Shayne Allyn Ziska didn’t want a jury trial. He thought the ways of his former world, as a $66,000-a-year guard at Chino's state prison, too complex for 12 men and women to understand. He preferred leaving it to a man in a black robe to decide whether all the bad things inmates and a couple of guards said about him were true.
For six days last month, his accusers took the stand in federal court, telling Judge Terry Hatter Jr. how the 44-year-old Ziska befriended members of a white-supremacist prison-based gang called the Nazi Low Riders (a.k.a. “the Ride”). They said he preached “white power” ideology and referred to black inmates as “rugs,” “porch monkeys” and “niggers.”
When Ziska was on duty at the California Institution for Men at Chino, the usual rules of prison life did not apply. He often allowed his favorite white inmates out of their cells to plot crimes and to retaliate against other inmates for violating the gangster’s code of conduct. To control his empire, “Z,” as his friends called him, housed his favorite white inmates together and occasionally smuggled heroin and methamphetamine inside letters for them. He would allow white inmates to make wine in their cells, and often looked the other way when a beating went down. He was the “go-to” guy for certain “buddies” in need of razors.
For four years, from 1996 to 2000, Ziska’s renegade regime ruled the prison walls, including the 200-inmate Madrone Hall, where he was one of three guards per shift. He insinuated himself into many parts of inmate life. He was a leader and teacher, instructing inmates in self-defense, with tips on how to take away a weapon from a guard. He was a philosopher, preaching about Friedrich Nietzsche and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
The 5-foot-10, wiry-yet-muscular Ziska, his blond hair cut short, denied all of it when he took the stand for an hour or so on the final day of his trial in downtown Los Angeles. “I am there to protect them,” said Ziska. “I don’t share anything in common with the NLR.”
After a lunch break, Judge Hatter issued his verdict: guilty on one count of violent crime in aid of racketeering, one count of deprivation of civil rights under the color of law, and one count of conspiracy. Hatter, in scathing remarks about the Corrections Department’s poor record in addressing its problems, thanked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for “shining the light on one of the darkest areas of the state.”
The verdict closed the door on a five-year investigation that began in 1999, when the Ontario Police Department looked into a spate of violent crime and an upsurge in meth labs attributed to the Ride. The police finally called in the FBI, and by the end of the probe, 29 members or associates of the gang had been indicted. Most of those named in the 2002 indictment had spent time in Chino’s prison, and two of the nine inmates who agreed to testify against Ziska had been indicted by the feds. Ziska, the only guard implicated, was placed on administrative leave in 2000, ending his hopes of being elected president of the Chino prison union. He was indicted in 2004.
One of the more puzzling aspects of the case is why so few guards came forward to say they noticed anything odd on the days Ziska worked. Guards who testified on Ziska’s behalf denied that there was any “code of silence” that forbade them from saying anything negative about one of the members of their powerful prison-guards union, for which Ziska was a shop steward. “The Shayne Ziska I am familiar with is professional, and he is not someone I think of as a white supremacist,” said Marty Aroian, president of the union’s Chino chapter. “He was a very effective and a dedicated shop steward. He kept the tenets of our organization very well.”
Ziska, a former construction worker, started his career as a correctional officer in 1984, at the age of 22, at the 6,300-inmate Chino prison. His first assignment was on the minimum-security yard, and he graduated to patrolling some of Chino’s most dangerous units, including administrative segregation, where the most violent inmates are kept. Ziska was also a member of the prison SWAT team for three years.
“He was rough around the edges,” said corrections officer Denise Mori Harrison, who worked with Ziska in 1999 and testified on his behalf. “He either liked you or he didn’t.”
Race often made it into his conversations. When Harrison, who is white, married an African-American man, Ziska told her that he was against mixed marriages because he felt sorry for the children. On another occasion, he asked his new Latino partner if he spoke English. “He was a real asshole,” the guard said. “I said, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I have been here for 12 years. He said, ‘Do you want to be my partner? Are you going to work?’ He worked my ass off.” He eventually changed his mind and grew to admire Ziska. “We were like brothers there.”