The Prison King 

During “Z” ’s rule, his favorite white inmates got drugs, weapons and the freedom to roam

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006

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But not everyone was buying the inmates’ stories.

“They are all cons,” said defense attorney Salzman. “They have major sentences. The government is arguing that the motive is racial. He might be a hard person, but he is not a racist. Someone would have picked this up. Other guards wouldn’t have tolerated this. Why would he do it? Why would he sacrifice his career for this purpose?”

Chino corrections officer Richard Allan Palacios Sr. worked the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift with Ziska in the late 1990s. The two officers got on reasonably well. Palacios didn’t ask too many questions when he saw 15 to 30 white inmates out of their cells at one time, and Ziska provided no answers. Instead, Palacios would grab another officer, and the two would corral the inmates back into their cells. It was a regular ritual. It was usually followed by Ziska’s letting them back out. “We would confront inmates, and they said they got permission from Ziska,” he said. “They would be screaming out his name.”

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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.”

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