The wardens at California's two major women's prisons have retired amid allegations of pervasive problems, including sexual abuse of inmates at one institution and persistent suicides at the other.
The complaints come amid wide problems for the corrections department.
A series of lawsuits forced the state to lower its inmate population and cede control of prisoner healthcare to a federal receiver, while the California inspector general found a culture of racism and abuse at a men's prison.
Aside from sexual abuse, guards at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, the state's largest women's prison, permit fights between inmates, use unneeded force and derogatory names and retaliate against inmates who complain, said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which investigates inmate mistreatment.
Specter pushed for leadership changes after attorneys found systemic problems at the Chowchilla women's prison, which he called "a very troubled place."
"There are serious problems there, including verbal abuse of prisoners, failure to protect them from other prisoners, contraband, sexual abuse — mostly in the form of: `If you do me a favor, I'll do you a favor' — that kind of thing," he said. "There's a lot of fear, and fear of retaliation for reporting misconduct."
The attorneys, who represent inmates in several major lawsuits against the state, have been working with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in recent months, including conducting joint interviews June with about 150 of more than 2,800 inmates at the state's largest women's prison, he said.
Specter said the investigation "proved to everyone's satisfaction that there were serious problems" and the department appears to have been taking steps to make changes since then.
The department said Chowchilla Warden Deborah Johnson retired routinely last week after 30 years of state service. Kimberly Hughes also routinely retired as warden at the California Institution for Women, which houses nearly 1,900 inmates in Corona, after more than 27 years as a state employee, officials said.
"There is really no connection" to the problems reported by the Prison Law Office attorneys, spokeswoman Vicky Waters said Thursday.
The department said it could not arrange interviews with the retired wardens. Two other senior staff members at the Chowchilla prison also were being reassigned.
Waters and another spokeswoman could not immediately comment on the abuse allegations but said the department has been cooperating with the Prison Law Office.
Nichol Gomez, spokeswoman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., said in an email that the union that represents most guards "does not comment on unsubstantiated rumors or allegations."
"But I can tell you the majority of California correctional peace officers are professional and take their duty and oath seriously," she wrote. Employees at both prisons "do their job the best they can within the conditions they face, which include lack of staff."
Specter praised the leadership change but said attorneys are waiting to see what else the department will do to change the prison's culture and practices.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino) wants the state auditor to look into suicides at the California Institution for Women.
She is asking for an audit next week to see why the suicide rate was eight times the national average for female prisoners in an 18-month period in 2014-15.
"I think it is clear there are some systemic and pervasive problems," Leyva said.
There were four suicides and at least 35 attempts during that period, and two more suicides this year.