The State Worker

California prison officers’ union says abuse probe violated members’ rights

A prison officer searches an inmate subject on his way to drop off his laundry, inside the High Desert State Prison near Susanville.
A prison officer searches an inmate subject on his way to drop off his laundry, inside the High Desert State Prison near Susanville. Sacramento Bee

The head of California’s correctional officers union contends that his members’ rights have been trampled by an out-of-control state oversight office that has grabbed power to muscle its alleged “burn a cop a week” policy.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association also has filed a Sacramento Superior Court lawsuit seeking money from the state prison department for going along with the state Office of the Inspector General’s allegedly illegal acts.

The inspector general’s office, which watches California’s prison system on behalf of the public, dismissed the union’s power-grab accusations in a report issued this week on prison officers’ alleged mistreatment of inmates at a remote prison. It called the claims “frivolous” and “unworthy of substantive response,” obstructionist and “an attempt to discredit” the office ahead of the report.

Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said he could not comment on the pending litigation.

CCPOA President Chuck Alexander was unavailable for comment, but his group gave documents to The Sacramento Bee detailing the union’s allegations that the inspector general has gone from watchdog of the prison system to an attack dog on prison officers.

The dispute began in the months leading up to the inspector general’s Wednesday report alleging that prison officers at High Desert State Prison in Susanville harassed and excessively used force on inmates and arranged prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in a “culture of racism.” The CCPOA, the report says, coached its members to thwart the probe and tried to find out who was giving information to investigators.

On many (department) disciplinary matters it seems the (inspector general’s office) has seen fit to appoint themselves as judge, jury and executioner.

CCPOA President Chuck Alexander in a Nov. 23 letter to Gov. Jerry Brown

The office “is pursuing a form of ‘mission creep ...’ ” Alexander wrote in a Nov. 23 letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, “by wresting control of CDCR’s investigations of alleged employee misconduct.” The department has internal affairs investigators who do that work, the union notes.

And the CCPOA has heard, Alexander wrote, that the inspector general has an internal “burn a cop a week” policy. He also alleged that the office “ignores sound investigation practices and flies in the face of the state’s policy of fair and progressive discipline.”

Acting wardens hoping for permanent assignment are particularly susceptible to pressure, Alexander told Brown. They risk a negative review, he said, should they go against to the inspector general’s directives or discipline recommendations.

“On many (department) disciplinary matters,” Alexander wrote, “it seems the (inspector general’s office) has seen fit to appoint themselves as judge, jury and executioner.”

The letter to Brown and the lawsuit, which was filed Nov. 24, both contend that officers have been illegally compelled to give what inspector general investigators called, “voluntary reviews” under threat of an administrative subpoena, often without legal representation.

When one officer asserted his right to having a representative in the room, the lawsuit alleges, an investigator said he was conducting a “review” and not an interview, so the right to representation didn’t apply.

The lawsuit details several instances of officers who were allegedly called in without notice to discuss their experiences at High Desert State Prison, declined to speak voluntarily and then received a subpoena or, in some cases, were ordered by their superiors to cooperate.

The report on High Desert State Prison alleges that the department’s internal investigations were flawed. It also defended excluding union representatives from interviews with the staff.

“There is a valid concern that CCPOA representatives were there not to protect any rights of the persons being interviewed, (who were never at peril of adverse action),” the report states, “but rather to find out which staff were telling on others, and what they were saying.”

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