The State Worker

Report: State prison awash in abuse, intimidation, secrecy

High Desert State Prison is in Susanville, Lassen County. Many of its employees are from the area.
High Desert State Prison is in Susanville, Lassen County. Many of its employees are from the area. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations

Prison officers at a remote state prison have excessively used force on inmates in a “culture of racism” nurtured in social isolation and encouraged by a union that coached its members to stymie investigators, according to a scorching report issued Wednesday.

The state Office of the Inspector General launched an eight-month investigation into reports that some officers at High Desert State Prison in Susanville abused disabled inmates or ignored their special needs, targeted sex offenders for assaults by other prisoners, used derogatory language and racial slurs to address inmates and lied or falsified documents to get inmates in trouble, among other allegations.

“(A) perception of insularity and indifference to inmates exists at High Desert State Prison,” the report states, “exacerbated by the unique geographical isolation, the high-stress environment, and a labor organization that opposes oversight to the point of actively discouraging members from coming forward with information that could in any way adversely affect another officer.”

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard, who announced his retirement earlier this month, said in an emailed statement that the agency “welcomes input” from the inspector general and that “significant steps” have already been taken to clean up the prison.

“We do not tolerate staff misconduct of any kind and will take appropriate action to hold all employees accountable,” Beard said.

Corrections has installed a new High Desert warden, is conducting its own investigations and it is training all prison staff on “appropriate communication and interaction with inmates,” department spokesman Jeffrey Callison said in an email.

The Sacramento Bee left a telephone message Wednesday afternoon with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents state correctional officers. The call was not returned.

Located in California’s northwest corner, High Desert and a second state correctional center there employ more locals than any other business in Susanville, population 16,000. Three-quarters of the nearly 1,000 staff are white, compared with just 18 percent of the prison’s 3,500 inmates. Many of the employees are from Susanville.

A section of town is reportedly known as “CO Row” for its concentration of prison-officer residents and their families. Outsiders to Susanville, the report says, tend to come and go.

The prison’s remote location and close ties to the immediate area, investigators found, breeds groups tightly bound by common social and work mores. Some of these groups, called “cars” within the correctional community, give preferential workplace treatment to each other, investigators found, and over time have developed an “us against them mindset” to cope with the stress of working with at a maximum security facility that is “constantly on high alert.”

The result: “An entrenched culture of self-protection and loyalty to (the prison) above everything else,” the report states, where employees are pressured to ignore or defend even the most egregious alleged abuses.

The report lists several examples:

▪ Staff allegedly watched and gave verbal commands, but did not use force, to stop several inmates who beat an inmate for 10 minutes. Unconscious, the beaten inmate went to a hospital “with serious bodily injuries, including a broken nose, broken orbital socket, and stitches to his left eye,” the report states.

▪ In a similar incident, staff gave allegedly told four inmates to stop beating and stabbing a fifth inmate on the prison yard, but avoided using force. When the attack was over, the report states, the victim had suffered “more than 30 lacerations and puncture wounds to his face, neck, stomach, head, and back areas.”

▪ During a routine search, an officer allegedly pulled an inmate’s pants and underwear up to the middle of his back, attempted to humiliate him and then threatened him. Later, when the inmate filed a complaint about the incident, the officer and another officer searched the inmate’s cell, then allegedly lied in writing that they had found alcohol.

▪ Officers allegedly gave a confidential criminal history about one inmate to others, after which he was assaulted.

▪ Officers allegedly approached an inmate, cursed at him, talked openly about his case and said he “deserves to die.” An officer then allegedly set up an assault on the inmate.

▪ When an inmate expressed concern for his safety, six officers allegedly pulled him out of his wheelchair, threw him in a cell and then damaged his wheelchair by throwing it against the closed cell door.

Investigators cite inmate interviews that describe a bigoted culture where white staff called blacks and Latinos the “n-word or wetbacks,” locked down non-white prisoners longer while they gave white inmates the best prison jobs and the most time in the chow hall.

Inmates with disabilities, investigators allege, were denied hearing-impairment accommodations, couldn’t get toileting supplies such as colostomy supplies and gloves, and complained of “improper delays” to receiving durable medical equipment that they needed.

Beyond the alleged physical abuses and threats, High Desert staff also allegedly mishandled inmate complaints. Several employees had complaints against them from several different inmates, according to investigators, but management “never correlated multiple complaints against officers.”

As investigators pressed the eight-month probe, the report states, they ran into “significant opposition” from the prison officers’ union. The reports includes a copy of an “urgent alert” CCPOA issued to members on Oct. 15 that advised officers to submit to an interview if ordered, but to “continually request the interview be suspended until you can talk to a legal representative.”

The report says that CCPOA President Chuck Alexander “attempted to interfere” with the investigation by complaining to Corrections top management that his members’ contracts and employee rights were being violated.

Last month the union filed a grievance against the department for going along with the inspector general’s investigation directives. CCPOA followed that with a Nov. 23 letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and every state legislator protesting that the inspector general had strayed from overseer to prosecutor. The next day the union filed a lawsuit claiming its members’ rights have been violated.

“The union’s staunch opposition to the OIG’s review of (the prison) demonstrates a clear hostility towards transparency and independent oversight in the prison system,” the report states. “The culture fostered by CCPOA is one of regression to prior periods ... when officers were actively encouraged to disrupt and sabotage legitimate inquiries into pressing issues of public policy.”