UC Berkeley's Behind Bars

What Mehserle faces in state prison

Though Johannes Mehserle won’t be sentenced until August, his involuntary manslaughter conviction could mean that he’ll do time in a state prison. Should that be the ex-BART policeman’s fate, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation won’t be caught by surprise.

Spokeswoman Terry Thornton couldn’t comment on Mehserle’s case specifically, but she said that while there are risks for former law enforcement officers in prison, there is a system to keep high-profile offenders safe.

“There are some inmates who are warped enough to want to take Charles Manson down,” said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the CDCR. “They think they’ll go down in the history books.” Such “celebrity” trials draw considerable attention inside prison walls, Thornton said, and can result in violence and even murder at the hands of inmates. Infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered 17 people between 1978 and 1991, was beaten to death by a fellow inmate in a Wisconsin prison three years after his sentencing.

Thornton said the CDCR can protect inmates using options that range from separation in specially designated yards, transfer to another prison–or another state altogether–and, in extreme cases, administrative segregation–better known as solitary confinement.

The CDCR determines where inmates will spend their sentence during the reception process. According to Thornton, reception involves an “exhaustive” evaluation of every inmate, during which staff examine everything from the nature of the crime and gang affiliation to race and health. CDCR counselors then use the information to decide where an inmate should be placed. If they find a factor that would put an inmate at risk, they can request that the inmate be kept out of the general population.

Thornton said the most common way to keep high-profile inmates like former law enforcement officers safe is to place them in what are called “sensitive-needs yards.” Ex-gang members, white-collar criminals — such as doctors or lawyers — and people convicted of sex crimes are among those who receive this kind of treatment.

Currently, 28,508 inmates serve out their sentences in sensitive-needs yards across California.

Most prison violence can be attributed to race-based gangs, Public Information Officer Lt. Darren Chamberlain said, and sensitive-needs yards are managed so that these gangs don’t form. Chamberlain has worked at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad for the past seven years, and the prison houses about 2,500 inmates in a sensitive-needs yard.

Chamberlain said violence still crops up, but it’s less frequent and is more likely to come from a personal disagreement rather than gang influence. He said major violence is “fairly nonexistent,” but that doesn’t mean the yard is always peaceful.


Matt Buxton