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Report: “Culture of Racism,” Frequent Use of Force at Northern California Prison

by Lonnie Burton

In December 2015, California's Office of the Inspector General reported there was a “culture of racism and lack of acceptance of ethnic differences” among guards at the High Desert State Prison (HDSP), who engaged in “alarmingly” frequent uses of force against prisoners. That report prompted state corrections officials to commission an external review of the facility, which is located about 200 miles north of Sacramento.

Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan ordered the outside review in March 2016, and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), which conducted the investigation, published their results on September 23, 2016. The findings of the report, which cost California taxpayers $188,000, were wide-ranging and revealed what was described as a prison staffed by employees “without a clear sense of direction” who viewed prisoners as “little more than wild animals.”

HDSP was designed to hold about 2,200 prisoners but at the time of the study housed more than 3,400. Around three-quarters of the employees at the facility are white, while more than three-quarters of the prison population is black and Hispanic. The facility holds some of the state’s “toughest” prisoners, the report said, and guards rarely interacted with them.

“It was as if the officers and the inmates had reached an agreement,” ASCA investigators wrote. “You can do your thing and we’ll do ours, so long as you don’t get violent.” Because staff viewed prisoners as “dangerous animals,” the guards did little to prevent violence, instead keeping their distance until something happened. When violence did erupt, which the report said occurred almost daily, guards reacted “quickly en mass to suppress it with force.”

The report blamed the caustic culture on a lack of communication and leadership at the facility, noting that HDSP had had 15 wardens in the past 21 years, including five during a recent 18-month period.

That lack of stable leadership “has left the staff without a clear sense of direction, and in particular unaware of the change toward rehabilitation in the department’s mission,” the report stated. “In their view, efforts to rehabilitate inmates of the type housed at HSDP ... are both futile and dangerous.”

The report went on to find little evidence of what it called “overt racism,” but did note that minority prisoners had fewer job and programming opportunities than their white counterparts. In addition, the ASCA found black prisoners were disproportionately likely to be disciplined and face use-of-force incidents.

The investigators spent nearly two weeks at HDSP interviewing staff and prisoners, attending meetings and generally observing operations. They found an institutional culture where employees viewed their situation with an “us against them” mentality; they felt betrayed by management and leaderless, and distrust and suspicion permeated their everyday duties. Staff would take out their frustrations on prisoners, the report noted.

Don Specter, who directs the Prison Law Office, which often represents prisoners, stood by a report released by his organization last year that said prisoners were often subjected to racist comments. “It’s incredibly difficult for the Department of Corrections to rehabilitate prisoners when at least some of the staff have those kind of comments – suggesting that the prisoners are not human or, even milder, not fit for rehabilitation.”

The ASCA report made several recommendations to improve the culture at HDSP and, ultimately, the treatment of both prisoners and staff. Improved communication, addressing staff concerns and taking proactive instead of reactive steps were at the top of the report’s list of suggestions.

“Prisons thrive on stability” and “HDSP is ready for change,” the report concluded. “Maintaining a stable and orderly environment, in which institutional security as well as staff and inmate safety is not compromised, while simultaneously changing the culture of the prison, is not an easy task and certainly not without risk.”

The ASCA further wrote that “Bringing about change, even desired change, in a setting where a significant number of individuals and/or subcultures are strongly vested in maintaining the status quo can be a difficult and frustrating experience, particularly when the setting is a prison where strong reactions can occur even when change is well intended.”

The investigators urged patience and persistence in making HDSP a safer facility with a stable and orderly operating environment.

Corrections Secretary Kernan, meanwhile, vowed to “continue to strive for improvements. Our overreaching-goal is to ensure safety for everyone and to promote rehabilitation in support of public safety.”

The 115-page report, titled “Independent Assessment of the High Desert State Prison,” was authored by a 9-member ASCA team headed by Project Director George M. Camp, former head of the Missouri Department of Corrections. 



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