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

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