Investigators Probe Calif. Prison System

Jan 22, 2006

Associated Press Writers


The California prison system's use of some of its toughest, most feared inmates to help keep order behind bars led to the slaying of a guard, state investigators say. And the FBI is looking into whether the practice contributed to a second killing.

Although the practice is banned in some states, California's top corrections official defends the limited use of "peacekeepers." These influential inmates are entrusted to help the staff, smooth racial tension and in some cases control fellow prisoners.

Critics worry that the freedom accorded peacekeepers lets them run drugs, order inmate assaults and commit other crimes. Now the practice has come under scrutiny following two California slayings in which high-ranking gang members serving as peacemakers are alleged to have played a role.

Last January, a peacekeeper who had been released from his cell to mediate following a race riot stabbed a guard to death in Chino, said Brett Morgan, chief deputy for the prison system's inspector general.

Just weeks before, a peacekeeper at a Sacramento-area prison ordered an assault that ended with a guard killing an inmate, according to confidential Corrections Department reports obtained by The Associated Press.

The peacekeeper in that case had a long history of alleged crimes behind bars. But investigators suspect his peacekeeper status gave him access to the yard when the killing occurred, according to a prison source familiar with the investigation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak publicly.

Federal prosecutors have asked the FBI to look into both killings and whether the inmates' peacekeeper status contributed to them, U.S. attorney's spokeswoman Patty Pontello said. The prison system is conducting its own investigation of the Sacramento death, and the warden said he is trying to rein in peacekeepers.

In an interview, California's corrections chief acknowledged that prison officials use peacekeepers to pass messages and get feedback, and likened the practice to street cops' use of informants. He also conceded that the practice has its hazards.

"There's a role there for peacekeepers," said Roderick Q. Hickman, a 25-year corrections veteran. "The problem becomes when people make errors in those processes."

With about 168,000 inmates, California's prison system is the nation's largest and has suffered several recent scandals. Poor medical care and living conditions prompted a federal takeover of health services.

Peacekeeping is neither new nor unique to California. For decades, "trusties," or trusted inmates, have helped manage prison work gangs.

Forms of peacekeeping are outlawed in Mississippi, Alabama and other states, said Steve J. Martin, a corrections consultant and former leader within Texas' prison system. In Texas, the practice led to assaults and other crimes before being shut down in the 1980s following a lawsuit.

"Reputable corrections people agree it is a very bad idea for prisoners to have influence over others," said David Fathi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.

California law prohibits inmates from having "control over" one another. But in practice, policies can differ from prison to prison and guard to guard.

Some officers interviewed for this story said inmates must have a role, though it can be a devil's bargain.

"Are inmates part of a fix? Absolutely," said Chuck Alexander, vice president of California's prison guards union. "But to send an inmate out as a quasi-United Nations representative? Who's controlling that? Who's running the damn place when you're using peacekeepers?"

On Jan. 10, 2005, Manuel Gonzalez, a guard at the prison in Chino, turned to maximum-security inmate Jon Christopher Blaylock _ a Crips gang member serving 75 years for trying to kill a police officer _ to help prepare inmates to mix again following a race riot, according to the inspector general. Freed from his cell, Blaylock stabbed Gonzalez in the heart, the inspector general said.

Blaylock should never have been allowed out, according to investigators. Following the stabbing, the warden and her two top assistants were removed.

On Nov. 30, 2004, James "Boots" Tigar _ a 31-year-old convicted murderer, white supremacist and peacekeeper _ ordered a subordinate to stab a fellow inmate at the high-security prison at Sacramento, according to reports obtained by the AP. The subordinate, Wade Arthur Shiflett, was shot to death by a guard in the middle of the stabbing, according to the reports.

Tigar had been accused of dozens of crimes, including ordering or carrying out assaults, selling drugs, smuggling weapons and fomenting race riots, according to the documents.

Warden Scott Kernan said the reports had not been sufficiently corroborated to lock Tigar away from other inmates. Still, Kernan took "full responsibility for not locking him up" before the killing.

In April, five months after Shiflett's killing, Kernan warned his staff against using inmate intermediaries without express authorization.

"Inmates are using, or could use, this unauthorized access to move weapons and other contraband, involve themselves in assaults on inmates or staff, and jeopardize the security of the prison," he wrote.