Inside the Sunshine Gulag

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Allegations of corruption and murder are rocking California‘s penal system.

Khem Singh was little more than a shrivelled skeleton when he died of starvation in early February while on hunger strike in California‘s notorious Corcoran State Prison. The 72 year old Sikh priest, who spoke almost no English, had been given a draconian 23-year sentence in 2001 for ’inappropriately touching a young girl‘.

Although he had been on hunger strike for weeks, and had shrunken to less than 80 pounds, prison staff failed to monitor Singh‘s decline or move him into intensive care. Guards told a reporter that they ’didn‘t notice that the prisoner was wasting away‘.

It was the second such grisly ’surprise‘ in a two-week period at Corcoran - a sprawling penal complex in the heart of California‘s Central Valley. On 1 February another inmate, hooked up to a faulty kidney dialysis machine, was allowed to slowly bleed to death in his cell. Although other prisoners testified that 58 year old Ronald Herrera howled for help all night long, nearby guards, engrossed in television, refused to respond.

In the morning a new guard shift noticed a large pool of what appeared to be ’raspberry Kool-Aid‘ seeping from Herrera‘s cell. Inside, his corpse was slumped on the floor, grotesquely pallid and drained of blood.

The deaths of Singh and Herrera, coming on the heels of the mysterious hanging of two teenage inmates a month earlier at another institution, have provided a bizarre backdrop to an unprecedented legislative investigation of inhuman conditions within California prisons. The ongoing hearings, chaired by state senator Gloria Romero - a Democrat from Los Angeles - have produced sensational testimony about corruption, conspiracy and murder by guards and administrators in a state corrections system that incarcerates more inmates (170,000) than the prisons of Britain and Germany combined.

The hearings are the result of a long campaign by human rights activists that began in the mid-1990s after revelations that guards at Corcoran (organised into a gang called the ’Sharks‘) were staging deadly gladiatorial combats between inmates for ’amusement and bloodsport‘. Inmates from opposing prison gangs were routinely set against each other in a closed exercise yard, and then sometimes deliberately executed by guards firing rifles from overlooking towers.

Indeed, guards throughout the California system killed 39 inmates fighting with other inmates during the 1990s - a higher total than all the rest of the US‘s prisons combined. According to testimony to the state senate, guards and administrators covered up these atrocities with an institutional ’code of silence‘ and perjury in court.

Perjury has also been alleged against guards at Pelican Bay Prison - the infamous ’super-max‘ institution on the Redwood Coast - who reputedly organised inmates to attack, even murder, other inmates; as well as in the case of the ’Green Wall‘, a gang of guards at Salinas Valley State Prison who tortured and beat scores of prisoners. Likewise, the administration at Folsom Prison is accused of covering up a bloody riot (24 inmates seriously injured) that appears to have been deliberately engineered by guards.

Why has it taken a decade for the legislature to investigate a prison system run by gangs of sadistic guards who routinely abuse and murder inmates? In truth, state government in Sacramento has been massively corrupted by the powerful lobbyists for prison guards and contractors. Ex-governor Gray Davis (a Democrat), for example, received $3.4 million in campaign contributions from the guards‘ union alone. In return, Sacramento built a dozen new prisons and raised guards‘ salaries (currently $74,000 per year) to twice the level of the next highest-paying state.

Now a special investigator appointed by a federal judge is urging the prosecution of ex prison chief Almeida - long the darling of both Democrats and Republicans - and his chief deputy. The senate commission is also likely to recommend a purge of lying wardens and rogue guards.

California’s new muscle governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has likewise sworn to tame the arrogance of the prison guards’ lobby. The recipient of handsome campaign donations from giant rent-a-cop (and break-a-strike) corporations like Florida-based Wackenhut, he has indicated an interest in privatising parts of the sunshine gulag. Incarceration is a high profit international industry, and California is a potential convict motherlode for private corrections firms.

From the inmates’ point of view, of course, it matters little whether their guards are public employees or private mercenaries. Equally, the punishment of a handful of lying warders - however richly deserved - will do nothing to reform the grim daily life in California’s overcrowded and hyperviolent prisons.

The root problem remains a bipartisan political consensus in favour of ruthless ‘three strikes’ laws, a catastrophic ‘war on drugs’, and long sentences without the slightest opportunity for inmate education or job training. Until the class rationale of superincarceration is attacked head on, California’s prisons will remain graveyards of human rights.


Mike Davis is the author of Late Victorian Holocausts and a contributor to Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See