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California Guards Abuse Young Prisoners

by W. Wisely

In a developing investigation eerily reminiscent of the abuse, corruption, and cover-ups at Corcoran prison, California Youth Authority guards stand accused of beating, and setting up fights between, youthful offenders at Youth Correctional Facility (YCF) in Chino, California. A six-month investigation disclosed that guards slammed handcuffed prisoners into walls, shot them with 37 millimeter riot guns at close range during cell extractions, threw prisoners into strip cells with urine and feces on the floors, and forcibly injected the young men with psychotropic medications so they would be easier to manage, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A report on the abuses was delivered to Gov. Gray Davis. In the report, state investigators described how guards "tested the readiness of [prisoners] to be returned to the mainline" by throwing them in with rival gang members or known enemies. Similar practices at Corcoran prison resulted in the shooting deaths of several prisoners. The trial of seven Corcoran guards for violating the civil rights of prisoners by setting up fights, shooting the prisoners, and covering up the corruption up is pending.

Prisoners at YCF, between 12 and 25 years old, tried to complain about the abuses using the facility's administrative grievance system. But, YCF staff and administrators refused to listen or investigate, and never forwarded the complaints up the chain of command as required by the department's regulations. The ongoing investigation at YCF will probably spread to other California Youth Authority prisons. Davis administration officials stated that one ranking administrator at YCF has been removed from his job as a result of the early findings of the investigation.

"You have essentially a hermetically sealed environment," a governor's spokesperson said on condition of anonymity. "If there's abuse, if the institution lacks integrity and if [the young prisoners] are being injured or mistreated and there's no way to illuminate it and stop it, then it has a frightening dimension. This is scary stuff." Gov. Davis gave inspector general Steven White orders to thoroughly investigate and report the abuses at YCF. The Democrat governor said in a letter September 24, 1999, that the investigation "has yielded very serious findings that place the safety of both [young prisoners] and staff at risk." In that letter to Robert Presley, Secretary of the state's Youth and Adult Correctional Agency which oversees the Youth Authority, Davis ordered officials to take "swift action" to end the corruption and institute changes designed to stop it from reoccurring in the future.

Don Novey, president and rabid defender of the state's political powerful prison guards union, said he knew about the investigation, but was unaware of the details. "All I do is represent [guards]. I don't cause any of this. No one from management has talked to me," Novey claimed. Perhaps that's because no one in management acknowledged that there were any problems at the youth prison. Frank Alarcon, former director of the youth authority, said reports of abusive guards never "came to [his] attention." "I'd want to see all the facts before I react too strongly," Alarcon, now a top level administrator with the Florida juvenile justice system, said.

In August, the Times reported that Stanford University tested psychiatric drugs on dozens of teen prisoners in experiments the youth authority now concedes violated state law. [PLN, Dec. 99] In 1997, the agency and the university conducted research on the youthful offenders which the director said was "not in compliance" with a statute barring medical testing on people in prison.

White, a former Sacramento County prosecutor, sent agents to YCF last April to investigate reports of the use of excessive force. The investigators were swarmed by staff and prisoners alike who told them horror stories of abuse. In their report, investigators described the "Friday night fights" set up by guards in the youth prison's notorious 0 and R Building. 0 and R is used as the hole, or security housing unit, at YCF. Young prisoners are locked in old, dark cells 23-1/2 hours a day for months at a time in 0 and R. The fights were arranged by guards to test whether prisoners were ready to be released back into the general population.

These tests consisted of two rival gang members or known enemies being placed in the same small room, cuffs removed, and watched for ten to fifteen minutes. At least a quarter of the time, fights broke out, and guards used pepper spray and riot guns to stop them. Hundreds of young men were involved in the incidents. The guards knew which prisoners were guaranteed to fight each other, and set the test up anticipating entertainment, according to the investigators. "In many of these cases, it's virtually a 100% certainty [a fight would happen] because if you put a Crip and Blood together they are going to fight," said an administration official who is familiar with the probe and status report. Davis ordered Presley to "immediately discontinue" the practice.

Even by CYA official estimates, at least 10% of the young offenders housed in YCF's 0 and R Building have serious mental health problems with "open ended drug prescriptions," the official disclosed. When a mentally ill prisoner acted out, investigators found, guards forcibly restrained and injected them with powerful psychiatric drugs. In other cases, guards forced teenagers to sit naked in a stripped cell for 24 hours. Guards often handcuffed prisoners, led them to blind spots out of the range of video cameras, and "slammed" them face first into walls or onto the floor.

Michael Bustamante, Gov. Davis' press secretary, said, "The findings that have been uncovered by the inspector general are very disturbing, and it appears that some of these problems have been going on for some time." Those of us who spent most of our youth in such gulags already knew that. The question is, now that some of the abuse has been revealed, it remains to be seen whether, once the media attention wanes, the push for permanent reform does, too.

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