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Inmates Suing Prison Claim Torturous Conditions

September 18, 1993

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A prison for the state’s toughest criminals is a lawless place where convicts are beaten, burned and deprived of human contact, inmates claim in a lawsuit seeking better conditions.

″The law stops at the gates of Pelican Bay,″ Susan Creighton, a lawyer for inmates who are suing the prison, said Friday in her opening statement at the U.S. District Court trial.

The federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of all 3,700 inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, alleges inadequate medical care and brutal practices.

″It was built to inspire terror, intimidation and dread ... designed to be a threat held over all prisoners in the state,″ Creighton told Chief U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who is conducting the non-jury trial.

The prison, near Crescent City just south of the Oregon line, is the strategic centerpiece of the state’s rapidly growing prison system.

Since Pelican Bay opened in late 1989, gang leaders and others perceived as security risks have been transferred there to be kept in tightly controlled surroundings.

About 1,300 inmates in the Security Housing Unit spend 22 1/2 hours a day in windowless 8-by-10 cells, and are allowed onto a barren exercise yard for 90 minutes only after a body-cavity search.

Deputy Attorney General Peter Siggins said Pelican Bay was ″a manifestation of decades of experience″ in dealing with prison gangs in California and other states.

″The simple truth about Pelican Bay is that it is working,″ Siggins said. He denied the prisoners’ accusations.

Inmate Louie Lopez, who has spent two years in the security unit, likened the prison to ″a space capsule, where one is shot into space and left in isolation.″

″You’re in the cell and that’s it,″ Lopez said, describing his daily routine. He said he can watch television or talk to prisoners in adjoining cells, but ″there’s nothing to talk about. Every day is the same.″

Lopez is serving a sentence for voluntary manslaughter.

Witness Barbara Kuroda, a registered nurse at the prison, described the severe burning of a prisoner in an infirmary bathtub in April 1992.

She said guards brought black prisoner Vaughn Dortch in for a bath, saying he had repeatedly covered himself with excrement and refused to shower.

After Dortch was put into the tub in handcuffs, she said, one officer commented that ″it looks like we’re gonna have a white boy before we’re through″ because Dortch’s skin was falling off.

Dortch suffered second- and third-degree burns over 31 percent of his body and underwent extensive skin grafs, David Steuer, a lawyer for the prisoners, told reporters. He said a prison medical assistant was fired as a result.

The trial resumes Tuesday.

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