Pubdate: Sun, 12 May 2002
Source: Bakersfield Californian, The (CA)
Copyright: 2002, The Bakersfield Californian
Author: Vic Pollard, Californian Sacramento Bureau
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


He Wasn't a Model Husband, but Kim Pereyda Loved Him.

Now he's dead and she is left with nothing but questions about how and why, 
despite a state law that directs officials to disclose information about 
the deaths of prison inmates.

Raul Pereyda died about a year ago in Corcoran State Prison. A drug 
overdose, the coroner said.

But the few things Kim Pereyda has learned about the circumstances 
surrounding his death make sense to her.

How did he get drugs inside the prison's tightest security unit? An 
experienced drug user, why would he take enough to kill himself, when he 
was looking forward to getting out in a few months? How could guards 
overlook bags of black tar heroin and a syringe she was told were beside 
his body, which was sitting upright on the bed, through several night-time 
cell checks? If they'd noticed early enough, would he still be alive?

"I just don't know," said Pereyda, a Bakersfield manager for a parking 
company. "I'm not blaming anybody. I just want to know what happened."

And like many relatives of prison inmates who die under questionable 
circumstances, Pereyda has been unable to penetrate the veil of secrecy 
surrounding inmate deaths without filing a lawsuit. So far, she hasn't been 
able to find an attorney willing to take the case.

News media and other outside organizations such as civil rights groups face 
even greater difficulties in getting information about inmate deaths, 
especially if they involve suspicious circumstances that might indicate 
malfeasance or neglect by state prison employees.

And lots of people die in the state's prisons every year -- 252 in 2001 
alone, 294 in 2000. The vast majority of those deaths came from natural 
causes: cancers, liver failure, AIDS, heart attacks. But homicides and 
overdoses happened often enough, as did suicides. It's those deaths which 
often leave families with unanswered questions.

Keeping the Lid on

State law requires the Attorney General's Office to collect paperwork on 
inmate deaths so problems can be spotted, but inquiries by The Californian 
revealed that the office collects only the sketchiest information on most 
state prison deaths, does not perform any analysis and refuses to release 
investigative reports.

In 1992, a prominent state legislator attempted to require all records 
about inmate deaths to be made public.

But then-Assemblyman John Burton, D-San Francisco, ran into objections from 
law enforcement officials and had to accept an amendment that watered the 
measure down, allowing officials to withhold most reports about inmate 
deaths if they want to.

And they want to in most cases involving violent or unexpected deaths.

"You get a wall of silence," said Bakersfield attorney Daniel Rodriguez, 
who is suing the state on behalf of a boy whose father was murdered by his 
cellmate in Wasco State Prison.

In a letter to then-Gov Pete Wilson urging him to sign the 1992 law which 
made the records public, Burton said it was needed because "the public has 
a strong interest in knowing the facts behind such incidents.

"Deaths which occur to persons who are in custody happen behind locked 
doors ..." Burton wrote. "The public, which funds and supports these 
agencies with its taxes and its votes, has a right to know how they are 
being run."

Catherine Campbell, a Fresno civil rights attorney who has filed similar 
lawsuits on behalf of deceased inmates' families, said the secrecy raises 
suspicions that could often be allayed if officials were more open.

"They won't tell you anything, so you don't know whether you've got a case 
or not," she said.

Campbell is currently suing the state for the family of an inmate who was 
shot to death by a guard trying to break up a cafeteria brawl at Pleasant 
Valley State Prison in Coalinga in 1998.

Only after months in court was Campbell able to get an order requiring the 
prison to release interviews with witnesses to the shooting.

State prison officials have traditionally refused to release incident 
reports and investigative documents on deaths in custody without a court 
order. They cite the need to protect witnesses and guard against frivolous 

But a state law requires prisons and local jails to report "all facts" 
about every inmate death to the state attorney general's office within 10 
days of the death. It is section 12525 of the California Government Code, 
included in the law creating the attorney general's office and outlining 
its responsibilities.

Burton's 1992 amendment declares, "These writings are public records within 
the meaning of ... the California Public Records Act (and) are open to 
public inspection."

No Teeth

But requests by The Californian to the office of Attorney General Bill 
Lockyer for records on dozens of inmate deaths in Kern County state prisons 
- -- including three murders -- revealed that Lockyer and his predecessors 
have largely failed to require compliance with the law by the state prison 

The Department of Justice, which Lockyer heads, does not require state 
prisons to file complete reports on most inmate deaths.

And even when prisons do comply by filing incident reports or investigative 
reports on deaths under questionable circumstances, Lockyer's office 
refuses to release them.

Local sheriffs and police departments appear to be complying with the law's 
requirement for full reports on deaths in their jails, including 
investigative reports.

The Bakersfield Police Department files complete reports on deaths in its 
custody because the department was told to in letters from former Attorney 
General Dan Lungren in the mid-1990s. The Kern County Sheriff's Department 
does the same. The letters were sent to all law enforcement agencies in the 
state, and the Corrections Department.

Both local agencies say they comply with the law by reporting all the 
information that have available within 10 days, sending autopsy and 
investigation reports to the state.

And Lockyer's office released the complete reports from the local agencies 
in response to Californian requests.

Deaths of state prison inmates were treated differently, however.

In most cases, officials in Lockyer's office said the information filed by 
the state Department of Corrections consisted entirely of a one-page form 
with boxes to check indicating basic statistics about the date, place and 
cause of the death.

Lockyer's aides said they do not usually require any more information even 
though the reporting form contains the statement, "If this form is used to 
provide information to the Department of Justice, a copy of an incident 
report describing the events surrounding the death must be attached."

In one case, where Wasco State Prison inmate Tomas Tanashita was killed by 
his cellmate two years ago, one of Lockyer's deputies said the file 
contained two investigative reports, which he refused to release.

At the same time, Deputy Attorney General Ted Prim said the report filed by 
the Department of Corrections on another Wasco inmate, Gary Robert Avila, 
who was murdered by his cellmate a year later, consisted only of the 
one-page form.

Oversight Lacking

Prison officials and Lockyer's office insisted on maintaining the secrecy 
even though reports of the investigation into both Tanashita's and Avila's 
deaths had already been made public in court proceedings against their 

Lockyer said in an interview that despite the language in Section 12525 
declaring the records open to public inspection, his experts interpret the 
law as allowing authorities to withhold crime incident reports and 
investigative reports as permitted by the California Public Records Act, 
another section of the government code.

The Public Records Act permits -- but does not require -- government 
agencies to withhold investigative reports from public disclosure.

"Our practices," Lockyer said, "are consistent with a long string of 
attorneys general, and my understanding of the rationale for the policy, 
which seems pretty persuasive, is that there's a lot of personal 
information like medical records and other things, suspects who are later 
proven to be innocent, that shouldn't be casually released."

Asked about the statement on the reporting form that an incident report 
must be attached, Lockyer said state prison incident reports aren't usually 
completed within 10 days.

"Its probably a good example of people that write laws that aren't 
practical, that don't work well in the real world," he said.

"But then as somebody who spent 25 years in the Legislature, I can only 
claim I wrote my share of those."

The law requiring prisons and jails to file reports with the attorney 
general's office within 10 days was passed in the early 1980s.

It's author, former Sen. Donald L. Grunsky, wrote that it was intended to 
require each report on an inmate death to "contain all the facts in the 
possession of the agency concerning the death and be available for 
inspection by interested parties, except as to matters deemed privileged by 
the Attorney General."

Prim acknowledged in a letter to The Californian that the purpose of the 
law was to allow authorities to track and monitor deaths in custody.

However, he insisted that is not the job of the Attorney General's Office.

He said the legislative history of the law "clearly indicates that by 
compiling basic information we require from law enforcement agencies about 
deaths in custody throughout the state, this office is fulfilling the 
purposes contemplated by the legislation."

Lockyer said attorneys in his office believe that "We get sufficient 
information from prisons and jails to determine whether there is a need for 
additional investigation."

Not Good Enough

Even so, the California reporting form is regarded as inadequate by federal 
officials who are setting up a new national repository of information on 
prison and jail deaths.

"The information that the California Department of Justice collects doesn't 
include some of the items that we deem important," said Allen Beck, chief 
of correctional statistics in the U.S. Attorney General's office. Most 
important is that the reports don't include enough detail about diseases 
that result in inmate deaths.

The Burton amendment to the California law states that the reports from 
prisons and jails are open to public inspection under several sections of 
the Public Records Act that specify the types of government documents that 
must be released.

The only exception it mentions is for "personal medical information."

However, Prim said the attorney general's office interprets the law to 
allow any exemption that is permitted under the Public Records Act, 
allowing officials to withhold law enforcement investigative files.

Lockyer, a Democrat long known as an advocate of open government, backed up 
his lawyers. He said he respects people who view the law as requiring 
disclosure, "but there's different views that other people have."

Although records show Lockyer voted for the public disclosure bill in 1992, 
a leading open records advocate said his current interpretation of the law 
has the effect of nullifying the intent of the Burton amendment.

"Although this is a direct mandate to make information about deaths in 
custody available, it's the attorney general's legal position that that 
mandate is largely cancelled by any exemption in the public records act," 
said Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment 

That leaves families, news media and civil rights groups in a continuing 
war against official secrecy.

"There is absolutely no reason for a public agency to hide documents from 
the citizenry unless the public agency feels it has something to hide," 
said Campbell, the Fresno lawyer.

Burton had a simpler explanation for the need to disclose circumstances 
surrounding the deaths of people behind bars:

"You just oughta know."
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