60II Classic: A Brutal Prison

Gladiator Fights, Shootings. . .

Two years ago, 60 Minutes Correspondent Mike Wallace first reported the story of the nation's largest prison system, California's, and one prison there in particular. Corcoran State Prison was being investigated by the FBI because numerous corrections officers -- prison guards -- were accused of staging inmate fights, sometimes wagering on the outcome and then, when those fights got out of control, of shooting the inmates involved.

Wallace returned to Corcoran recently for a 60 Minutes II. segment to air Wednesday, April 7, at 9PM ET/PT. (Check local listings.) He learned of yet another kind of brutality that California prison guards committed against inmates -- rape. Not by the guards but by other inmates, used by the guards to retaliate against prisoners who had gotten out of line.

The original report in 1997 found a shocking state of affairs. Since Corcoran opened 12 years ago, more than 30 inmates had been shot -- eight of them killed -- during these fights. The California Senate has been looking into that violence since that first report.

Find out more about the California prison scandal at these Web sites.
A corps of prison guards wearing black masks were said to often abuse inmates during routine searches. One former officer was convicted of taking a Taser gun to the genitals of a prisoner.

Most of the fighting and shooting of prisoners occurred in Corcoran's special security housing unit, the SHU, a prison within the prison that is set aside for difficult inmates.

Lieutenant Steve Rigg, a supervisor at Corcoran, says that inmates died unnecessarily. "We've had inmates killed when it could have been avoided, and now I think it's just a cover-up," says Rigg.

Since 1988, Corcoran Prison's guards have killed eight inmates and wounded scores of others, more than any other prison in the country. Critics who questioned the fatality rate found their answer in the state's prison policy. California's Department of Corrections is the only major prison system in the country where the guards are armed inside all the prison housing areas, and for years its regulations called for an integrated exercise yard policy. But if you put feuding inmates--blacks, whites, Latinos, rival gang members--into small exercise yards like the one in the SHU, it is bound to lead to violence.

"If you put them on the yard together, they're going to fight," says Rigg. "Either through hatred or through peer pressure, they're going to fight."

According to both prison guards and inmates, staged battles, commonly known as gladiator fights, became a regular entertainment at Corcoran. Matches were set up as guards selected inmates from rival gangs, and released them one by one into the SHU yard. At least one Corcoran supevisor reportedly amused himself by calling the fights like a ring announcer, and many guards gambled on the bouts.

Officer Richard Caruso, who worked at Corcoran, remembers that the fights occurred regularly. "My superiors sometimes called down to the control booth and asked, 'Are you going to have a yard fight?' And the staff told them, 'Yes, we are,'" says Caruso.

In 1995, Officer Caruso and Lieutenant Rigg, after being rebuffed by their prison warden and by superiors in Sacramento, decided to go the FBI to try to put a stop to what they considered the guards' barbaric acts.

One such incident involved inmate Preston Tate. He was in prison for rape, and in the SHU for allegedly attacking a guard. In April of 1994, Tate was shot dead in the SHU exercise yard by a guard who used a 9mm rifle.

Tate allegedly told one prisoner that a guard vowed that he would never leave the SHU alive because he, Tate, had assaulted another staff member.

But in a press release the day of the Tate shooting, the prison said that Tate was killed because, "Tate refused to obey the numerous orders of the yard officer to stop his aggression on another inmate." Afterwards, a review board of prison officials issued a justifying the killing of Tate as a so-called good shot: "The shooting was within department policy."

Eddie Myers, deputy director of the California Department of Corrections and the man in day-to-day command of California's prisons, defends the shooting. "Tate was not the intended target of the shot. The officer intended to save Tate's life. It is unfortunate that Tate was hit," says Myers.

The Shooting Review Board justified every one of the shootings at Corcoran.

But an independent commission set up by the California Senate disagreed. It found that 24 of the 31 serious or fatal shootings at Corcoran were simply unwarranted.

Mike Wallace went back to Corcoran to take a second look for 60 Minutes II. Had anything changed?

This time, Wallace found that California prison guards were mistreating inmates in another way. They were allowing inmates to be raped by other inmates, as retaliation against those who had gotten out of line.

The details of this so-called "state-sanctioned" rape became clearer during a special hearing on prison violence last summer by the California State Senate.

"The Department of Corrections was willing to allow at Corcoran State Prison those conditions to exist in which a prison inmate was encouraged knowingly to commit rape against another inmate. And get away with it," said State Senator Quentin Kopp at the hearings.

One story involves Wayne Robertson, a convicted murderer and known sexual predator nicknamed "The Booty Bandit." Investigators say he raped at least 15 inmates, many of whom were thrown in his cell as a means of punishment.

Eddie Dillard was one of those inmates. He's out of prison now and has started a family, ut back in 1993, Dillard was serving time for assault with a deadly weapon. When he got into a fight with a female officer, the guards at Corcoran State Prison locked Dillard up in a cell with Robertson.

Over a period of three days, Robertson raped Dillard twice, and tried once to force him into oral sex. "How can you expect for a person to be subjected to that type of cruelty and then expect them to come back out, back into society, and be productive after being scarred like that?" Dillard asks.

The reality of Dillard's nightmarish experience was corroborated by the testimony of former corrections officer Roscoe Pondexter, nicknamed the "Bonecrusher." Two years after he was forced to resign for excessive violence at Corcoran, a repentant Pondexter has gone public, admitting how cruel he had become.

"I became insensitive, callous, uncaring, numb," says Pondexter. "Maybe I was in denial or maybe I didn't really care."

"After the incident happened, all of us sitting down and writing reports together, so we could be consistent. I was very much part of that," Pondexter remembers. "If I had to do it back over againÂ… I would have separated the inmates."

Dillard is currently suing several of the correctional staff members, some of whom have been indicted by the California Attorney General. But Dillard is not suing Roscoe Pondexter, whom he has forgiven for the things he did.

At long last, the Department of Corrections appears to be intent on changing the way it does business. The department's new director called what went on at Corcoran a "shooting gallery," and he has vowed to clean up all the violence there.

60II: Home

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

Comments