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CDCR Loses Suit Over Release of Employee Misconduct Records

On April 2, 2024, the California Superior Court for Sacramento County ordered the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to release results of internal investigations that had been sought by KQED in San Francisco on behalf of the California Reporting Project, a coalition of news organizations across the state.

In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law S.B. 1421, known as the “Right to Know” law enforcement transparency act, allowing the public to obtain records of internal investigations into peace officers accused of dishonesty, serious use of force and sexual misconduct. Another law enacted in 2021 set a 45-day deadline for government agencies to respond to records requests.

In 2019, KQED requested five years of internal investigation records from CDCR, the state’s largest employer of peace officers. But prison officials fought disclosure for over three years. They claimed to provide a total of 260 cases, but KQED found at least 10 more that the agency failed to disclose. Even more failures were found by Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, a law firm that has represented a number of California prisoners in civil rights lawsuits.

Alleging these were also failures to comply with the Right to Know law, KQED filed its complaint in June 2022. As the Court noted in its ruling, the parties did not dispute that the records were subject to disclosure, only how long CDCR had to respond. Plaintiff wasn’t even trying to hold the agency to the 45-day limit in the law, given the volume of records requested. But CDCR said it had 45 days to provide records for each incident—which, given it has over 63,000 employees, could last a very long time.

In its ruling, the Court found CDCR’s “current rate of production inadequate.” It gave CDCR until August 1, 2024, to provide records in 40 incidents on KQED’s “priority list” and until April 2, 2027, to provide the rest. Plaintiff was represented by attorneys with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in San Francisco. See: KQED v. Calif. Dep’t of Corr. and Rehab., Cal. Super. (Cty. of Sacramento), Case No. 34-2022-80004025.

CDCR Dinged for Employee Discipline

Earlier, the Disciplinary Monitoring Unit (DMU) of California’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found CDCR’s handling of employee discipline was poor during the period from January 1 through June 30, 2022. Pursuant to California Penal Code § 6126 and 6133, OIG must “provide oversight of internal affairs investigations and the disciplinary process” for CDCR. DMU, composed of attorneys with a minimum eight years of law practice, is responsible for monitoring those investigations and processes.

Among the findings was OIG Case No. 19-0030597-DM, in which four guards were accused of punching and kicking a prisoner on April 25, 2019, with a fifth involved in a subsequent attempted cover-up. But the hiring warden waited 40 days too long, until July 19, 2019, to involve CIP, hampering its investigation. Consequently, the guards were not disciplined.

Perhaps most egregious was Case No. 21-0038852-DM, opened after a guard bit his son, assaulted his wife with a knife and threatened to kill her, and threatened to force responding law enforcement to kill him. OIG recommended firing him, but the hiring warden imposed only a 10% salary reduction penalty for two years.

The most prevalent deficiency DMU found was untimely delay in investigations. The worst performance was found in CIP’s handling of allegations of use of deadly force, with 43% deemed “poor.” In OIG Case No. 19-0031308-DM, a CDCR guard was arrested for shooting a private citizen in the thigh during an argument. The hiring warden recommended dismissal, but the guard resigned first. DMU found that CIP failed to add allegations that the guard: (1) lied about possessing and using a firearm; (2) abused his authority in arguing against his arrest because he was a CDCR guard; and (3) vandalized a vehicle.

In OIG Case No. 19-0031802-DM, two guards wrote false reports that a sergeant knowingly approved. All three employees lied during their interviews with Internal Affairs, and on July 10, 2020, the hiring warden fired them. But CDCR failed to timely document the dismissal to OIG, so the three were paid an extra 102 days until their dismissal notices were served October 20, 2020. See:Monitoring Internal Investigations and Employee Disciplinary Process of the Calif. Dep’t of Corr. and Rehab., OIG (Jan.-Jun 2022).

19 Guards Fired or Disciplined for Violence Resulting in $975,000 Payouts to Prisoners

One of the incidents uncovered by KQED resulted in payouts to two state prisoners totaling $975,000. After around two dozen prisoners arrived at California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi on July 20, 2016, guards in the reception area gave them hot meals but no utensils to eat with. One of the recent arrivals complained, saying they shouldn’t have to eat like animals. When guard Johnny Cababe, who was passing out food trays, rebuked prisoner Richard Carrasco, who had not complained, Carrasco challenged him to open the cell door. Cababe took the bait, and numerous other guards joined the fight, pepper-spraying Carrasco and hitting him with batons. After Carrasco was restrained, he was repeatedly kicked by Sgt. Robert Ruiz.

Another prisoner in the reception area, Joshua Heckathorn, had trouble breathing due to the residual pepper spray aggravating his asthma. The guards mocked him and reportedly told him to “stop crying like a girl.” Sgt. Ruiz approached Heckathorn aggressively, balling up his fists, and they commenced to fight. Again, a number of other guards jumped in, striking Heckathorn with batons, splitting his scalp open and beating him unconscious. They continued hitting him after he was cuffed; then a guard deliberately shot Heckathorn in the leg, point-blank, with a rubber bullet.

Both of Heckathorn’ s hands were broken, and the wounds to his head and leg had to be stapled shut at a hospital. Carrasco suffered severe injuries that included spinal stenosis which required surgery and resulted in a neurogenic bladder—loss of bladder control. He now has to use a catheter to urinate. He also must use a walker, was blind in one eye for 45 days, suffered permanent vision loss, and he had serious injuries to his shoulders and scapula. Both prisoners were disciplined with placement in segregation after the incident.

The guards tried to cover up the brutal beatings by filing false reports. The sergeant who shot Heckathorn in the leg, for example, described it as an “accidental discharge”; another guard falsely claimed that Carrasco had refused medical care. Some of the guards present in the reception area were not even mentioned in the reports.

When the incident was reviewed by Cpt. Edward Yett, to his enormous credit, he found “inconsistencies” in the fabricated reports and asked internal affairs to investigate. Someone soon wrote the word “rat” on his vehicle in the prison’s parking lot. The investigation concluded that the guards had falsified their reports, lied during interviews and failed to report their use of force against Carrasco and Heckathorn. Eight guards, including Cababe and an unnamed lieutenant, were fired; at least three appealed their terminations and lost in superior court. Four staff members, including Ruiz, were allowed to resign. Seven others received pay cuts or suspensions. No criminal charges were filed, but then-Warden John Garza was transferred to another lockup, where he worked until his arrest for solicitation of prostitution in 2018.

Meanwhile, Carrasco and Heckathorn filed suit in federal court. The state reportedly settled Heckathorn’s claims in 2018 for $575,000. According to documents provided to PLN by Carrasco, his case settled in early January 2021 for $400,000; of that amount, $169,790.54 went toward attorney fees and Carrasco received the balance of $230,209.46, less $1,304.63 for restitution he owed. Both prisoners were represented by Sacramento attorney Mark A. Redmond, as well as attorney Kresta Nora Daly with Barth Daly, LLP, also in Sacramento. See: Heckathorn v. Holland, USDC (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 1:17-cv-01416; and Carrasco v. Cababe, USDC (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 1:19-cv-00724.


Additional source: KQED

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