State investigators cite culture of abuse, racism by High Desert State Prison guards

State investigators are calling for immediate action at a Northern California prison with an “entrenched culture” of racism and violence, where guards allegedly have set inmates up for attack.

In a special report released Wednesday, the independent Office of Inspector General said that abuse and cover-ups at the High Desert State Prison in Susanville were so severe — and have been for so long — that officials should consider requiring some of the guards to wear body cameras and GPS devices in order to “curtail misconduct.”

The six-month investigation at the facility was ordered after complaints of excessive force by guards and reports that sex offenders were being housed alongside those likely to assault them.

Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), chairwoman of a state Senate subcommittee on public safety and corrections, said the findings were “deeply disturbing and reveal broken systems.”

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The Senate probably will call for hearings into the findings, said her chief of staff, Hans Hemann. “I don't think anyone expected it to be as scathing as it was.”

California Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said he welcomed the report and would continue implementing changes at the prison. “We do not tolerate staff misconduct of any kind and will take appropriate action to hold all employees accountable,” Beard said in a written statement.

The High Desert prison, in a remote corner of northeast California, houses nearly 3,500 high- and medium-security inmates although it was designed for 2,324; two buildings are set aside for those requiring protective custody.

Investigators said they found that so-called sensitive-needs yards — which are supposed to shelter inmates likely to be attacked in the general population — were “just as violent” as the rest of High Desert, “with gang politics meting out abuse and punishment for drug and gambling debts and extorting vulnerable inmates for protection.”

The report cited investigations into officers who allegedly confiscated inmate property to give to other prisoners as payment for assaulting those they wanted attacked. It also described two instances in which prisoners were beaten and stabbed by other inmates while guards stood by for an extended time without interceding.

There was, according to the investigators, a “perception of insularity and indifference to inmates” at High Desert, exacerbated by its remoteness and “a labor organization that opposes oversight to the point of actively discouraging members from coming forward with information that could … adversely affect another officer.”

According to the report, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. — which represents some 29,000 prison guards — circulated an alert instructing members not to talk to investigators unless a representative was present. It alleged the union sought not to protect officers' rights but to “find out which staff were telling on others, and what they were saying.”

Spokeswoman Nichol Gomez-Pryde said the union's “only interest in this matter is to make sure correctional peace officers' constitutional and [statutory] rights are protected.” Honoring those rights, she said, “would not impede” the investigation.

On Tuesday, the union filed a motion in Sacramento County Superior Court seeking an injunction against further interviews of officers or subpoenas without advising them of their right to have a union official present.

Former state prison warden Ed Caden, now a Sacramento area lawyer, said he ran into similar obstacles when he was sent to Salinas Valley State Prison in 2004 to stop misconduct and shut down a rogue group of officers. State prison officials, he said, cannot solve the problems at High Desert without “an institutional culture of ethics and professionalism that starts at the very top.”

High Desert has had seven wardens in the last eight years, according to the department of corrections. The last warden held the job for just 10 months before being reassigned to work in Sacramento earlier this month.

The report released Wednesday included interviews with inmates who said officers “called inmates the N-word or wetbacks” and gave white prisoners access to the canteen while keeping African American ones out and subjecting them to harsher treatment.

The majority of inmates at the prison are minorities. The majority of officers are white.

One prisoner said he “got that KKK … feeling” from High Desert, the report said.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

For more California corrections news, follow me at @paigestjohn on Twitter

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

9:25 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from state Sen. Loni Hancock and former state prison warden Ed Caden, and additional reporting.

1:53 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 1:29 p.m.

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