Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Guards' racism, misconduct plague California prison, report finds

A scathing state report calls for management and other changes at California's remote High Desert State Prison

Guards at an isolated state prison have created a "culture of racism," engage in alarming use of force against inmates and have a code of silence encouraged by the union that represents most corrections officers, the California inspector general said Wednesday.

The scathing report calls for management and other changes at High Desert State Prison in the northeast corner of the state.

Jeffrey Beard
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

More broadly, the report finds rising violence statewide in special housing units designed to protect vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, gang dropouts and prisoners with physical disabilities.

Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, who is stepping down from his job on Jan. 1, said the department has already taken steps involving employee training, management changes and investigations of alleged wrongdoing.

"We do not tolerate staff misconduct of any kind," Beard said in a statement.

The months-long investigation was sparked by reports that some guards at the Susanville prison mistreated inmates with disabilities and set up sex offenders for assaults because of the nature of their crimes.

The investigation also found evidence of "a culture of racism and lack of acceptance of ethnic differences." Just 18 percent of the prison's inmates are white, the report said, compared with 74 percent of guards and 89 percent of supervisors.

"Blacks were treated very differently," one former inmate said in an interview with Barton's office. "They are on lockdowns a lot longer; they go to the hole for the smallest of reasons; and officers messed with their food."

Citing interviews with inmates, the report said corrections officers called inmates “the N-word or wetbacks.”

Inspector General Robert Barton said the California Correctional Peace Officers Association advised members not to cooperate and filed a lawsuit and collective bargaining grievance in a bid to hinder the investigation.

The union sent a letter last month to Gov. Jerry Brown and every state lawmaker in what Barton called "the latest strong-arm tactic" to obstruct the investigation and discredit the inspector general before the report was released.

Union President Chuck Alexander's letter to Brown accuses Barton of taking a prosecutorial "burn a cop a week" approach to overseeing the corrections department. Union spokeswoman Nichol Gomez-Pryde said the union's only interest is in protecting its members' legal rights.

The inspector general's report also recommends changes statewide to make it tougher for employees to learn what crime an inmate committed.

Guards can now use an electronic state database to easily see which inmates have an "R'' coding that designates a sex offender. Some spread that information, knowing sex offenders are often marked for retribution, the inspector general found.

It also called for an overhaul of special housing units designed to protect the most vulnerable inmates as the department combats a wave of violence and gang activity in what were supposed to be safe areas.

"This dangerous staff misconduct has been tolerated for too long," Rebekah Evenson, an attorney with the nonprofit Prison Law Office who represents inmates, said in a statement. "The culture of abuse at High Desert endangers prisoners and the prison staff."

She called for the department to create a strong external monitor to oversee reforms.

Blacks were treated very differently. They are on lockdowns a lot longer; they go to the hole for the smallest of reasons; and officers messed with their food.

Former inmate

High Desert State Prison

The 20-year-old High Desert State Prison houses high- and medium-security inmates, according to its California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation web page and has two buildings set aside for inmates who require protective custody. It holds nearly 3,500 prisoners, although it was designed for 2,324, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The report came more than a decade after the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation tried to stamp out a culture in which prison guards protect one another when they witness wrongdoing.

Barton's investigation, which was conducted at the behest of the state Senate, follows years of complaints and media reports alleging problems at the facility.

"From the casual use of derogatory racial terms to de facto discrimination, it became apparent to the OIG that there is a serious issue" at the prison, Barton said, referring to the Office of Inspector General. "The institution's leadership appears oblivious to these problems."

The report says some problems at the High Desert facility evolved because the prison is so isolated about 90 miles northwest of Reno, Nevada.

Susanville has fewer than 16,000 people, and High Desert and the neighboring California Correctional Center are its largest employers. Workers form tight-knit social groups known as "cars" that can foster a code of silence and make it difficult to report wrongdoing, the inspector general said.

He found that the prison's nearly 3,500 inmates won't report abuse because they fear word will spread among employees and lead to retaliation.

The "staff complaint process is broken," with few employee complaints investigated, the report states.

Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, who heads the Senate Public Safety Committee, said the report shows "an insular culture that is in desperate need of reform."

Wire services

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