Folsom Prison has a (well earned) bad reputation. It's not a nice place to work.
The job is killing you and you know it. Sometimes it wins.
Cpt Doug Pieper (RIP) was a good friend, I still have guilt about his death:
Anguished prison guard: 'My job has killed me'
Suicide note after riot highlights a troubled California system -- Senate to investigate
Mark Martin, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
Saturday, January 17, 2004
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle
This much is clear: Two warring gangs, some armed with objects sharp enough to kill, waged a bloody battle in the yard at Folsom State Prison on April 8, 2002.
But a year and a half later, the drama, accusations and intrigue surrounding the riot read like the kind of script California's new governor might have considered during his previous career.
But this is no movie.
A dedicated captain at the prison who was haunted by the riot shot himself in the head one year ago, leaving a suicide note for his family and bosses that read, "My job has killed me.''
An associate warden who was once prosecuted for doing favors for a member of the prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia stands accused by some of his colleagues of purposely failing to quell the riot.
And a whistle-blower alleging corruption and cover-up within the walls of the medium-security facility has California Highway Patrol protection because he fears for his life.
All of this is expected to spill out in public next week at state Senate hearings designed to investigate the internal workings of California's troubled Department of Corrections. Part of the testimony will focus on what happened before, during and after a riot that injured 24 inmates and left one guard permanently disabled.
But at the center of the hearings will be an overriding question that has come into sharper focus this week: Can the state's prison system, one of the world's largest penal institutions, police itself?
The question arises as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing eliminating the state's Office of the Inspector General, the only independent agency overseeing corrections.
"The California Department of Corrections has lost its way,'' said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, chairwoman of a committee that oversees prisons. "My demand of (the department) is reform, overall, right now.''
On Thursday, a federally appointed investigator concluded a probe into Pelican Bay State Prison by suggesting that the department, swayed by a powerful union representing guards, should be held in contempt of court for its continual failure to investigate or punish dishonest guards. Special Master John Hagar wrote in a damning report that a code of silence within the department created "an overall atmosphere of deceit and corruption."
Capt. Douglas Pieper ran head-first into that code, and his widow says it killed him.
Pieper was on duty in Folsom on the morning of April 8, 2002, when things began to go terribly wrong. That day, the prison was scheduled to begin integrating members of two rival gangs who had been locked in their cells for months: the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia, perhaps the two most influential gangs in the prison system.
The plan was to release inmates of the two groups slowly, a few at a time, into the main exercise yard to maintain control and ensure there was no trouble. Pieper, standing in a guard tower, quickly realized that plan was not being followed, he told his wife and investigators later.
More than 80 inmates with gang affiliations were released nearly at once, and it appeared Mexican Mafia members were advancing toward their rivals in a menacing way, according to a report by the Inspector General's Office, which looked into the riot last fall. The report says Pieper asked a superior, Associate Warden Mike Bunnell, if he should "shut down the yard'' -- prison lingo for ordering the inmates to lie face-first on the ground.
"Not yet,'' responded Bunnell, according to the report and a videotape that recorded the riot. Within seconds, a brawl erupted. Some inmates wielding sharp objects attacked each other in a brief but wild melee.
The riot was stopped in about 90 seconds, but that day haunted Pieper for the rest of his days, according to his wife, Evette Pieper, who is scheduled to testify during the Senate hearing Tuesday.
His wife says her husband began asking questions at the prison about what had happened, why it happened and why prison and Department of Corrections officials didn't seem interested in launching a serious investigation.
Soon after, Pieper was reassigned to a job he didn't want by Warden Diana Butler, according to the report. His wife says he began to suffer health problems as he fretted over the riot. He couldn't sleep and lost nearly 50 pounds.
A second-generation correctional officer, Pieper loved his job and was proud of the work guards do. But he began to seriously question some of his colleagues, and Evette Pieper says he was subjected to threats and pressured to sign documents stating he had willingly switched jobs.
"The message was, you open your mouth, and we'll keep messing with you,'' Evette Pieper said.
On Jan. 15, 2003, Pieper, 46, locked himself into his family's garage, put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. A lengthy note he left blamed his death on pressures at work. One of his last lines: "Warden, you have won.''
He is survived by a 20-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter.
Pieper's concerns that things weren't right at Folsom -- both before and after the riot -- have since been validated.
The confidential inspector general's report, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, concludes that Folsom administrators botched the release of prisoners into the yard, didn't follow procedures in investigating the riot and then attempted to engage in a cover-up.
For example, one of the captains who apparently disobeyed orders and let inmates out in large numbers was involved in the review of the riot -- a clear conflict of interest, according to the report.
Butler, the warden, failed to discipline anyone and should have referred the case to the Sacramento County district attorney because weapons were involved in the fight, the report states.
Butler also was behind an effort by some prison administrators to erase the audio portion of the videotape showing that Bunnell, the associate warden, declined to prevent the riot when he could have, the report says.
A prison department official said that the department was continuing to review policies and procedures at Folsom and would make changes there.
"Whatever we find that dictates change will be done,'' said Bob Martinez, the department's director of communications.
Butler, who despite several attempts to contact her was unavailable for comment, was fired in December.
Max Lemon doesn't think that has solved the problems at Folsom.
An associate warden, Lemon is expected to testify Tuesday that he believes the fight was set up to allow the Mexican Mafia to punish its rivals. Lemon said in an interview that he thought the gang had too much influence with officials in the prison.
According to state records, Bunnell, the officer who delayed in ordering guards to shut down the yard, was fired from the Department of Corrections in 1992 for doing favors for inmates at Deuel Vocational Institute near Tracy, including arranging for the state to foot the bill for nearly $2,000 of dental work for a known member of the Mexican Mafia.
The dental work, which included three gold crowns, had to be performed by an outside dentist because the prison dentist refused, saying the crowns were unnecessary.
Bunnell was hired back four years later, however, after a court ruled that the evidence gathered against him had been illegally obtained.
Corrections officials said they were unclear how an employee who once was fired had become one of the highest ranking officials at the prison.
"That, along with a myriad of other issues, is being looked at,'' Martinez said.
Bunnell could not be reached this week for comment. Sources close to the prison department's operations told The Chronicle he had been reassigned from his job at Folsom and reported to department headquarters in Sacramento.
Bunnell is being called to testify at Tuesday's hearing.
State Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, called the riot and the aftermath a "very suspicious scenario,'' noting that prison officials seemed to have punished the Nuestra Familia gang for the brawl by keeping them on lockdown for months afterward, even though they weren't the aggressors.
This week, she helped Lemon secure protection from the CHP. He says he thinks gang members on the outside, or colleagues, may attack him, and he's afraid to leave his house and has stayed out of work.
Lemon says he's determined to testify publicly that the Department of Corrections is not in control at Folsom.
"The prison, and the department, need to be cleansed,'' he said.
Speier and Romero say a portion of the hearings Wednesday will allow for discussion on how to better police the department. Both suggest Schwarzenegger's proposal to save $2 million by closing the inspector general's office would be a mistake.
"A lot of this should begin with leadership, both in the department and from the governor,'' Speier said. "This needs to be taken very seriously.''
E-mail Mark Martin at email@example.com .