California state Senate officials back prison abuse probe

The controversy over claims of abusive and racist treatment of prison inmates escalated Tuesday when state Senate leaders stepped in, saying they will ensure a complete investigation takes place and its results are made public.

In a letter to the governor, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Public Safety Committee Chairman Mark Leno asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger what corrections officials knew about the allegations and how his administration plans to respond.

"We are deeply concerned about the allegations of abuse and racist treatment of inmates at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation behavior management units at several institutions covered in the recent Sacramento Bee series," they wrote. "We are even more troubled by the accusations that investigations into these allegations were either ignored, or worse, covered up."

The Bee reported evidence of brutality and cruelty by correctional officers at a special behavior modification unit at High Desert State Prison in Susanville – including withheld medical care, racial slurs and corruption of the system by which inmates can protest improper treatment. The stories described extreme isolation, idleness and deprivation in similar units at other prisons.

Steinberg, in an interview, called the allegations "stark and shocking."

Earlier on Tuesday, Schwarzenegger also expressed concern.

"Prisons must be managed for the safety of staff and inmates and to rehabilitate offenders," the governor said. "The (corrections) department has zero tolerance for abuse and we support their vigorous and comprehensive review of the matter."

Prison officials long knew about the allegations of abuse, yet did nothing about them. The Bee reported that corrections researchers pushed for a formal investigation, but apparently were suppressed.

"There appear to be charges of retaliation against employees who have attempted to bring these issues to light," Steinberg and Leno wrote. "The Senate intends to fully examine these allegations."

Corrections undersecretary Scott Kernan initially discounted the claims as typical inmate gripes. But on Monday he said the department's internal affairs office would mount a full-scale investigation into the abuse claims and into the possibility that researchers were retaliated against.

The department said results of its investigation would not be made public, but Steinberg disagreed.

Private personnel information about prison guards should be redacted, he said, but the public should know "what steps the department intends to take to ensure that that the allegations, if actually proven, are not repeated."

In response, Kernan said he welcomed the Legislature's review but criticized The Bee for making his staff's jobs harder with a "one-sided" and "biased" story.

Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Leno, D-San Francisco, requested an immediate briefing from the corrections agency and the Office of the Inspector General, an independent agency that investigates the prison system.

Steinberg said that revelations of inmates with serious mental health problems being housed in the behavior units "are another stark reminder of how deficient we are in regards to mental health in the department of corrections."

The units' continued use of isolation and deprivation, he added, run "contrary to proven, effective mental health treatment."

Mental health should be a higher priority in the system both for ethical reasons, Steinberg said, and to give inmates a better chance of success back in their communities after their release.

Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, chairman of the Assembly Select Committee on the Prison and Rehabilitation Reform, called the abandonment of classes in anger management and substance abuse, originally viewed as crucial to modifying behavior, "another example of the fact that our prisons are broken."

Steinberg cautioned that the probe could take months to complete, due to the complexity and range of allegations. But he added, "I guarantee that we will be persistent."

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