By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
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By LA Weekly
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Palacios eventually began to worry about his safety and brought his concerns to Ziska. “He told me I was being too hard on the white inmates,” he said. “He said to me, Do you know what it would be like to have battery acid on my vehicle? He told me to back off because they did favors for him when he wasn’t there.”
Palacios’ fears reached a high point after he saw Ziska show Ride member Michael “Snake” Bridge Polaroids of a fully clothed Palacios with a “baton in my rear end” as part of a prison hazing ritual.
“It undermined my authority and safety,” he said. Chino corrections officer Robert Walter Spejcher, who was assigned to the shift just after Ziska’s, complained that there were days when he started work and found cell doors unlocked — a violation of prison policy — and white inmates wandering the tiers.
“It presented a security risk,” he said. “They could jump out and attack us. Guards were scared they would get jumped.”
Spejcher said that he would find Nazi paraphernalia and an unusually large amount of weapons in white inmates’ cells.
“There were more acts of violence on the third watch due to inner-dorm visiting after Ziska’s watch,” he said. “I don’t need a job that is unsafe to work because of the number of incidents going on.”
Palacios eventually brought his concerns to his superiors, who told him to document Ziska’s bad behavior. Soon afterward, Palacios filed a written complaint to investigative services. After a six-month internal-affairs investigation, prison authorities found no evidence of wrongdoing and closed the file. For coming forward, Palacios said, he was shunned by his co-workers and given the silent treatment. He eventually transferred to another unit at Chino.
“I didn’t agree with the findings,” he said. “In my report was a list of dates and times and officers present. I had to go with what the department said.”
“The reason why it wasn’t sustained was because other officers wouldn’t back up his claim,” said federal prosecutor Adam Kamenstein.
It wouldn't have been the first time that an officer was shunned for violating what U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, in a Northern California case, described as a “code of silence” among officers. In 2004, Henderson ordered an investigation by special master John Hagar into the state’s labor contract, asking whether it gave the prison-guards union too much control over prison management and whether the contract hindered the state’s ability to conduct fair and accurate investigations of guard misconduct. What they found was a culture fostering a code of silence that was rampant in the department.
A prime example occurred in 2002, when two former Pelican Bay guards were sent to prison for soliciting inmates to attack child molesters, sex offenders and other inmates they disliked, and for attacking inmates themselves at the maximum-security facility in Crescent City. The trial of Sergeant Michael Powers and Officer Jose Garcia raised concerns that some guards attempted to protect their convicted colleagues, sparking the federal investigation that prompted Henderson to consider appointing a receiver to run the department.
“Rather than CDC [California Department of Corrections] staff correcting the prisoners, some correctional officers end up acquiring a prisoner’s mentality: They form gangs, align with gangs and spread the code of silence,” Hagar wrote. “The code of silence is taught to new recruits because of longstanding CDC culture, turning good officers bad.”
At Ziska’s trial, federal prosecutors accused numerous Chino corrections officers of adhering to that very same code of silence. Besides Palacios and Spejcher, all of the correctional officers who testified said that they hadn’t witnessed any wrongdoing on the part of Ziska, and most denied that a code of silence existed among correctional officers. “I don’t believe the code of silence exists,” said corrections officer Nathaneal Huley, who worked with Ziska in 1999. “If he was passing weapons, it would be a problem for me. Why would I want to keep that hushed? One of those weapons could end up in me.”
Prosecutors say Ziska’s only motivation was to help the white-power cause. Defense attorney Joel Levine says the case was largely a fabrication of inmates trying to help themselves. “There is no evidence that he received money or remuneration for these actions. It is a no-brainer to inform on a corrections officer and get benefits for themselves.”
Late in the day on February 14, after an emotional afternoon of testimony by Ziska’s son Ryan, Judge Hatter convicted Ziska of all but two counts. He criticized the Department of Corrections for failing to supervise Ziska and ordered Ziska to return to court on May 8, when he could be sentenced to as many as 50 years in federal prison.
“I am clearly of the mind that the California Department of Corrections ought to be indicted as well, if they could be,” Hatter said. “It’s amazing, frankly, that the offenses which are charged here are not more rampant throughout the entire system, and I am sure that there are offenses that are as grave as some of these and worse and hopefully will be brought to the attention of the public before long and will be addressed properly.”
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