The California prison system’s use of tough inmates to help keep order behind bars led to the slaying of a guard, say state investigators quoted by the Associated Press. The FBI is looking into whether the practice contributed to a second killing. Although the practice is banned in some states, California’s top corrections official defends the limited use of “peacekeepers.” These influential inmates are entrusted to help the staff, smooth racial tension, and control fellow prisoners. Critics worry that the freedom accorded peacekeepers lets them run drugs, order inmate assaults, and commit other crimes. The practice is under scrutiny after two California slayings in which high-ranking gang members serving as peacemakers are alleged to have played a role.
Corrections director Roderick Q. Hickman acknowledged that prison officials use peacekeepers to pass messages and get feedback. He likened the practice to street cops’ use of informants. He also conceded that the practice has its hazards. “The problem becomes when people make errors in those processes,” he said. With 168,000 inmates, California’s prison system is the nation’s largest and has suffered several recent scandals. Poor medical care and living conditions prompted a federal takeover of health services.