California Publishes Use of Force in Prisons Report
In June 2019, California’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) published its annual report, “Monitoring the Use of Force,” for incidents the previous year at all juvenile and adult facilities operated by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The OIG’s office reviewed 6,426 incidents where an allegation of excessive force was made. Inspector General Roy Wesley wrote in an accompanying letter to state lawmakers that “The department’s overall compliance rate remains low, with the Department finding only 55% of incidents in full compliance with its policies and procedures.”
“Use of force is sometimes necessary when dealing with incidents that may pose a safety and security risk for both inmates and staff,” Vicky Waters, department spokeswoman, said in response to the report. “It is a priority for our department that all staff follow policies, protocols and procedures, and we will continue to collaborate with the [OIG] to ensure full compliance.”
“Whatever training they’re using to reinforce the policy isn’t working,’’ said Don Specter with the Prison Law Office, which stresses that there is very little accountability when violations of policy occur. “The good news is that when they review the use of force they figure out that there were violations of policy. The bad news is, they don’t do anything about it. So there’s no improvement from year-to-year.”
Some notable findings include:
• Approximately a third of the reported incidents occurred at just five of the state’s 33 facilities, all high security facilities like Salinas Valley State Prison.
• Half of all force incidents involved the use of chemical agents such as pepper spray.
• Officers used restraints and holds a third of the time, and rubber bullets, batons, and Tasers in the rest.
• Staff are required to conduct an interview with inmates who allege excessive force within 48 hours of the incident, but prison staff failed 49% of the time to complete timely interviews, record inmate injuries, complete interviews in a confidential setting, and to follow policy requiring officers not involved in the incident to conduct the interview.
• Staff failed to articulate an imminent threat justifying the use of force in 95 incidents, or 1.5%. This was down from 1.8% the previous year, though still deeply troubling because the “negative impact” of such incidents “can be quite significant.”
The most troubling incidents involve what are known as “controlled use-of-force incidents,” which occurred where a prisoner posed a threat while located in an area that can be controlled or isolated, such as a cell. Out of 100 such reported incidents, the OIG identified 65 incidents where violations of policy occurred, though this was marginally better that the previous year’s non-compliance rate of 75%.
Because of such incidents, the OIG strongly recommended that the department “impose a discipline of increasing severity against supervising and participating staff who violated policy when an inmate was in a controlled space, such as a cell.”
Unfortunately, such recommendations are not binding on the department, which has referred to its current policies and training as “adequate” and continues to resist any changes. It is unclear when or how the state will increase accountability for these shortcomings.
Sources: kqed.org, Cal. OIG Report