindel. “When we’re allowed to investigate, when we find wrongdoing, appropriate personnel action is taken.”
At Pelican Bay, prison officials have attributed the rash of molester beatings to a cabal of officers who rummaged through the molesters’ files and disseminated the information to some of the meanest, most influential inmate “shot callers” on their tiers. Then, with alcohol and money, the officers enticed the inmates to carry out the attacks, officials have charged.
Prison spokesmen did not offer a motive on why the officers allegedly set up the attacks.