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California’s Behavior Modification Programs – Abuse of Prisoners, Racism and Cover-Ups

Ill-conceived experiments in behavior modification by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) have led to allegations of racism, abuse of prisoners, retaliation and cover-ups, plus a state Senate inquiry.

In 2005 and 2006, the CDCR initiated pilot programs in behavior modification at six facilities, including the High Desert State Prison (HDSP) in Susanville.

Behavior modification is linked to a school of psychological thought which holds that a person’s behavior can be influenced by application of appropriately timed rewards and punishments. It is derived primarily from the early 20th century work of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, and was later popularized by American psychologist B.F. Skinner. In behavior therapy, emotional problems are considered the consequences of faulty acquired behavior patterns or the failure to learn effective responses. The aim of behavior therapy, therefore, is to change negative behavior patterns.

There is little or no concern for unconscious processes (i.e., thoughts and feelings), which is the traditional focus of psychoanalysis, nor is there concern about achieving new insights or effecting fundamental personality changes.

In the Skinnerian approach, desired behavioral responses are reinforced by being rewarded while those that are not desired are punished. According to the theory, the frequency of rewarded behavior will increase; conversely, the frequency of behavior that is punished will decrease.

Using such techniques, Skinner was able to train laboratory animals to perform complex and sometimes amazing acts – in one striking example, he taught pigeons to play table tennis. Subsequent researchers employed electric shocks to condition animals to experience fear in situations that ordinarily would not have provoked anxiety.

In 1983, the CDCR implemented a relatively benign version of Skinnerian behavior modification techniques, the so-called “Inmate Work/Training Incentive Program” (IWTIP). Under the terms of the IWTIP, prisoners who worked or went to school received more sentence reduction credits than those who refused to participate in work or education/training programs. An intermediate amount of sentence reduction credits, on the other hand, was offered to prisoners willing to participate in such programs but who, due to the limited number of available positions, were not yet assigned.

A system of privileges was also built into the IWTIP. The idea was simple from a Skinnerian viewpoint: the more a prisoner participated in programs, the more he or she could enjoy certain privileges. Those privileges included overnight visits with spouses, parents, siblings and children; regular contact visits with family and friends; telephone access and access to the recreation yard.

The problem with the system of privileges, however, was that prison rules prohibited prisoners from visiting, using the phone or going to the yard during work or school hours.
This was a sort of Catch-22 – in order to gain more privileges, one had to work or go to school. But if one went to work or school, one couldn’t easily partake of those privileges.

The IWTIP thus came to be regarded by prisoners as a work “disincentive” program.
Gradually, over the years, the distinction between prisoner workers and non-workers, at least as far as privileges were concerned, disappeared. When the IWTIP began, visitation was offered every day of the week and family visits could be enjoyed by virtually every prisoner. Today, visits are offered only on weekends and family visits are available to only a small percentage of prisoners – those who are not excluded by virtue of their criminal and/or disciplinary histories.

Similarly, over time, as the public’s appetite for longer sentences increased, the availability of sentence reduction credits decreased. Whereas the IWTIP once offered the majority of prisoners the opportunity to cut their sentences in half, it now makes that opportunity available to far fewer prisoners. To those now convicted of crimes deemed “serious” or “violent” under state law, the best the IWTIP can offer is the opportunity to cut sentences by just 15 percent.

Fast forward to 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499 (2005) [PLN, July 2005, p.33], that California’s de facto policy of using race to segregate prisoners by housing assignment was presumptively unconstitutional. The CDCR responded by adopting an integrated housing policy, now codified at Section 3269.1 of Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations. [See: PLN, April 2006, p.20].

Under that policy, a prisoner who refuses to be housed with a prisoner of a different race will be subject to disciplinary action. After a second refusal, a prisoner becomes eligible for placement in a more restrictive housing unit.

Knowing that resistance to the integrated housing policy would be difficult to overcome, the CDCR once again turned to Skinnerian behavior modification techniques. This time, prison officials focused on disincentives to bad behavior. That focus led to the development of a pilot program, the Behavior Modification Unit, which was later renamed the Behavior Management Unit (BMU) – no doubt to distance the program from some of the less savory implications historically associated with behavior modification techniques.

The BMU program is now codified at Section 3334 of Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations. Although originally designed to deal with prisoners who refused to comply with the CDCR’s integrated housing policy, reasons for placing prisoners in the BMU now include engaging in a pattern of gang-related or otherwise disruptive activity. In practice, the BMU has been used to transition prisoners from confinement in Security Housing Units (SHUs) before returning them to general population status.

Conditions in the BMU have been so harsh, however, that in some cases BMU prisoners have assaulted staff in order to get transferred to more traditional disciplinary or administrative segregation (ad seg) units.

For starters, a prisoner is deprived of virtually all personal property upon placement in the BMU. While the same is also true upon placement in ad seg units, a prisoner in the BMU – unlike his ad seg counterpart – is constantly threatened with the possibility that because he has not complied with the BMU “step process,” his property will be removed from temporary storage and sent home at his expense, or “donated” or destroyed.

An Individualized Treatment Plan (ITP) is developed for each prisoner placed in the BMU. The ITP may include a requirement to participate in “cognitive behavior programs,” “life skills” such as anger management, and other self-help groups.

To get out of the BMU a prisoner must progress through a series of four steps with the goal of advancing from one step to the next every 30 days and thereby completing the ITP. Failure to progress in this step process constitutes grounds for rejection from the BMU program and, thus, loss of stored personal property.

“Rejection” from the BMU program further means that the prisoner is in a sort of purgatory. He cannot return to the general population without first completing the established ITP; therefore, after being rejected from the BMU program, a prisoner has no choice but to request reinstatement in the program. Unless, that is, he is willing to take more drastic measures such as assaulting a staff member to obtain placement in an ad seg unit.

In steps 1 and 2 of the BMU program, a prisoner is placed in privilege group “C” (the most restrictive privilege group designation). Consistent with that designation there are no family visits, no phone calls or packages, and the same amount of yard access and canteen as a prisoner in ad seg. Curiously, a prisoner in ad seg is entitled to receive one 30-pound personal property package per year – which is one more than a BMU prisoner.

In step 3 of the BMU program, a prisoner is upgraded to privilege group “B.” Step 3 BMU prisoners receive privileges to the same extent as prisoners willing to work but, due to the limited number of positions available, have yet to be actually assigned. In practice this tends to be the same level of privileges afforded to privilege group “A” prisoners who work or go to school, except that a non-worker/non-student is allowed to buy only half the amount of canteen items that a prisoner worker or student can purchase.

In step 4 of the BMU program, a prisoner completes the ITP and is then returned to general population housing. Only then is his stored personal property returned.

At least that is the way the BMU operates on paper. In reality, before the parameters were codified in December 2008, the BMU program worked very differently. Indeed, according to a series of investigative reports by the Sacramento Bee, conditions in the BMU at HDSP were nothing short of “cruel and unusual.”

In July 2007, the CDCR sent a team of state researchers to assess HDSP’s BMU program. The team included sociologist Norman Skonovd, who also lectures at the University of California at Davis and has more than 25 years of corrections research experience.
Skonovd and his colleagues uncovered allegations concerning mistreatment of prisoners, cruelty by guards and racism.

The allegations of abuse, obviously, came from prisoners. While recognizing that prisoners are not always the most reliable sources, Skonovd and his coworkers nonetheless found the prisoners credible due to the consistency of their stories, which were recorded in separate interviews.

In one March 2007 incident, when prisoner Jason Brannigan did not return his food tray after two or three minutes – the time typically allotted for eating meals in the BMU – guards pepper-sprayed him directly in his face, then pulled him through the unit naked with his hands and feet shackled.

“They’re walking me on the chain and it felt just like ... slaves again,” recalled Brannigan, who is black, when later interviewed by the Sacramento Bee. “Like I just stepped off an auction block.”

Brannigan’s then-girlfriend, Brandy Frye, wrote a letter in June 2007 – accompanied by eight handwritten statements from BMU prisoners alleging specific instances of staff misconduct – alerting prison officials to the “excessive abuse” being inflicted on the men in the BMU at HDSP. In her letter, Frye alleged that some men were being given “wrong medications or wrong doses” of prescribed medications; that others had been extracted from their cells with “heavy doses of pepper spray and excessive force” for not returning their food trays in the allotted time frame; and that they were forcibly “stripped naked, handcuffed, waist/leg shackled, physically and brutally beaten” before being returned to their cells.

Frye’s letter further claimed that prisoners’ food was regularly contaminated with bird feces; that prisoners were not allowed outside for exercise, except as punishment; and that BMU prisoners were placed outside in the snow for periods of two hours, clad only in boxer shorts and shower shoes, for making too much noise.

Overall, Frye complained, the men in the BMU had been “stripped of their dignity and self worth.” Many had responded by “resort[ing] to taking anti-psychotic drugs just to cope,” and “now they walk around like zombies,” she wrote.

Frye’s letter elicited a series of pass-the-buck replies, first by a special agent from the CDCR’s Office of Internal Affairs, who indicated that the warden at HDSP would “evaluate the complaint and determine ... if an investigation is required,” and later by HDSP’s then-Chief Deputy Warden Mike McDonald, who suggested – falsely – that the allegations of misconduct described in Frye’s letter had in fact been investigated.

“All allegations of staff misconduct are taken seriously,” McDonald wrote, “and many of the allegations you speak of in your letter have been investigated via the [prisoner] appeals process.”

The investigation had determined, McDonald added, that “HDSP staff is following the policies of CDCR.” McDonald suggested that a further “inquiry” would be conducted, but then added, “However, you will not be informed of the results of the inquiry or the nature of [any] corrective action [that may be] taken.”

Yet when later questioned during a state Senate inquiry into the CDCR’s response to the allegations raised in Frye’s letter, McDonald admitted not only that HDSP had not investigated her allegations, but that any such internal investigation had to be referred to the Office of Internal Affairs – the very office that had referred Frye’s letter to him in the first place.

A seven-month-long state Senate inquiry found that neither Frye’s letter nor the dozens of grievances submitted by BMU prisoners at HDSP, nor even the efforts of Skonovd and another state researcher, who reported to CDCR supervisors the abuse allegations they had uncovered, triggered any sort of investigation.

“Legislators don’t like being misinformed in such a fashion,” said Senate Public Safety Committee chairman Mark Leno.

Also, according to the Sacramento Bee, CDCR Research Director Steven Chapman chastised Skonovd and his colleagues for highlighting the allegations of abuse in their report. Ultimately, at the direction of CDCR managers, those allegations were relegated to an appendix in the report in an effort “to hide the [abuse] findings.”

For Skonovd, who came to believe that BMU guards viewed “behavior modification” as a license to make prisoners as miserable as possible and thereby to compel obedience, reporting the abuse allegations became a “matter of conscience.” In the spring of 2008 he reported those allegations to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the agency charged with overseeing the CDCR’s operations.

Chapman responded, according to Skonovd, by retaliating against him by denying him promotions that he deserved.

Subsequently, CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan discounted the abuse allegations as “typical inmate gripes.” He criticized the Bee for making the jobs of CDCR staff more difficult with the paper’s “one-sided” and “biased” reporting.

That reporting, between May and August 2010, exposed evidence that HDSP guards tried to provoke prisoners into attacking one another, spread human excrement on cell doors, conducted strip searches outside in the snow, and interfered with the grievance process by filing false reports, destroying prisoners’ complaints and intimidating prisoners who filed grievances. It also exposed evidence that blacks were disproportionately targeted for placement in the BMU program at HDSP and that guards referred to the BMU as the “black monkey unit.”

In the end, Senator Leno and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg criticized the CDCR for responding to the allegations of misconduct in the BMU in ways that were “inadequate, ad hoc, and displayed the absence of a uniform and reliable system of response, referral and follow-through.” They wrote that the CDCR’s response failed “to ensure [that] corroborated abuses were addressed and corrected.” The senators recommended changes “to ensure that allegations of abuse and misconduct in correctional institutions are addressed swiftly, systematically, and fairly for all involved.”

Suggesting that those words were not empty rhetoric, Senator Leno said in a December 2010 interview with the Sacramento Bee that the Senate would use its budgetary and oversight powers to ensure that “meaningful change” occurs in the CDCR.

Importantly, Senators Steinberg and Leno also criticized the OIG for its “misguided assumption” that the CDCR effectively investigates and responds to complaints and allegations of misconduct. “[I]t is our view,” they wrote, “that an essential and basic function of the OIG is to provide an independent assessment of CDCR operations, and not rely on the very systems it is supposed to monitor.” In other words, that the OIG should do its job. The Senate inquiry was spurred by the Bee’s news reporting and by advocacy efforts by prisoners’ rights supporters, including the American Friends Service Committee.

The BMU at HDSP and two other California state prisons have been closed – reportedly due to budgetary reasons.

Sources: Sacramento Bee, letter from Senators Steinberg and Leno to CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate and OIG Inspector General David Shaw (December 1, 2010)

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