IG Review of the High Desert Prison Finds Racism

High_Desert_State_Prison_r900x493

High Desert State Prison: California Department of Corrections

Dec 21, 2015 (San Diego) The High Desert Prison is located in Susanville California, in Placer County. It is part of the state prison system, and most importantly, it is located in an isolated rural community. This rural community is home to two other prisons.

According to the report:

Susanville is located 86 miles from Reno, Nevada; 112 miles from Redding, California; and 106 miles from Red Bluff, California.

This alone posses problems, since visitation of prisoners, which is directly connected to recidivism, is not easy. This is the data from Fiscal Year 2014. When compared with Donovan State Prison in Otay Mesa, they numbers are as follows: Donovan gets 21,758 visitors, while Susanville gets 7,638. Los Angeles County gets 31,070

This is also a marker of how prisons have been built, in rural areas of the United States, where in many cases the prison is the only employer in town, and in the case of the three prisons, High Desert is the largest employer in Lassen County.

The Inspector General, Robert A. Barton, did a review of prison operations after the California Senate ordered them to do such. During the review they found many problems with the prison. One of the most significant problems found is a closed culture, the green wall, that also prevents accountability for corrections officers.

The findings were not just of an entrenched culture at the prison but what were abuses. The racism is bad enough at the facility that according to the report:

Many cadets originally from major metropolitan areas of the State who graduate from the academy and get assigned to HDSP will leave as soon as they can transfer to another institution. Former non-white staff reported that Susanville’s lack of diversity made it an undesirable community in which to live and they would not choose to return.

The Culture Inside the Prison

Prison staff are drawn from the local community and the Inspector General Found that there are tight knit groups of employees, what they call “cars.”

These groups of employees socialize frequently outside of work and are often comprised both of supervisors and correctional officers who work on the same housing units and during the same shifts. In addition, many of the staff are actually related. Spouses, siblings, and cousins are often employed at one or the other institution, literally creating “family” ties.

This has only increased the pressure to remain quiet even when abuses are witnessed. This has created a culture of secrecy and essentially a good old boy network. This creates pressures, and this leads to this condition also reported by former staff:

These consequences could include unfavorable job changes, being ostracized and labeled as a “rat,” shunning in the community, retaliatory investigations, verbal badgering and abuse, the threat of not responding to an inmate assault on staff, and even physical assault by a custody supervisor.

Things happen, with very little fear of retribution. There is also a culture where procedures are not followed. Also prisoner complaints are not followed though. There is also a disdain for prisoners who are disabled and have real medical needs. There is also quite a bit of racism.

Here are some quotes from prisoners:

..officers called inmates the N-word or wetbacks. Black inmates wouldn’t get enough time to eat; the officers would ‘kick’ the blacks out of the chow hall first and then the Hispanics. The white inmates didn’t have to leave, they were running the kitchen.

.. the staff at HDSP are absolutely racist. They are just a bunch of hateful people at that place. It was very different at HDSP compared to other prisons

.. the white staff were very racist and bigoted, not just towards inmates but also towards officers that were of different a race. Staff would search the blacks more than others after chow. It wasn’t the search so much; it was the way they did it. He got that KKK and green wall feeling from HDSP.

What the IG found especially egregious, was placing the R suffix to prison records that were given to prisoners. These records survive whether the prisoner is in prison for a sexual violation or not, and are giving to those who committed any kind of sexual violation. This places prisoners at risk, since other prisoners will blackmail them to keep them safe, or attack them, and in a few cases kill them.

Policy Reform

When we speak of justice system reform, it is not just the courts or the police, It is also the prison system and how prisons impact lives. For many reasons the prison building program over the last 25 years did not build that many prisons near large population centers.

Prisons replaced jobs in many rural communities and prisons provide jobs. These are jobs that no longer exist in other fields, and these jobs pay taxes locally. This mean that local government is active in keeping things this way, because these prisons are all there is.

Lassen County prison complex is not unusual. In fact:

The acquisition of prisons as a conscious economic development strategy for depressed rural communities and small towns in the United States has become widespread. Hundreds of small rural towns and several whole regions have become dependent on an industry which itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditions.

There is another aspect to this. These prisoners who are moved from urban cores, to rural prisons are counted as part of the census data used to allocate congressional seats, and social services. So rural areas will also have a larger representation than otherwise they would have. It is not that the prisoners get to vote. It is that their mere presence adds to the census data.

They are also sold to communities as a great way to stabilize the community, For example the California Department of Corrections has sold them this way.

The purported benefits are described by a California Department of Corrections official who states that “Prisons not only stabilize a local economy but can in fact rejuvenate it. There are no seasonal fluctuations, it is a non-polluting industry, and in many circumstances it is virtually invisible… You’ve got people that are working there and spending their money there, so now these communities are able to have a Little League and all the kinds of activities that people want

High Desert may be an extreme, but it is not unique. This also allows for more things to go wrong for prisoners, (and prison officials) leading to less programs for prisoners to get skills that will ultimately keep them from going back.

So when we look at prison reform, this is critical. Why we have decided as a society not just to build more prisons, but where. As to the prison in Susanville, well it houses 3,500 high and medium security prisoners and was designed for 2.324. The study found that sensitive yards, that are supposed to be safer for prisoners who opt out of gangs, or have classifications that make them to be at risk, to be as violent as general population. It is in one of those housing units that the prison housed a prisoner with the R suffix with a violent criminal. The former did not survive the experience. The housing review was not done.

The Officer Correction Union also opposed this review, and likely they will oppose the body cameras that were recommended as a pilot, with GPS to tell where guards are. This could bring some level of transparency. Nor have they implemented previous recommendations, such as locked boxes for prisoners to file in complaints against staff. They still handle those complaints themselves.

From a policy perspective these two items underscore a well known problem with California prisons. The first is overcrowding. the second is a corrections union that has crated a culture of insularity. Not only that, the Union’s advise not to talk to the IG staff recommended officers commit a misdemeanor.

This quote from the report reveals the culture of opposition to transparency:

CCPOA’s collective actions during the course of the OIG’s review cast into doubt the genuineness of its stated organizational mission. The union’s staunch opposition to the OIG’s review of HDSP demonstrates a clear hostility towards transparency and independent oversight in the prison system. The culture fostered by CCPOA is one of regression to prior periods of the “green wall” and code of silence, when officers were actively encouraged to disrupt and sabotage legitimate inquiries into pressing issues of public policy. This especially exacerbates a situation in a prison with the problems and culture discovered at HDSP.

So we must ask not just the high level questions, why are prisons built in rural areas and how they affect things ranging from electoral politics, to services, but also how they affect local culture. Finally, now they are tied with the criminal justice system and how that has to change in order to fix the issues.

First we need to see the issues for what they are. Second, we need to be willing to pressure for change. These are systemic issues of lack of transparency, and racial bias. Susanville is just an extreme example.

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