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California’s Inspector General Cites Abuses at High Desert State Prison

A special report by Robert A. Barton, Inspector General of the State of California, released in December 2015, highlighted numerous problems at the High Desert State Prison in Susanville. The California Senate Committee on Rules had requested the report to study allegations of excessive use of force against prisoners, the adequacy of internal reviews of excessive force complaints, “protection of inmates from assault and harm by others,” and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act.

The High Desert facility, located in rural northeast California, has a population of 3,500 high- and medium-security prisoners. Designed to hold 2,300, the prison also has two buildings devoted to those requiring protective custody. The report noted serious, institution-wide deficiencies in internal security procedures as well as a culture of abuse and racism by staff members.

According to the 120-page report there was a “perception of insularity and indifference to inmates,” partially due to the prison’s isolated location but also as a result of “a labor organization that opposes oversight to the point of actively discouraging members from coming forward with information that could adversely affect another officer.”

The report also cited “accounts from both staff and inmates [that] depict a culture of indifference perpetuated by at least some staff. Reports from inmates of appeals being read and destroyed and officers using profanity and derogatory language directed at inmates were corroborated by at least some staff.” With most of the prisoners being black or Hispanic and most of the guards white, there were assertions that guards freely used the “N” word.

Problems were also identified with the “sensitive-needs” yards, used to house prisoners at risk from other, more violent prisoners; the yards were found to have as many violent prisoners as the rest of the facility, “with gang politics meting out abuse and punishment for drug and gambling debts and extorting vulnerable inmates for protection.”

Another issue addressed by the report was the aggressiveness of the guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, in attempting to suppress any investigation into staff misconduct – which included the CCPOA allegedly telling its members not to speak to investigators unless a union representative was present. The report described such tactics as trying to “find out which staff were telling on others, and what they were saying.”

The Inspector General’s findings came as no surprise to former California prison warden Ed Caden, now an attorney, who said the problems at the High Desert facility – and by extension other state prisons – would not be solved without creating “an institutional culture of ethics and professionalism that starts at the very top.”

Sources:,,, “2015 Special Review: High Desert State Prison,” CA Office of the Inspector General (Dec. 2015)

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