The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

January 27, 2011
The Public Eye video: North Kern prison cell extractions

Watchdog Report: Was North Kern State Prison cell search just a pretense?

New details have emerged about events at North Kern State Prison last April that raise questions about why officials staged a two-day cell-by-cell inspection that ultimately required the forced extraction of 77 recalcitrant inmates.

The action stemmed from an order to search all cells in the prison's administrative segregation unit - a prison within the prison for inmates who break rules. The primary stated goal was to search cells for contraband, such as extra clothing, weapons and drugs. Prisoners who did not leave cells willingly were removed forcibly.

An official video of the episode shows officers clad in riot gear and gas masks breaking into barricaded cells, spraying chemical agents into them, handcuffing inmates and forcing them out.

One North Kern officer, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation from supervisors, said he assisted on the extractions and saw searches that were far less stringent than prison standards. Officers bagged inmate property, dumped mattresses on the cellblock floor, and returned inmates to cells without checking carefully for contraband, the officer said.

According to prison logs, no searches took place in half of the unit's 98 cells, including seven from which inmates were extracted.

John R. Westphal, a North Kern officer who works in the segregation unit but did not participate in the events, said supervisors told officers that the searches were a pretense. The extractions were meant to demonstrate to inmates "that the warden runs this place, not them."

Westphal and two other officers told The Bee that such extractions are inherently dangerous for officers and inmates. Needless violence subsequently occurred, he said, when inmates were paired with hostile cellmates.

Westphal said officers also removed "all of the inmates' belongings, leaving them in unconstitutional living conditions - no mattress, no blanket, no soap, no towel, no tooth powder," for up to two weeks.

"Numerous safety and security concerns" necessitated the use of force, not the desire to send a message to inmates, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton wrote in an e-mail.

Inmates might have been placed on "management status" for unruly or dangerous behavior, she wrote. The inmate is allowed only a T-shirt and underwear, and is "provided means to take care of his personal hygiene" until the behavior improves.

The prison spent about $43,000 on overtime for officers and supervisors involved in the action, according to prison records.

A Bee investigation in August found that prisoners' due-process rights were violated when they were found guilty of obstructing officers involved in the April action - and assigned penalties in advance of required administrative hearings meant to determine culpability.

Following The Bee's report, acting Warden Maurice Junious rescinded all guilty findings and penalties.

- Charles Piller

See three videos below.

Related stories:

The Public Eye: Due process for prisoner proceedings allegedly violated

Guards accused of cruelty, racism

California prison behavior units aim to control troublesome inmates

January 26, 2011
Amid economic woes, more people seek solace in Yosemite

A week in Yosemite National Park is a pretty affordable vacation, especially if you prefer a tent to the Ahwahnee Hotel. That fact -- along with several free entrance days -- has kept visitors flowing.

The park recorded about 3.9 million visits last year, official statistics show. That's about 400,000 more visits than during 2007, and more visits than all but three other years in the park's history.

In the 1990s, crowds caused delays, closings and consternation. That's not been as much of a problem this year.

Another National Park close to the Sacramento region, Lassen National Park, also saw visits climb last year, though Yosemite gets as many visitors during a summer month as Lassen sees all year.

Source: National Park Service

January 26, 2011
Top ten jury verdicts of 2010

A $505 million judgment in a Las Vegas civil case lead the 2010 ranking of U.S. jury awards.

Lawyers USA publishes the annual Top Ten list. The web site notes that the average size of the top ten verdicts grew from 2009 to 2010 ($145 to $157 million), but not as sharply as between 2008 and 2009 when the average jumped $33 million.

This ranking considers only verdicts in cases brought by individuals, families or small groups of people -- not large business or class-action suits. The Nevada lawsuit involved a man who contracted hepatitis C after a routine colonoscopy. He sued two pharmaceutical companies which made the anesthetic that carried the disease The jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 million in compensatory damages and $500 million in punitive damages.

A southern California jury gave the second largest judgment of the year to a woman who developed mesothelioma cancer. She claimed the asbestos exposure resulted from washing clothes her husband wore while working with asbestos-cement water pipes. The jury agreed and awarded $2 million in compensatory damages and $200 million in punitive damages.  

January 25, 2011
Interactive: Government provides health insurance to growing number of Californians

The U.S. House recently voted to repeal the president's health care plan. Much of the opposition over the plan has focused on a perceived government takeover of health insurance.

Roughly one-fourth of California's residents, though, already have public health insurance, primarily the poor (MediCal) and the elderly (Medicare) - a figure that is growing due to increased unemployment and the pending retirement of baby boomers.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to cut MediCal reimbursement payments to providers -- an effort now before the U.S. Supreme Court. There's even talk of cutting Medicare - a longtime third rail because of the political clout of senior citizens.

This map shows the counties with the highest and lowest percentage of adults with public health insurance.

January 25, 2011
State of Homelessness in America 2011

RB Tent City.JPGThe National Alliance to End Homelessness has updated its census of the homeless population. The headline is that nationally this group increased in size by 20,000 between 2008 and 2009, a 3 percent rise. Thirty-one of 50 states saw increases with Louisiana leading the way with 100 percent growth. California grew 3.4 percent -- 128,785 to 133,129 -- during that period.

Broken out by sub-populations, the data shows the largest percentage growth among family households (4 percent).

In 2009 most homeless people lived in some type of shelter, but "nearly 4 in 10 were living on the street, in a car, or in another place not intended for human habitation."

Homelessness affects people of all ages, races, ethnicity and geography, say NAEH researchers, but some groups are at high risk: "people living in doubled up situations, people discharged from prison, young adults aged out of foster care, and uninsured people." California, Florida and Nevada are three states with high multiple risk factors, especially foreclosure and unemployment.

PHOTO CREDIT: Homeless people living in tents along the river parkway northeast of the Blue Diamond Almond facility in Sacramento, 2009. Sacramento Bee photo by Randall Benton.

January 24, 2011
Interactive: The rising cost of a UC, CSU education

UC and CSU officials recently increased student fees by another 10 percent. Since 1966, fees at both systems have increased about six times faster than inflation. Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing further cuts that would likely lead to more student fee increases.

At the same time, students are taking on much more debt. The chart below shows federal student loans disbursed to UC and CSU students over the last decade.

Source: California Postsecondary Education Commission ; U.S. Department of Education .

January 24, 2011
Interactive: Local homes selling for the price of a car

The housing bust has made it possible to buy a home in Sacramento -- albeit a shabby, small, old one -- for roughly the price of a new Toyota Prius. Last year, several dozen homes sold in Sacramento for less than $30,000. Most of these homes sit within poverty-stricken neighborhoods; will need work to be habitable; or will be torn down for eventual new construction.

Here's a look at four Sacramento homes that sold for less than $27,000 last year. Would you rather have one of these or a new car?

Note: May take up to a minute for panoramas below to load; click and drag panorama to see surrounding neighborhood.

3262 23rd - Oak Park - 2 Beds, 1 bath, 828 square feet, built in 1935, sold for $25,000:

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4580 9th Avenue - Oak Park - 2 Beds, 1 bath, 788 square feet, built in 1925, sold for $25,000:

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3326 22nd Avenue - South Sacramento - 2 Beds, 1 bath, 835 square feet, built in 1935, sold for $26,000:

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2930 Branch Street - North Sac - 2 Beds, 1 bath, 744 square feet, built in 1938, sold for $27,000:

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Source: Sacramento Bee home sales database; Google Maps

January 21, 2011
CDC: past rise in childhood obesity leveling off

Obesity affects some 12.5 million U.S. children and teens, or about 17 percent of that population. The incidence of childhood obesity as been rising steadily since the 1960s, when it was around 5 percent.

But according to a new report issued by the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity rates appear to have leveled off in the few years. That's the good news. The bad news is there is a significant increase in obesity among the heavier boys, with the heaviest getting heavier. In addition, there are significant differences between racial, ethnic and age groups. Hispanic boys and non-Hispanic black girls, for example, are more likely to be obese. So are older children and teens, compared to preschoolers.

CDC researchers warn that severe overweight in youngsters can lead to psychological problems and medical risk factors, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and abnormal glucose tolerance or diabetes. They point to a decline in healthy eating and exercise as primary determinants of obesity. So they recommend a multipronged strategy of encouraging more exercise, less television watching, greater consumption of fruits and vegetables and less of high-caloric foods.

January 21, 2011
Word Cloud: Mayor's State of the City address

This graphic shows the words used most often in Mayor Johnson's State of the City address Thursday.


January 19, 2011
New site allows citizens to monitor state legislators

Though we take it for granted, the Internet has greatly increased government transparency -- especially at the federal level. Now a new web site expands the potential of citizen scrutiny of government at the state level., a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and Participatory Politics Foundation, aggregates many types of information on state lawmakers: brief biography; contact info; sponsored bills; key votes; committee memberships; campaign contributions; interest group ratings; news, blog and social media mentions; and videos. hopes to eventually cover all state and municipal governments, but initially the site is limited to five state legislatures: Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin and California.

January 17, 2011
Job discrimination claims reach a record high

seal.pngDiscrimination claims filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hit a new high in fiscal 2010 (ending Sept. 30). According to the EEOC, private-sector charges rose to nearly 100,000, a seven percent increase over the prior year.

Agency statistics show a rise in all types of employment discrimination claims: race, gender, religion, national origin, etc. It's interesting to see the shifting proportion of cases between FY 1997 and FY 2010. In general, race has held steady at around 35 percent of total claims. Gender at 30 percent. But charges of age discrimination has jumped from around 19 to 23 percent, reflecting perhaps the aging workforce.

Despite the growth in filings, the EEOC says it's been keeping up with enforcement. Pending charges increased less than one percent between FY 2009 and 2010, compared to a 16 percent jump between 2008 and 2009.

January 14, 2011
Cost of cancer projected to rise 27 percent in ten years

Although cancer incidence is declining and cancer survival is increasing, the cost of treating cancer in the United States is expected to jump from $125 billion in 2010 to at least $158 billion in 2020. That's due in large measure to an aging population, say the authors of a new National Cancer Institute study.

NCI researchers note that cancer strikes older people disproportionately and so they project the number of cancer survivors rising 13.8 milion to 18.1 million in the next ten years. The biggest contributor to the overall cost in 2020 is care of prostate and breast cancer patients which will grow 42 and 32 percent, respectively.

Hat tip: Los Angeles Times Booster Shots blog.

January 13, 2011
On Your Guard: Thieves hit Postal Service collection box in capital

Those large, blue U.S. Postal Service collection boxes are regarded as secure places to deposit mail, but even they are sometimes targeted by thieves.

The break-in of one such box at Cadillac Drive and Howe Avenue in Sacramento was reported Jan. 3, said Jeff Fitch, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Damage to the box was repaired the following day.

People who deposited mail there during the New Year's weekend may learn their mail was stolen only when they receive a notice of an unpaid bill, or when stolen financial information leads to identity theft.

"If we recover any of that mail, we send out letters to those customers," Fitch said.

He urged people to immediately notify postal inspectors if they are contacted by their bank about suspicious account activity that might be the result of mail theft.

Mail theft is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each incident.

The Postal Service has a standing $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for mail theft, Fitch said.

You can call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's 24-hour hotline, (877) 876-2455, or file online at:

Because vandalism of collection boxes typically occurs at night, Fitch advised against depositing mail in them after the last collection of the day. Instead, deposit mail in the mail slot at a local post office, or hand it to your letter carrier.

- Cathy Locke

January 13, 2011
Fix It: Hospital no-smoking rule sends problem next door

The problem: Mercy General Hospital's new policy that prohibits smoking on its campus has one east Sacramento neighbor feeling burned.

Joanie Pope-Ferry has lived on 41st Street next to Mercy for more than 20 years. She said the new policy, which went into effect Jan. 1, has led to a big increase in the number of smokers showing up in front of her house.

Because she's allergic to cigarette smoke, she said the extra traffic prevents her from being able to open her windows.

"They made their hospital healthy and nonsmoking. How can they put their neighbor through this?" she asked.

The solution: Pope-Ferry wants the hospital to create a smoking zone elsewhere, and she wants hospital security to patrol the area and move the smokers.

Mercy officials said there's only so much they can do to regulate where people who visit or work at the J Street hospital go to smoke.

Spokeswoman Shelly King said officials have placed "no smoking" signs on a fence separating the hospital from Pope-Ferry's property and have scheduled an employee forum where they will tell their workers that "our neighbors are important to us and we want to make sure we refrain from doing anything that will be uncomfortable to our neighbors."

- Ryan Lillis

January 13, 2011
Study: One in four California pregnancies ends in abortion

The abortion rate in California has declined sharply over the last two decades, but remains higher than the nationwide rate, according to a new study from the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute.

About 24 percent of pregnancies in California ended with an abortion during 2008, the study found. Nationwide, about 19 percent of pregnancies ended in abortion.

Doctors performed roughly 214,000 abortions in California during 2008. About 18 percent of the nation's abortions happened here.

About 95,000 of California's abortions were publicly funded; about half of the nation's publicly-funded abortions that year occurred in California.

Researchers often talk about the abortion rate -- the number of abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. That has declined sharply after peaking in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Access to abortion providers has recently increased. Roughly 99 percent of California women now live in a county with an abortion provider, the Guttmacher study found. Nationwide, 65 percent of women live in counties with an abortion provider.

Source: Guttmacher Institute

January 11, 2011
Feds to launch consumer product database

Wouldn't it be nice if the average consumer could know about a harmful or potentially harmful product before it's eventually recalled?

That's the goal of a new government database set to debut on March 11. In November the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to establish an online system to house reports of unsafe or potentially hazardous merchandise. The database won't include mere complaints about product reliability or quality -- only information about serious defects that can lead to death or injury. It's also limited to CPSC-regulated goods, so excludes cosmetics, food, tobacco, and other items handled by other federal agencies.

Advocates of the system say it will provide consumers, government regulators, health professionals and others with an easy way to file incident reports. It will also allow consumers to quickly and easily research products they are considering for purchase.

Manufacturers have expressed concerns about the project, saying it invites false and possibly fraudulent product reports. In response, CPSC rules allow companies to challenge complaints and to post rebuttals alongside complaints in the database.

Once launched, consumers can go to the to use the database.  

Hat tip: Washington Post.

January 10, 2011
How much will you make in lifetime Social Security, Medicare benefits?

The President's fiscal commission has issued its recommendations for controlling federal spending and deficits. Its report includes suggestions for reining in future costs of Social Security and Medicare, and it's likely we'll see cutbacks in future benefits. But that prompts the question, what would you receive in total Social Security and Medicare benefits if nothing changes?

The non-partisan Urban Institute tries to answer that question in a new study, Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits Over a Lifetime. It estimates the total taxes paid and the total benefits received for a hypothetical worker who began working at age 22, earned an average wage ($43,100 in 2010 dollars) and stopped working at the normal retirement age.

The results vary widely depending on marital status and when you reach age 65. A single man, for example, who turned 65 in 1960, paid in $17,000 for a total of $125,000 in lifetime benefits. That same man hitting 65 in 2030 would pay $476,000 in taxes for $569,000 in benefits. (All these figures are in 2010 dollars.)

January 6, 2011
The Money Trail: City signs to world spots could get you a tad lost

If you've been wondering how to get to China or Switzerland from downtown Sacramento and relied upon a new sign outside City Hall, good luck.

The city installed a directional sign to each of its nine sister cities this week. To this point, however, the sign is suffering from direction dysfunction.

The sign for Liestal, Switzerland, points to the west. Jinan, China, is east of us, according to the sign. And San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, is north - not 2,500 miles southeast - if you believe City Hall.

Of course, you could get to all of those places by following the signs, it would just take a lot longer than the recommended routes.

City staffers said the directional placement is only temporary until the exact directions toward the sister cities can be determined and signs can be reset.

Once the process starts, don't be surprised if a sign or two seems a bit off; some cities are in the same general direction from Sacramento and the city wants to "fan" the signs out to create a visual balance, said city spokeswoman Linda Tucker.

In November, the City Council approved the placement of the sign in the plaza between old and new City Hall, close to 10th Street.

It was paid for with $8,000 out of a neighborhood fund controlled by former Councilman Ray Tretheway.

- Ryan Lillis

January 6, 2011
The Money Trail: Gibson Ranch grant called a waste by U.S. senator

A U.S. senator has put a $440,000 stimulus grant for Gibson Ranch on his list of the most wasteful projects in the last year.

The grant will pay for energy improvements at a ranch house that hasn't been used in about a decade. It once served as a site for community functions in the 340-acre park near Elverta.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has long railed against earmarks and other types of government spending, listed the project as the 18th most wasteful project in the country (out of 100 listed) in his "Wastebook 2010."

The guide points out that Gibson Ranch has been closed since September and Sacramento County officials aren't sure when it will reopen.

But county parks director Janet Baker said the grant will allow the building to be reopened by June. It will pay for heating, air conditioning and other energy efficiency improvements.

"It's one of the park's cornerstones," she said.

The county received the funding because it submitted a grant proposal under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The county is also using a $140,000 state grant to fix the house.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the grants? Developer Doug Ose, a former Republican congressman, who is negotiating with the county the county to take over Gibson Ranch. He says he hopes to reopen it by April 1.

As part of the proposal, the county is considering paying $100,000 a year for deferred maintenance at the ranch in addition to the grant projects.

- Brad Branan

January 6, 2011
States' revenue dropped nearly 31 percent in 2009

A stark indication of the impact of the recession on state budgets: state government revenue in the country plummeted 30.8 percent between 2008 and 2009. The U.S. Census Bureau, which annually tracks state finances, reported yesterday that total revenues fell to $1.1 trillion from $1.6 trillion. 

Much of this decrease was caused by declining "social insurance trust revenue," defined as "public employee retirement, unemployment compensation, workers compensation and other insurance trusts (i.e., Social Security, Medicare, veteran's life insurance)."

Total state taxes collected in the U.S. fell 8.5 percent from $781.6 billion in 2008 to $715.1 billion in 2009.

In California, total revenue dropped 43.6 percent from $201.1 billion to $113.3 billion over the same period. State taxes collected declined 14.0 percent from 117.4 billion to 101.0 billion. See this Census table for a full breakdown of California's revenues and expenditures in 2009.

January 5, 2011
State's condemned inmates dying in droves -- but not from executions

It's been five years since California executed a condemned inmate, a delay largely caused by a dispute over methods of lethal injection.

Since then, 26 condemned inmates have died as a result of natural causes or suicide, state figures show. That's a much higher death rate than previous years, likely because condemned inmates are getting old as their appeals and the lethal injection case move through the system.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in California during 1978, five times as many condemned inmates have died from suicide or natural causes as have died from executions.

About 720 inmates live on California's death row.

California condemned inmate deaths by cause, 1978 to present:

Note: "Other" category includes two murders, two drug overdoses and a heart attack following pepper spray exposure.

January 5, 2011
Retiring doctors could cause health care shortage in rural areas

As the eldest baby boomers hit 65 this year, California's older doctors will being to retire in troves -- and that could cause a health care crisis in sparsely-populated areas if these retirees aren't sufficiently replaced by younger professionals. That's the warning in a new investigation by the Center for Health Reporting, the nonprofit journalism team sponsored by the California HealthCare Foundation.

Statistics complied in the 2009 CHCF report, Fewer and More Specialized: A New Assessment of Physician Supply in California, bear out the problem. Not only does the doctor-patient ratio tend to be lower in rural counties, but the relative age of doctors tends to be higher in those areas. Trinity County leads the state in the percentage of active physicians over the age of 55 (73.3 percent). It's followed by Modoc (68.6 percent), Lassen (52.6 percent), Amador (52.1 percent) and Inyo (51.2 percent).

January 3, 2011
Disabled people have greater risk of dying in a home fire

Every year an estmated 2,655 people die and 13,025 are injured in residential fires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. The agency warned recently that people with physical, mental and sensory disabilities are especially at risk of death and injury. A 2009 study found that physical disability played a factor in 13 percent of home fire fatalities. Further, the mortality rate for residential fire victims is 1.4 times higher for the physically disabled as compared to the overall victim population.

The USFA reminds disabled people, their families and caretakers that diminished health, mobility, sight, and hearing may limit an individual's capacity to act in a fire emergency. Therefore, it's vital that persons with disabilities develop and practice escape plans. This involving knowing your exit routes and insuring that you and your wheelchair/walker can pass through them. It's also essential to properly maintain smoke alarms that accommodate your particular sensory limitation. See the USFA Focus on Fire Safety for more helpful advice. 

About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at:

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