September 21, 2010

Abuse rampant in California prisons

Mentally disabled prisoners in California are routinely beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted and deprived of food and sanitation. And in a "climate of indifference," prison officials have virtually ignored a 2001 court order mandating that they identify and protect these most vulnerable prisoners.

That was the opinion a federal judge issued last week in refusing to lift the 9-year-old court order. U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer's ruling followed a 6-day trial. The judge cited one instance in which a mentally disabled prisoner lost 35 pounds in five months because his cellmate was stealing his food and guards only laughed at him when he requested their help.

Sacramento Bee series: Prisoner abuse widespread

The judicial ruling echoes a stellar investigative series by reporter Charles Piller of the Sacramento Bee, who obtained and analyzed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed dozens of insiders, including confidential sources. The resulting picture of the inside of California prisons is not pretty:
  • Guards fabricating rule violations that extended the time of prisoners they didn't like, including prisoner activists
  • Prisoners losing "good time" credits for breaking minor rules, such as stepping across a line on the concrete
  • A rigged system in which nearly all prisoners charged with rule violations are found guilty, and appeals or complaints against guards are fruitless
  • Light discipline even when officers severely injure or kill prisoners
In one case, an officer needlessly punched a prisoner in the head, broke his elbows, and then lied about it in reports. The penalty? A 12-day suspension.

"The degree of civilization in a society
can be judged by entering its prisons."

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1860)

Undermining the appeals process, according to prisoners and former officers, is prisoners' fear of retaliation. Edgar Martinez, a former prisoner at High Desert, claimed that guards trampled his belongings and strip-searched him in a snow-covered yard. He said he watched guards provoke fights among inmates and tell others, "this [complaint] needs to go away or we're going to make your life a living hell." Afterward, Martinez said, he was too terrified to protest the mistreatment.

In a 2007 case, guards viciously beat several prisoners and denied them adequate medical treatment, yet not a single one filed a complaint, according to a former lieutenant named Gerald Edwards. Prisoners know that filing a complaint may lead to retaliation, including being shipped off to a different prison dominated by racial or ethnic enemies.

Behavior modification units a living hell

If routine conditions are bad, they are nothing compared to the cruelty, corruption and racism that Piller found when he investigated the so-called behavior modification units.

High Desert State Prison. Photo credit: Ben Kutchins, "Prison Town USA"

These are the units where recalcitrant prisoners, disproportionately African American, are subjected to "extreme isolation and deprivation -- long periods in a cell without education, social contact, TV or radio." A prisoner at the Salinas Valley unit went five months without exercise, sunlight or fresh air, according to his successful lawsuit. At the High Desert facility, prisoners described "hours-long strip-searches in a snow-covered exercise yard. They said correctional officers tried to provoke attacks between inmates, spread human excrement on cell doors and roughed up those who peacefully resisted mistreatment. One said guards contaminated prisoners' food with dirt and insects and starved those who complained.

Many of the prisoners' claims were backed by legal and administrative filings, and signed affidavits, which together depicted an environment of brutality, corruption and fear." As Edward Thomas, a former prisoner in the High Desert unit, described it, it was "like something that happens in a concentration camp."

"Black monkey unit": Abuse based on skin color

While about a third of California prisoners are black, blacks comprised a majority of prisoners subjected to the High Desert behavior unit. Guards referred to the unit as the "black monkey unit" and joked about how the "monkeys" are "always hanging around in there" -- a macabre reference to suicide attempts by prisoners of color.

"Guards seemed to view behavior modification as a license to make inmates as miserable as possible to compel obedience," Piller reported.

"Several inmates described an incident when staff left one inmate on the floor with rectal bleeding and refused to take him to get medical attention," according to the report of a group of state researchers. When guards arrived, "they said 'It's the f---ing n----- again, let him die.' And they left him there."

Their July 2007 visit to High Desert shook up the state researchers, said one, a sociologist who lectures at UC Davis and has more than 25 years of corrections research experience. Norm Skonovd said he had never seen a similar case. The researchers were allegedly chastised when they reported what they had seen, and were told to tone down and bury the prisoner allegations of abuse. Skonovd claims he suffered professional retaliation.

Correctional abuse: A cause of violence and recidivism?

Prisoners said the behavior modification units were so dreaded that they would act out so they would be placed in "the hole" instead. This, the researchers noted, could lead to more violence behind bars. Indeed, although the units were "sold to lawmakers as a way to reduce recidivism," their brutality would likely lead to more anger and, hence, more convicts returning to prison, the researchers theorized.

For you blog readers who aren’t from California, why should you care?

Because, like Milan is to the fashion industry, so California is a trendsetter for the global prison industry. You all know by now that the USA is the world's premiere Prison Nation, locking up 1 out of 100 residents. But if California were a country, we would rank seventh in the world -- behind the USA, China, Russia, and a handful of others. (That's by raw numbers. If you go by proportion of the population incarcerated, we fall further back; only one out of every 36 adult Californians is under correctional control, compared with a whopping one out of 13 adult Georgians. Hint: Maps showing rates of incarceration for U.S. states look eerily similar when juxtaposed with maps showing states' proportions of African Americans. Click on the links to see for yourself.)

I highly encourage all of you to read the Bee series (available HERE). Muckraking journalism is practically dead these days, with the daily news biz more and more resembling interchangeable strip malls along the highways -- corporate-owned, homogenized, and full of quick-and-dirty crime bytes. And the prison news beat is especially hard to cover, because access is so highly controlled and critical information subjected to censorship (as "Red Hog" reported in Committing Journalism).

I wonder how Dostoyevsky would have rated the civilization level of modern California.


Unknown said...

Having worked in the Canadian penitentiary system and having earlier seen an example of the state system for men, and also the vastly poorer conditions for women, while studying in the US, the entrenched and continuing issues you describe are certainly disturbing. Let's guess Dostoyevsky would have rated California's civilization quite low.
It is hardly an honor to be mentioned in this regard and based on raw numbers as barely above the seven darkest penal systems in the world. However, I suspect the changes will have to come from the very very top in this country and there seems little will politically to force that in our generation. Even in Canada it required strong action when a commission was ordered by the PM's office( see link below for Justice Arbour's 1995 response on certain events at the Prison for Women in Kingston ON.)

Corrections is a world in which very little light enters from the parallel societies they adjoin and very little personal light can remain consistently without support from the highest levels of the system. Having said that there are some very very good people who work in every correctional system in the world - at all levels- but with the power issues at play, power corruption is a daily possibility and requires an independent examiner and a real grievance system to have any hope of change.
Thomas Bryant
Risk Consultant
former Parole Officer- CSC PAC Region
now living in Greater Boston area
Linkedin id (Thomas J. Bryant)

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Mr. Bryant,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree completely. There are some fabulous people working in corrections. However, they are not getting the necessary support from the system to effectuate positive change. And, as you say, the realities of prison are largely hidden from the outside world. I recommend to my forensic students that they do some time behind bars because it is great experience, but that they don't become lifers because, as Karl Marx said, "being determines consciousness."

Unknown said...

Thanks Karen,
I meant to post this to Linkedin ACA group where I saw it but am glad it went directly to your blog so don't be surprised if you somehow see it again. I am a neophyte at all things internet but appreciated your article and so posted even though the profile think confused my aging brain! Please connect with me on Linked in at Thomas J. Bryant in case I don't find you there. Hpe to read more. Cheers T