tv Lockup MSNBC June 9, 2012 11:00pm-12:00am PDT
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call. corcoran's maximum security housing unit, or the s.h.u., is home to some of california's most violent offenders. influential gang members and inmates who have assaulted prison staff or other inmates are sent here from all over the state. >> in here, i feel an individual is deprived, i feel an individual is neglected, i feel an individual is oppressed. i feel an individual is degraded continuously. >> everything they do is to humiliate you. you know, to degenerate you. you know what i'm saying? all you're doing is trying to respect them, but they disrespecting you. >> the toughest challenge i think being in the s.h.u. is on
a day-to-day basis, being fair and consistent with each and every inmate. in each cell is a different individual. >> the 1,200-cell s.h.u. unit is california's largest prison within a prison. inmates call it the hole. >> 24 hours a day, living in a cell like that, man, it's going to get to anybody. i don't care who they are. to deprive someone of social contact i think is the worst thing you can do. >> s.h.u. inmates spend up to 23 hours a day alone in a concrete cell. they are allowed one hour a day outside to exercise and five minutes a week to shower. in this confined isolation, an inmate's frustration can quickly turn violent. >> i've seen inmates just lose
it, start yelling, screaming, kicking, banging on their cells. the officers come up and ask him what's going on. when the man doesn't respond, he doesn't want to cuff up, he's just going off in the cell, they have no choice. they've got to go in and beat him up because he ain't cuffing up. that's what i mean by lose it. >> they assault officers with urine and feces. they take control of their food port. they also cover their cell front, which we have to remove the cover in order to make sure their safety is the utmost concern. >> when violence does erupt, officers are left with no option but to extract inmates from their cells by force. s.h.u. facility captain j.r. andrews oversees cell extractions on a weekly basis. >> we do wear protective gear in a cell extraction or a use of force and a calculated use of force. but on some occasions, staff do get injured. i've seen on occasion where staff have been injured to the point of broken arms.
i've seen staff receive feces thrown in their face. i've seen staff where they actually had their headgear broken into pieces because they was hit so hard when they entered the cell. >> after extracting him from a shower cell in the crisis unit, officers are transporting this inmate to the s.h.u. for destroying prison property. >> he beat out a window with a handle. we had to go inside the cell, take him out. this spit mask is required by our institution so the inmate does not spit on us. >> this inmate will have to pay for the broken window and will have up to 90 days s.h.u. time added to his sentence. while three months in the s.h.u. may seem like a long time, some prisoners spend years within these walls. >> when i first got here, i thought, wow, this is going to be a world of hell. and sure enough, it's been a world of hell. >> chris samuelson, originally convicted of weapons possession,
has spent two of his four years at corcoran in the s.h.u.. >> you got to have a strong mind to be back here for a number of years like i have been, you know. but it's broken people back here. but, hey, you know, all i can do is to keep going. >> the stress of working in this environment is mandated that officers never work the hole for more than two months at a time. >> this is a s.h.u. housing unit exercise yard. it's where the inmates come out to get their prescribed exercise daily. and, of course, the times that -- their favorite exercise is probably fighting. >> these s.h.u. yards were the site of the notorious gladiator fights of the mid-1990s. when we first filmed here in 2000, the unit was still recovering from that scandal. at the time, officers were keeping known gang rivals apart to cut down on inmate assaults.
but it wasn't all that effective. >> in the olden days, it was more guys trying to kill each other. but we still have those. >> whenever violence broke out, the control tower went into a well-rehearsed routine as seen in this demonstration from 2000. >> the inmates start to fight, first thing you do is you activate the unit alarm. then he would yell at the inmate -- >> get down, get down, get down! >> first rounds we fire are wood blocks. hopefully it will make them stop. we really have to escalate with our nonlethal options, this is what we call a scat round, which is really irritating. it's also a lot louder. >> the smoke you see there, that's cn gas. it's no fun. it messes up your sight. we have a mini-14 here, the 223 round. but we only use that as a last resort if the inmate has knocked another inmate unconscious and he's kicking him in the head or
something. >> corcoran state prison no longer has to resort to such drastic measures to control violence in the s.h.u. yard. their solution? no more yards. the inmates now exercise in walk-alone areas called the cages. >> the cages is -- the cages is inhumane. this is nothing but animals. people treat animals better than we're treated sometimes. it's like -- it's like having a little monkey in a cage right here. put the monkey in the cell, put him out in the cage, let him get some air. >> although yard privileges have been restricted, the inmates agree that the cages have been effective in combating the inmate assaults that were so common in the past. >> it seems to me like this is just one more step towards administration's divide-and-conquer tactics. and it's working. it works well. i'll give them that. they know what they're doing.
next on "lockup" -- >> i want you to take the coverings down, turn around and submit to a mechanical restraint. >> do what you got to do. >> inmates go on the rampage in the prison's hospital ward. as part of a heart healthy diet. that's true. ...but you still have to go to the gym. ♪ the one and only, cheerios ♪
gñ÷nxúacocó#?!?!?!!!@?@?@?ú?@?@?@?@?@?ú?p?uw@pus corcoran has its own 95-bed, acute-care hospital where patients recover in high-security cells. because of the violence, a stab-proof vest is part of every nurse's uniform. medical staff deal with the survivors of gang hits, treating up to 50 stabbings a year. >> got his head blown off, that's probably the worst one. but we've had lots of major stabbings, lots of gunshots, lots of people who have been stabbed in through the chest cavity, who we stabilize here and ship immediately to trauma centers for emergency surgery. you don't ask questions. you basically deal with them as patients. if you start digging into their backgrounds and finding out what they've done, it could change
your whole perspective. we have a special clientele here that you don't want to know too much about them. >> i got to eat. >> a high-security prison hospital presents particular problems for employee safety. every day, staff try to achieve the best balance between medical needs and custody concerns. >> there is a doctor here. they are dealing with another situation. but when they get done, i'll tell them. >> medical and security staff work hand in hand to deal with a major disturbance in the hospital. inmates have purposely backed up their toilets. >> we have four inmates in four different cells that are causing their toilets to back up and flooding the tier. i'm going to first go out and try to talk to the inmates and try to get them into complying with staff's instructions. >> we want to come in and talk to you and give you some medication so that you can settle down. >> if the inmates fail to comply with staff instructions, we'll probably have to extract them.
>> i want everything ready to go in no more than five minutes. i want everything ready to go in five minutes. >> they don't make them big enough. >> in addition to the risk of being injured during a cell extraction, officers must also protect their faces and uniforms from body waste that is frequently thrown at them by inmates. >> you got elbow pads, one of them might throw feces at you. he smells. he's ready. if he's going to be pitching, i'm going to be catching. >> if you don't do it right now, you will go in -- >> this time, the on-duty psychiatrist has managed to convince the inmate to let captain cobbs' officers remove him from the cell. now he can receive his much-needed medication.
>> hospital staff now face the unpleasant task of cleaning the inmate's feces-smeared cell. >> put him in the room. do we have an open room? >> which room? >> put him in cell 4. >> i'm a psychiatrist. i can't see you. >> across the hall, the psychiatrist is attempting to persuade another inmate to cooperate with medical staff. >> we need to come in and give you some medication. >> no, i'm not taking no medication and you ain't coming in! >> medical staff are now left with no choice than to hand over the situation to the prison security staff. >> i'm captain cobbs. i'm the custody operations captain. >> the inmate is refusing to remove the mattress, which is blocking his cell door and security staff fear that he may
be planning to use his metal food tray as a weapon. >> i'm going to give you one more opportunity to comply with staff instructions. i want you to take the coverings down, turn around and submit to mechanical restraint. >> do what you got to do. >> medical staff stand back to let custody officers introduce noxious oc pepper spray into the inmate's cell. the irritant gas should quickly persuade him to let officers handcuff him. despite the stinging cloud of gas filling his cell, the inmate is still refusing to be cuffed. >> hands on the door and cuff up! hands on the door and cuff up! >> a second dose of oc pepper spray is applied. at last, staff are able to extract the inmate peacefully. >> hands off the door!
ñgññy aoaoaokoaoaaggogó#?a?!aa?!? doing time at corcoran state prison can be like living in a war zone. the main culprits for most of corcoran's crime and violence are the powerful prison gangs that prey on each other and the weak. their booming drug business not only pervades every facility at corcoran, it extends far beyond the prison walls into the outside world. lieutenant terry norton knows that being locked up does not stop inmates from conducting business as usual. >> the gangs inside the prison control drug trafficking, extortion, any kind of crime that you can think of that happens on the streets. it happens within the prison system. they have their politics. they have their pecking order, their soldier that has to eliminate the guy they want off
the yard. they all have their little jobs that they have to do. >> gang members communicate with each other both in and out of prison by microwriting on scraps of paper. >> even though the individual is locked up, they have a lot of access to individuals on the street. they have visitors that see them on a regular basis. they have the mail. they're able to give messages to other inmates that are paroling to go out on the street and pass that message along to other street gangs or whatnot to carry out their deeds. >> through these coded notes, senior gang members are able to continue running their street operations from behind bars. once decoded, officers pass the information on to police. more often than not, the orders are to kill. >> anybody that thinks that a prison gang such as the mexican mafia can't reach out and touch you on the street is a fool for thinking that way because they can. they can reach out and touch anybody they want.
>> but the messages can also contain instructions about smuggling drugs, most often marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines into corcoran. >> this would be a state boot, they'll take the bottom of the heel here and actually cut and remove the heel and carve out an area in this section here in order to put the narcotics underneath the heel. this is after we open up the packaging of it, we have marijuana on this side, marijuana in the center. the way it's wrapped there is so the inmate can actually insert it into his body cavity and traffic it from the visiting room into his housing-unit area, where it's sold. >> even a simple greeting card can be a vehicle for transporting drugs. >> in this case, the peacock here, the bird, the parrot has been soaked in methamphetamine and then it's mailed in. once it's mailed in, the inmate will cut up pieces of the picture and actually sell it. >> narcotics inside prison can be sold for almost 30 times their street price.
an ounce of heroine that might cost $800 can be broken up and sold here for thousands. >> we hit the house. the guy was selling dope out of the house. so there was probably dope in that building. >> to crack down on the gangs' narcotic network, corcoran has formed a highly trained intelligence-gathering team called the investigative service unit. our cameras were allowed access to follow this unit, along with a local canine team, while they set out on a surprise contraband bust. searching inmate cells for drugs, weapons and gang paraphernalia. >> nobody else knows we're coming. the captains don't know, nobody knows we're coming. so this is going to be a complete surprise to staff and everybody. >> head of the isu, sergeant john montgomery, knows that inmates will destroy or hide the contraband if they find out about the raid. >> we're going to go up to the building 4 when they release for chow and we'll go up to the building and go inside and make sure all the buildings are clear before bringing the canine units
in. >> any inmates who are still in their cells when the isu sweep begins are carefully searched before leaving to make sure they are not removing drugs. >> mouth. all the way around. gums. tongue up. all right. >> when the cellblock is cleared of all inmates, the search begins. >> by looking inside the cells by how much content they have in the cell, we can kind of tell who is probably running drugs, because if they're running drugs in the yard, they have a lot of what we call canteened stored goods, canned goods, tuna, chicken, soups, they have a lot of stuff in their cell. in the drug trade, that's how they're paid. so we have a cell that has that lots of that kind of stuff in it, we will mark it and tag them and start following them through phone conversations, mail, and we'll gather some intelligence out of this. if nothing else, we'll get that. >> this one? >> it's a game to the dog.
they're trying to find their toy. that's how -- that's how they're trained. after a while, they don't find anything, you get tired, you get bored. >> here, boy. >> that's why we try to hit the hot cells first. because after that, your success rate starts going down. >> good boy. hey. >> these searches often turn up some type of illegal substance. >> like a marijuana pen or joint, you got some of the marijuana here. the balloons packed with marijuana. a syringe here. the crack pipes so they can smoke crack. >> a common item found during cell searches is pruno, a fermented alcohol drink made from shredded apples and kool-aid. >> i would say it would serve up to five or ten people all depending. some of the inmates actually even sell the pruno by the cup, whether they're selling it for 5 bucks a cup or $10, or if it's white lightning, $25 to $50.
>> any suspicious artwork in the cells is brought to the sergeant in internal affairs, an expert in gang codes and symbols. >> a lot of the aztec stuff is predominantly done by the southern hispanics, mexican mafia. you'll see if you look very close, they'll have the gang signs, mexican mafia normally has a black hand, a small black hand somewhere in the drawing. you have your main liners and they want to send a drawing back to they call it a brother. a validated mexican mafia member. they'll draw something really nice and send it back to him or they'll send it to his family on the street which in turn will make a full circle and come back inside as a form of respect, for him, hey, this is for you. we made this for you. and they just really preach to these guys that they were -- their ancestors were aztec warriors and they even go as far as to learn the aztec language. they call it nahuatl. >> inmate charles manson's artwork is regularly confiscated
to prevent it from being sold as gruesome souvenirs. >> this is a scorpion that he made. basically just taking thread from various types of items, socks and t-shirts and towels, and he creates it and uses, looks like a marker to color it. this is -- this is probably one of the items that he makes the most of, are these scorpions and spiders. other inmates try to sneak it out and put it on ebay and sell it and whatnot, so we confiscate it. >> another all-too-common discovery in these searches is a variety of handmade weapons. since corcoran opened in 1988, there have been over 250 stabbings, many of them fatal, using knives like these. >> this one's made from a desenex can. >> i've seen stabbings over drugs. i've seen stabbings over money owed from canteens. i've seen child molesters get stabbed.
i've seen a guy get both eyes gouged out with a toothbrush and stabbed 15 times by his celly. >> as far as the gangsters, once they start doing drugs and get in debt, the only way to get out of debt usually is to do a hit. and sooner or later, the right person is going to come along where they want to hit him, and if they don't do it, they're going to get hit themselves. >> clear out. >> that's exactly the choice that was presented to this young inmate who got a year in the s.h.u. for stabbing another prisoner. >> the guy was weak and people will say, oh, he was weak, weak meaning he couldn't keep up with the exercise. you know, that was the reason. this is how stupid this is. say hey, this guy doesn't deserve this. when i did speak up for him, you know, it was placed on me. well, since you're speaking up for him, you'll deal with it. i regret it. i am sorry for the guy that i stabbed. you know, i really am. i regret that i did that to him. up next -- >> they'll stab him, they'll kill him, they'll toss him away
like he's nothing. >> the perilous risk of leaving a gang. orning! wow. want to start the day with something heart healthy and delicious? you're a talking bee... honey nut cheerios has whole grain oats that can help lower cholesterol. and it tastes good? sure does! right... ♪ ♪ wow. delicious, right? yeah. it's the honey, it makes it taste so... ♪ ♪ well would you look at the time... what's the rush? be happy. be healthy.
gñ÷ñ÷úacoaó#?!?!?!!!@?@?@?ú?@?@?@?@?ú?qqa@pq gang politics dominate every aspect of prison life, especially for the members of those gangs. should any of them refuse orders to carry out hits on other inmates, the prison says they're likely to be assaulted or killed as punishment. their only other option is a process called debriefing, during which they agree to cut all ties with their gang and provide prison officials with detailed information. in exchange, these inmates are moved to a special-needs housing unit and permanently segregated from the rest of the prison population.
>> an individual can be in good favor with the gang for years, can do their dirty work, smuggle drugs, stab people, beat people, do whatever. but if he says the wrong thing to the wrong person someday, or looks funny at somebody, somebody thinks they were disrespected by him, he's through. they'll stab him, they'll kill him. they'll toss him away like he's nothing. >> august 30th. >> i just got tired of prison politics. they're tired of being asked to go out there and assault other inmates. they just want to kick back, do their time and get out of prison. >> when we first visited corcoran, thomas spiller was a high-ranking gang member who requested a debriefing. he was just four years into a 35-year-to-life sentence for second-degree robbery. >> there's a process we have to go through. first of all, you have to turn over any weapons and then refrain from associating with anyone, any of your former gang member friends, list everything
that i've done, all my activities, the hits i've ordered, the hits i've done, who sponsored me into the gang and so on. and so forth. >> state your name and number for the committee. you're here for your cdc annual. we have some questions about your request to debrief. >> the deputy warden and social worker, and captain nate dill have to decide whether spiller's desire to denounce his gang was genuine. >> i do have some questions about your sincerity about debriefing. >> i have some questions of my own, if i may. >> the officials are concerned that some of the debriefed inmates whom spiller would join in special-needs housing were former hits of his. >> spiller, you will not be denied the debrief process. it may take a while because we're going to have to look at it very, very hard. >> for my own understanding, what is the main source of your change of heart? >> basically, i'm tired of doing other people's dirty work.
i'm simply just a middleman. passing on orders. and it doesn't make sense. i was ordered to kill a dear friend of mine, and i really didn't appreciate that. >> the committee decided spiller would be allowed to debrief. he was then moved into protective custody in the special-needs unit. >> you have a good day. >> thank you. >> since then, he's been transferred to another prison in california for his safety. >> once they elect to go ahead and debrief and cross that line, you cannot put that inmate back in the general population in the yard because, ultimately, he will get assaulted and possibly even killed. >> but the prison can only protect the inmate from his gang's fury. they can't protect the inmate's friends and family. >> that individual decided to debrief. he asked to get his family out of the old neighborhood because they're going to retaliate against his family if they can't get to him. >> the information provided by former gang members like inmate spiller is used to identify and track high-ranking gang leaders
inside the prison. it has also proved invaluable to law enforcement. >> they've actually solved homicides on the streets that they had no suspects on through the debrief process. >> but debriefing is not enough to destroy the vice grip of prison gangs at corcoran. >> it's just one tool to break some of these gang members up from the gang because for every one inmate that debriefs, you have ten in line waiting to get into the gang. >> since our last visit here, officers say they've seen a big shift in the type of inmates who were joining gangs. >> the changes i've seen in gang members coming into csp corcoran have been a lot of the younger kids coming in off the street, coming into a gang they felt was going to take care of them and come in here and find out it's not that way at all. because he wants to make a name for himself, will be the first one to grab a weapon if told by somebody that's got seniority on the yard. says hey, i need you to go hit this guy, they will. >> they're a lot younger. a lot younger out here.
they don't care at all. they're the ones that will be first to get in your face and tell you where to go. >> they're told what they're doing is for the betterment of, you know, their race or their group or whatever it is. when in reality what it is it's all about making money for those guys that are running or controlling the gangs. >> there are a few inmates, though, who manage to avoid the dangers of gang membership by forming their own small factions and keeping a low profile. surprisingly, one of those groups consists of inmates who are openly gay. >> the boys seem to have no problem. they love us. i mean, we're like gold into here, we really are. there's very few of us. please, maybe not for you. >> but anyway, i mean, they treat us just like they treat anybody else. you know what i mean? as long as we give them their respect and don't cross those boundaries, we get treated just like anybody else. >> but being gay in prison does
have its challenges. >> being what i am, it's very hard to find a good celly. because, you know, some people, because you're a homosexual, they expecting you to do certain things and you're not with all that, you know what i mean? >> when they turn down a proposition, the reaction can be vicious. >> it's just being like, the proper word is stalked, harassed just because of a rejection, you know. a lot of people in here can't deal with rejection, especially coming from a transsexual. >> and yet, these inmates find doing time at corcoran less difficult than life on the outside. >> it's much tougher in society, because there's nothing given to you, there's no program to follow. there's no nothing. it's all based on you. so that's a tough challenge. next on lockup, the toll of serving time and the taste of freedom. ┌)┌)0 ogab+3y's a└oga0î)< );#a'1);#a
almost half the inmates at corcoran will spend the better part of their lives here. some will never leave. for those with a chance of paroling, the wait may be years or even decades long. >> i'm serving 35 years to life. i've got a parole date of 2031, that will put me somewhere around 80, 80 something years old. >> i figure it's harder on my son than anybody, you know. he's 7 now. he's 7 this year. i used to jump on his ass about keeping his bedroom clean, and one day i called home from the l.a. county jail, i asked the baby-sitter where everybody was and stuff. she said, well, this morning i got up and told your son he can go out and play. i went back a little bit later, you know, he wouldn't go out. he was cleaning his room. and he said, you know, if i clean my room, maybe my daddy will come home.
>> i think that you have to learn how to numb yourself in order to be able to endure this. i really don't have very many hopes left. >> the hope of freedom has finally come to pass for donnie yarberry and jose balderas. they are gathering their private belongings and processing out of corcoran. >> do you have anybody picking you up? >> no. >> how about you? >> change of plan. >> the parolees that we receive, they're so satisfied that they're leaving. they don't want to come back. >> jose balderas has been here 22 months for selling drugs. with no one to pick him up, his plan is to travel by train to los angeles where he will reunite with family. donnie yarberry has been in and out of prison for much of his adult life. he served a three-year sentence for robbery, was released, and then got arrested a few months later. >> are you currently married?
>> i'm divorced. a waste of time, you know, a waste of freedom. there's so many better things to be doing in life -- going fishing, going to a movie. walking hand in hand with your girlfriend. >> release photographs are taken of every inmate processing out. for donnie yarberry, who has a history of substance abuse, parole includes a halfway house dedicated to helping recovering addicts get on their feet. >> i heard they had a six-month aftercare, so i volunteered for the program. so that i wouldn't have to parole to the streets and have nothing. i go to a residential program for 60 days, and then i have sober living for four more months where i don't have to pay any rent. >> inmates released from corcoran are given $200 and a clean set of clothes to start their new lives. >> it's not enough to survive on. it doesn't last three days. i've had opportunities in recovery before, and i was never
adamant in my heart that i was never going to use again. i just know in my heart i don't want to come back. >> that inmate there, i believe, based on my experience of almost 20 years, he'll be back, you know? he's violated a few times already for absconding, burglary, and chances are he will be back. >> sergeant val rangel has worked at corcoran since 1988. he knows that more than 50% of the inmates he releases will return to the california prison system within a year. >> you got no family supporting you, you're right back on the street. no home, nowhere to go. no job. and they come back. >> yarberry is met by a representative from the rehab facility.
balderas is dropped at the train station. he will pay for his ticket out of the $200 he just got. >> he's not used to being out here and he's used to us giving him direction. now he's on his own so he's got to find his way back. and they get used to it again. you know it, takes awhile to get the feel again of being free, but they get used to it. so he does have somebody there waiting for him. looks like he stands a good chance of making it. the odds are with him right now. >> but for the rest of the inmates at corcoran, freedom is only something to dream about. >> i don't think prison is a deterrent to anything. this is nothing but a punishment place and it only makes us bitter. it makes us bitter to have to sit back here and to be treated the way we are for years and years and years and then i'm
expected to go out there and be appreciative of society and hope that i learned my lesson? just doesn't make any sense. ♪ they got a brother locked up once again ♪ ♪ chained on the bus bound for the state pen ♪ ♪ it's going to be a rough ride ♪ ♪ i'm about to do time for the crime of a homicide ♪ ♪ 15 with a nail ♪ ♪ another westside brother on his way to a jail cell ♪ ♪ 15 to life ♪ ♪ doing 15 to life ♪ ♪ 15 to life, doing 15 to life ♪ >> in the five years between our visits to corcoran, the prison made great strides to overcome its troubled past. new programs have significantly cut down on prison violence, gang activity and drug trafficking. but with new inmates coming in every day, there are plenty of challenges ahead.