Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016 • Office of Inspector General report criticizes local prison

A 120-page report released last month by the California Office of the Inspector General alleges major problems at High Desert State Prison in Susanville as well as abuses by the correctional staff.

“CDCR welcomes input from the Office of the Inspector General,” said Jeffrey Beard, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Over the past eight months we have taken significant steps to investigate and improve operations at High Desert State Prison, and we will continue to do so. We do not tolerate staff misconduct of any kind and will take appropriate action to hold all employees accountable.”

Beard noted a number of actions the department has taken recently to address some of the concerns in the OIG report, including the appointment of a new acting warden at HDSP, prison investigators who are conducting audits and producing corrective action plans as well as staff training to improve communication and interaction between prison staff and the inmates.

The blistering OIG report follows a number of stories in the media and governmental reviews, including the 2007 PBS documentary, “Prison Town, USA,” a 2008 evaluation of HDSP’s Behavior Modification Unit Pilot Program by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a 2010 review of HDSP’s Behavior Modification Units by the California Senate, a 2011 OIG report on the state’s inmate appeal process, a 2011 OIG special review of civil rights violations suffered by inmates at HDSP, a May 2012 special review of HDSP by the OIG’s office and  media reports about the suicide of an HDSP correctional officer, including an article earlier this year published in Rolling Stone magazine.

The OIG report makes seven findings and offers 51 recommendations.

The OIG report alleges an entrenched culture at HDSP and a staff that lacks cultural diversity due to Susanville’s isolated location and employees who interact with each other “outside the prison on a daily basis,” a “code of silence” that makes it difficult for staff to report wrongdoing, alleged racism and implicit bias, a lack of appropriate programs for inmates and a labor union that allegedly is hostile to state investigators.

The OIG report also alleges misuse of the “R suffix,” a designation signifying “restricted custody,” generally intended for inmates who have committed specific sexual offenses.

The OIG report alleges the prison mismanages its sensitive-needs yards, designed to protect inmates who may be at risk because they have dropped out of gangs, been the victim of an assault, those inmates who testify in open court or are informants and inmates whose notoriety may put them at risk.

The OIG report also criticized the appeals process used by staff and inmates. Investigators looked into the number of use-of-force incidents at the prison and recommended cameras in all inmate areas and a pilot program requiring some staff to wear body cameras. The report alleges staff responds slowly to incidents, especially inmate-on-inmate assaults.

The OIG report alleges discrimination of inmates who suffer disabilities, in violation of a 1994 class action lawsuit and the resulting Armstrong Remedial Plan ordered by the court as well as alleged failures by the prison’s health care staff.

The OIG report also alleges problems with the prison’s internal affairs investigations, especially the use of special resident agents, officers who work within the prison they investigate.

“CDCR’s Office of Internal Affairs is investigating allegations of misconduct,” according to a statement from Beard. “Where specific employee misconduct is identified, appropriate action will be taken. CDCR is providing additional training to all High Desert staff on appropriate communication and interaction with inmates. To date, 500 staff members have been trained with more to follow in January.”

Finding 1
Entrenched culture
There is evidence that a perception of insularity and indifference to inmates exists a High Desert State Prison, exacerbated by the unique geographical isolation, the high-stress environment and a labor organization that opposes oversight.

Finding 2
Sex offenders and the R suffix
The R suffix has served as a bull’s-eye target on some inmates at HDSP and other prisons, some of whom have never been convicted of a sex offense.

Finding 3
Sensitive Needs yards
Based upon this review and observations prior to the OIG reports, the use of sensitive needs yards merits a complete overhaul.

Finding 4
Inmate appeals and staff complaints
The inmate appeals system at HDSP is not functioning adequately, and the staff complaint process is broken.

Finding 5
Use of force incidents
There are statistical trends, continued complaints and recent misconduct allegations that cause alarm about the use of force at HDSP.

Finding 6
Armstrong remedial plan — ADA inmates
In light of the Armstrong federal court’s ongoing monitoring, the OIG expressly refrains from making finding in this area and has reserved comment to those areas where OIG’s review has supported the plaintiffs’ last review and the department’s inadequate responses.

Finding 7
Internal Affairs investigations
The use of resident agents is a poor practice and should be discontinued, especially at HDSP in light of the issues that arose from the placement of a resident agent at that institution. Additionally, the process in place for allegation inquires at HDSP are inadequate and could be improved statewide. The OIG is monitoring several misconduct investigations that, but for this review, may not have been opened or investigated to the broadest extent appropriate.