Welcome to Corcoran state prison, 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles in the San Joaquin valley; built at a cost of $288.9 million on what was once Tulare lake, home of the Tachi Indians; opened in 1988, designed for 3,000 prisoners, now holding 5,030. Kings County has dairies, cotton fields, Corcoran and two other state prisons besides. When they were selecting a jury for a recent trial of four prison guards in Hanford, 15 miles from Corcoran, 500 residents were called to be available for jury service, and more than a third said they either worked at one of the prisons or had a relative in the corrections sector.

Corcoran vividly incarnates the peculiar horrors of our national gulag. It was conceived in the eighties' prison boom as a new model of "absolute control," whose heart was the Secure Housing Unit, holding 1,500 of those deemed to be the most dangerous inmates in California's metastasizing prison population. In Corcoran's SHU, the guards -- many of them fresh out of the academy -- determinedly pursued a policy of forced integration of deadly rivals -- Aryan Nation with Mexican Mafia, gang with gang. To quote Mark Arax, the Los Angeles Times' brilliant investigator of the Corcoran scandals, "By forcing such explosive combinations and cultivating an atmosphere of fear, corrections officials believed that the gangs would brutalize each other into submission, according to internal memos and SHU staffers. Integration, they said, would bust the gangs."

Corcoran's SHU opened for business on Dec. 5, 1988, and by Dec. 29, had seen its first shooting. Across the next five years, six prisoners were shot dead in the SHU exercise yard. All fatal and non-fatal shootings were reviewed by Shooting Review Committees and Boards composed of California Department of Corrections employees. All were declared to be in policy and justified.

By 1996, Arax disclosed that whistle-blowing guards from Corcoran were describing "gladiator days," when guards would stage fights and from time to time kill one of the antagonists. There was already a state investigation of an episode in 1995 when shackled men arriving from Calipatria prison were savagely beaten by guards screaming "Welcome to hell!" into their ears. Even Gov. Pete Wilson was getting heat. The California Department of Corrections responded by seeking and eventually winning a permanent ban on reporters' face-to-face interviews with inmates.

In April 1997, an investigative team appointed by the California Department of Corrections delivered a draft report substantiating the "selective coverup of excessive force" by Corcoran guards, plus the "disturbing" fact that very often potential targets of the probe were investigating themselves. Amid high pressure sabotage organized by Gov. Wilson, this draft was deep-sixed.

In 1998, a federal grand jury indicted eight Corcoran guards for abuses including the staging of gladiatorial combats. For the first time in its history, the California Department of Corrections announced it would foot the legal bills of the accused guards. The powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) advised its members that they had the right not to talk to investigators from the FBI or U.S. attorney's office.

This guards' union is now a major player in California politics. The CCPOA won its representation election in 1980, amid the first surge of the prison building boom. Back then, it had 1,600 guards; today, 28,000 in the adult and youth prison systems. It has a $17 million budget, 17 staff attorneys and lethal clout. When Greg Strickland, DA of Kings County, prosecuted some Corcoran guards for the "greet the bus" incident noted above, the CCPOA waited till re-election time, and put $30,000 behind his opponent. Strickland went down. In July of this year, Bill Lockyer, California's current attorney general, tried to put through a bill giving him the power to police the prison system. Lockyer told legislators in Sacramento that local DAs had admitted to him privately they didn't dare go up against the CCPOA. Lockyer found out soon enough what they were talking about. His bill sailed through the state Senate, then, the guards' union sank it in the Assembly. He quoted one assemblyman, Jim Battin (who later denied it) as saying, "I'm sorry, but I'm whoring for the CCPOA." Battin got $105,000 from the guards' union in the last four years. The DAs say they're powerless. Lockyer got stiffed by the legislature. Can anyone curb the power of the prison guards? Don't look to Gov. Gray Davis. He collected an endorsement plus $2.3 million from the guards' union for his successful 1998 campaign, and more since. He's also said "thank you." Davis has vetoed a bill that would have shifted parole violators to community-based programs (which would have meant a lowered prison population, and hence, less needs for guards). He also vetoed a rescinding of the ban on journalists interviewing inmates face to face. He narrowly failed in a bid to give the CCPOA $4 million in public money for its legal defense fund.

Last Monday, after a poorly prepared prosecution and some curious decisions by the presiding judge, a Hanford jury found the four prison guards innocent. Those who have followed the cases closely reckon that another trial of Corcoran guards, upcoming in federal court in Fresno, will see similar acquittals.

So, here we have the gulag paradigm. The "war on drugs," plus savage sentencing laws, engender an ever-bloating prison population, hence, more prison guards, whose increasingly powerful union presses for even stiffer sentences and yet more prisons to provide yet more jobs. It will take a lot of political courage for someone to stop that kind of institutional momentum.

Alexander Cockburn is a columnist for The Nation and author of a syndicated column, essays and books. The Times Literary Supplement called him “the most gifted polemicist now writing in English.” To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.