Inspector General Alleges Racism and Abuse at High Desert State Prison

Friday, December 18, 2015
High Desert State Prison (photo: John Locher, Associated Press)

High Desert State Prison in rural Susanville has a “culture of racism and lack of acceptance of ethnic differences” that fosters rampant abuse by guards of the mostly-minority inmate population, according to a report (pdf) from California's Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

The 3,482-inmate prison is three-quarters black or Latino, while the staff is the opposite. The incarcerated are medium- and high-security prisoners. Two buildings are designated for inmates needing protective custody. The six-month investigation, which met strong resistance from the guards’ union, found a “high-level of violence.”

The staff complaint process and inmate appeals system don't work, according to the report, the most vulnerable members of the population are regularly exposed to physical danger and inmates are pitted against each other. This dysfunctional system exists within an “entrenched culture of self-protection” among officers. “There is evidence that a perception of insularity and indifference to inmates exists at High Desert State Prison.”

The report singled out as especially egregious, the practice of affixing the “R” suffix to an inmate’s ID, advertising their restricted custody for certain sex offenses and other transgressions frowned upon by prisoners. That makes them a “bull’s-eye target” for other inmates, especially in the “sensitive needs yard (SNY) facility, which is just as violent as the general population (GP) yards, with gang politics meting out abuse and punishment for drug and gambling debts and extorting vulnerable inmates for protection.”

Very few staff complaints are referred for investigation. Those that are don't get monitored properly. There is no process for tracking which guards might have the most complaints lodged against them. The report says there is statistical evidence, interviews and misconduct allegations “that cause alarm about the use of force.”

Leadership at the prison has been a revolving door of six wardens in the past eight years, according to the OIG.. The Los Angeles Times says there have been seven. The last warden left a few weeks ago after 10 months on the job.

The investigation was ordered by the California State Senate after a steady stream of complaints and media reports about allegations of abuse and misconduct. The report includes them in a review of the public scrutiny, inside and outside the corrections system, of problems at the prison.

Among them is a 2012 OIG special review of the prison “to determine whether the staff intentionally or negligently allowed inmates to identify sex offender inmates, thereby subjecting inmates to potential harm.” The investigators couldn’t confirm all the allegations, but “the volume and relative consistency among the inmate complaints gave credence to the existence of a problem within the Level IV SNY facility.”

That “should have at least alerted the department and caused some action to make sure such practices were not occurring.” It did not. “It appears that no action was taken,” the new report says.

The OIG also said it was monitoring three cases of disabled inmates allegedly being treated badly as part of a broader inquiry into whether there is a “general culture of indifference to the plight of severely disabled inmates” at the prison. 

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) said it has already fixed a bunch of the stuff mentioned in the report over the past eight months and will work to improve the rest.

Striking a slightly more sour note of cooperation, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in Sacramento County Superior Court against the OIG for allegedly not permitting officers the benefit of legal counsel or union representation during interviews. The union wants a halt to further interviews unless those conditions are met.

The lawsuit also claimed that OIG unconstitutionally used administrative subpoenas to coerce information from officers who did not agree to voluntarily answer questions.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Rebukes Rural Prison for Racism (by Timothy Williams, New York Times)

State Investigators Cite Culture of Abuse, Racism by High Desert State Prison Guards (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

Report: State Prison Awash in Abuse, Intimidation, Secrecy (by Jon Ortiz, Sacramento Bee)

California Prison Officers’ Union Says Abuse Probe Violated Members’ Rights (by Jon Ortiz, Sacramento Bee)

Special Review: High Desert State Prison Susanville, CA (Office of the Inspector General) (pdf)

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