Pubdate: Thu, 24 Aug 2000
Source: Point Reyes Light (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Tomales Bay Publishing Company/Point Reyes Light
Author: David V. Mitchell


For high school graduates with no special talents - except a propensity 
for not taking guff from nuts and troublemakers - there are few jobs 
that pay as well as being a prison guard for the California Department 
of Corrections.  

The state provides the necessary training and then puts you on the 
payroll at $31,200 per year, which climbs steadily to $42,400 - unless, 
of course, you get a promotion. Nor is that the full amount of 
compensation since it doesn't include such benefits as health 

Such salaries help explain why state prison guards are in the forefront 
of the War on Drugs, at least in California. As the Aug. 28 Newsweek 
noted, "The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the 
prison guards' union,...has made building more prisons its signature 
issue. The union pumped more than $2 million into the 1998 campaign of 
Gov. Gray Davis, a tough-on-crime Democrat, who quickly signed 
legislation authorizing $525 million in new prison construction."  

A dramatic example of the union's strength just occurred when the 
Wackenhut corporation completed a private prison in California City, 
Kern County. Fearing this could create an opening for non-union guards, 
the Peace Officers Association managed to stop the state from 
contracting to use the prison. In response, Wackenhut signed a contract 
with the federal government to house criminal aliens in the prison, and 
the state is now considering a proposal to spend $3 billion in public 
funds to build a 5,160-bed prison near Bakersfield.  

Because of California's confused obsession with law and order during 
the past 20 years, our prison population quadrupled to 2 million 
inmates. We now have a higher percentage of our population behind bars 
than any other state or virtually any foreign country. The last time I 
checked, the computerized court-record system in neighboring San 
Francisco alone was tracking roughly 90,000 people, who were in jail or 
in prison, on probation or on parole, on trial or waiting to be tried. 
That's more than 10 percent of the city's population.  

Contributing greatly to our growing population of inmates have been the 
anti-parole policies of Governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis. It would 
appear that both have tried to hide their pantywaists by making a show 
of being "tough on crime." These two mincing little men would have been 
better cast for the chorus line of the now-closed Finocchio Club; like 
most of the former dancers, both are straight but like wearing 
bouffants and establishing authority with waspish repartees.  

During their terms, these two governors have treated "10 years to life" 
and similar sentences as if the words meant "life without the 
possibility of parole." In the past 20 years, no matter how well a term-
to-life prisoner behaved or how important he was to his family on the 
outside, his chances of ever receiving parole dropped from 48 percent 
to 0.2 percent.  

And what is happening to the other people who are incarcerated? Are 
they being rehabilitated so they will become productive citizens when 
they're finally released? One thing we know is happening is that 
roughly 300,000 men are raped in jails each year and another 200,000 
are raped in prisons. Unbelievably, 18 percent of the rapes in men's 
prisons nationwide are carried out by correctional officers.  

For additional estimates, including very limited statistics on the 
sexual abuse of women in prison, check 
( on the web.  

Since the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits "cruel and 
unusual punishments," how can judges rationalize sentencing a defendant 
to being raped? This is not just an intellectual question. A few years 
back, one Marin County judge confided to me that it always upset him to 
send effeminate young men to state prison, knowing what would happen to 
them, but that didn't stop him from doing it.  

In fact, the entire criminal-justice system is riddled with cruel 
ironies. The late Marin Sheriff's Captain Art Disterheft, who began his 
career in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, used to say that when he 
saw classmates who had been punks in his high school, he noticed that 
half of them had ended up in jail and the other half in law 

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by that. Convicts and cops tend to 
share the same swagger and the same code of silence; most won't "rat" 
on a fellow cop/criminal, no matter what he did.  

At least in prison, keeping your mouth shut can be a matter of life and 
death. But the willingness of police to cover up criminal activity by 
other officers is more a matter of solidarity and far more heinous. 
During the past three years, revelations of crimes by police have 
ranged from two New York officers in Brooklyn sodomizing a Haitian 
immigrant with a broomstick to 30 policemen in Los Angeles' Rampart 
Division caught lying under oath, planting evidence on suspected gang 
members, beating suspects, and framing and shooting innocent civilians. 
Were it not for a couple of officers trying to keep themselves out of 
prison, none of these crimes would have ever become public.  

One way the Marin County Sheriff's Department, intentionally or not, 
reduces the tendency of new deputies to swagger is to assign them first 
to the jail, where they spend their shifts locked up with inmates. To a 
new deputy, this is usually scary, and he learns, as a deputy once told 
me, "You can't trust [inmates], and you can't turn your back on them, 
but you have to show them respect if you want to be respected 

Like zookeepers, jailers need to be respected by their charges. If 
they're not, inmates have their own ways of retaliating. At worst, some 
- - like apes in a cage - will throw their feces in the faces of 
tormentors, a crime that in prison is called "gassing."  

Gassing is so "prevalent" (both state and county officials on Tuesday 
repeatedly used the word) that the Legislature a year or so ago created 
a specific statute to deal with it. The Legislature also ordered 
prisons to keep a list of gassings and to report what was done to make 
sure diseases such as hepatitis or tuberculosis were not transmitted. 
In short, our nationwide criminal-justice system has become a level of 
hell that even Dante could not imagine.  

For the past four weeks, The Light has been publishing a series on the 
current state of criminal justice in Marin County, California, and the 
US. This week, we are publishing the final installment. It has been our 
hope that the series would serve three primary purposes:  

We wanted to educate readers about the strengths and weaknesses of 
their criminal-justice system and to give them an overview of how it 

We wanted to remind law enforcement, elected officials, and 
correctional institutions that we are watching them. Because a criminal-
justice system has the potential to abuse people in horrible ways, we 
wanted to make sure everyone knows this paper stands ready to defend 
victims when the system malfunctions and to recognize heroes when it 
works well.  

Finally, we hoped to create an historical record that researchers 
decades from now can use to see what the state of law enforcement was 
in Marin County in the year 2000.  
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MAP posted-by: John Chase