The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

March 11, 2011
Wrongly imprisoned often are denied compensation

Individuals who are wrongly convicted and incarcerated in California are entitled to receive restitution from the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board.

But an analysis of such cases by California Watch found only that of the 132 people who filed claims since 2000, only 11 have been compensated. 56 claims have been rejected without a hearing. Others are either waiting for a hearing or waiting for a decision after a hearing.

California is one of 27 states which pays restitution for the wrongly imprisoned. But according to CW, it's not enough for a judge to declare a inmate innocent. He must prove three things: "that they did not commit the crime or that the crime did not take place; that they did not intentionally contribute to their own arrest by 'voluntarily' or 'knowingly' pleading guilty to the crime; and that they experienced financial losses as a result of their incarceration." Advocates for the wrongly accused say these requirements are often impossible to meet.

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

October 28, 2010
BJS releases prison/jail/arrest mortality stats

The Bee today reported the death of a man shot by Sacramento police after he charged them with a knife. By coincidence, the Bureau of Justice Statistics just updated its "deaths in custody" statistics. These cover "mortality in state prisons, local jails, and during the process of arrest by state and local law enforcement officers". The data is sliced by such factors as gender, race, age, offense and cause of death.

Nationally, there have been 2,686 arrest-related deaths between the years 2003 and 2006. Of these, 1,540 (57.3 percent) were killings by law enforcement officers and 289 (10.8 percent) were suicides. California lead the states in the overall number of arrest-related deaths (465).

Mortality in U.S. state prisons totalled 21,936 deaths between 2001 and 2007 (all causes). Illness accounted for 18,193 of the fatalities, homicide caused only 365. California trailed Texas in the overall number of prison deaths (2,491 to 2,811).

Local jail deaths totalled 8,097 in the United States between 2000 and 2007. Of these, illness caused 3,871 fatalities, suicide 2,361. According to the BLS, there were 2,851 deaths in the 50 largest jail jurisdictions. Los Angeles lead all counties with 273 deaths (178 per 1000,000 inmates). Sacramento County had 50 (170 per 100,000 inmates).

October 24, 2010
Penalties against inmates at North Kern rescinded

Following a Bee report that described evidence of violations of due process rights in California prisons, North Kern acting Warden Maurice Junious recently rescinded all 77 guilty findings and penalties imposed on prisoners convicted in April of obstructing officers. Instead, the inmates were counseled.

The Bee reported in August that a North Kern State Prison official had prejudged inmates as guilty and assigned penalties before required disciplinary hearings meant to determine culpability.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton called the reversal of guilty findings "unusual." Junious declined to comment.

Administrative hearings allow inmates to defend themselves and present mitigating evidence. North Kern's acting Associate Warden Steven Ojeda had sent an e-mail to Junious laying out guilty findings and penalties ahead of the hearings.

In late July, Scott Kernan, corrections undersecretary for operations, called Ojeda's e-mail "improper" but defended the department's due process system.

The Bee report described a pattern of failures in procedures designed to let prisoners dispute charges or press claims of mistreatment. Daniel Johnson, a retired research analyst for the department, reviewed 10,000 appeals involving allegations of misconduct by officers. Virtually none, he said, were ruled in favor of inmates.

On Aug. 1, the day The Bee story appeared, Lt. John McClellan of High Desert State Prison in Susanville sent a memo to inmates of the "Z Unit" - a prison within the prison to segregate recalcitrant inmates, such as alleged gang members. The memo laid out the consequences if an officer would have to forcibly take an inmate from his cell: loss of time off for good behavior, prison canteen privileges and exercise breaks - all before any rule violations took place.

"From now on if you participate in a cell extraction the consequence for that will be at a minimum; 90 days loss of credit, 90 loss of canteen and 10 days loss of yard," he wrote.

Nine days later, Associate Warden David Davey rescinded the order.

- Charles Piller

July 16, 2010
Racial bias in California prison lockdowns?

The nonprofit Prison Law Office, an advocacy group behind several influential lawsuits that have imposed new oversight and medical-care programs in California's prisons released a letter
on Thursday that accused the state of racial discrimination in lockdowns -- periods during which prisoners are confined to cells nearly 24 hours a day.

The prisons commonly use lockdowns to control inmates after riots or less-severe altercations. Some of those disturbances involve conflicts between inmates of the same racial group, or conflicts between different racial groups.PK_PRISONS 0201.jpg (Bee photo by Paul Kitagaki, Jr.)

The Prison Law Office studied the 379 lockdowns (which lasted, on average, 109 days) during the first half of last year. It "found troubling evidence of racial discrimination in more than 100" lockdowns occurring in 25 of the system's 33 prisons. Dozens of prisoners also have told The Bee that they view many lockdowns as discriminatory.

Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit, said in a letter to corrections Secretary Matthew Cate that prisons had improperly penalized entire racial groups rather than determining the risks posed by individual inmates.

-Charles Piller

June 17, 2010
Inmate alleges retaliation for talking to The Bee

Are correctional officers retaliating against state prison inmates for speaking up about prison conditions? He says yes. They say no.

Rufus Gray, currently an inmate at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, told The Bee in a May story about alleged racism and cruelty he suffered while imprisoned at High Desert State Prison in Susanville.

"It was a strip-search, buck-naked in the snow," Gray said. He was among many inmates who told The Bee about hours-long searches in freezing conditions.RB Corcoran BMU 1.JPG

Now he says in a letter that guards at his current prison refer to him as "the infamous Gray" for his comments to The Bee. Gray said he had been restricted from adequate use of the prison law library, and has been placed in administrative segregation -- a prison within the prison -- after having been caught up in what he called a "staged racial riot" at Calipatria State Prison, east of San Diego, where he previously was housed. He blamed his treatment on retaliation for talking to The Bee.

Cassandra Hockenson, a spokesperson for the corrections department, said that Gray was transferred out of Calipatria due to his participation in the riot. Regarding his charge of retaliation, she said, "as far as we know, there's no such thing happening."

Several other inmates have written to say that editions of The Bee that contained the prison series were withheld from distribution in some prisons. Corrections officials said in some cases, mail backlogs may have delayed distribution, but that the prisons work to correct any such problems when they occur.

-Charles Piller

May 17, 2010
Lockdowns - more common in California prisons
Lockdowns -- in which prisoners are restricted to their cells for long periods, without time in the exercise yard, prison jobs or recreation -- are common in California prisons. In my recent investigation of behavior modification programs, I found many inmates got out of their cells for as little as one hour a week. The prisoner pictured below in a Corcoran facility, bathing himself in a sink in his cell, had been locked down for months. Massive overcrowding often sparks violence that leads to lockdowns.
RB Corcoran BMU 4.JPG

This is not the norm nationally, I was told by Jeffrey Beard, who heads Pennsylvania's prisons. In his state and many others, lockdowns are rare -- and when they do occur, short. In the last 30 years, the longest lockdowns in his state lasted just a few days. Long lockdowns, and the deprivation and isolation they represent, are one more reason that most experts regard California's prisons as among the most troubled in the nation.

--Charles Piller
May 15, 2010
Do prison behavior units boost mental health costs?
For my recent series on behavior modification programs (called "BMUs") in the state prisons, I tried to learn whether the units are increasing prison costs during our state's current budget crisis. Officials said they were unable to compare the cost of BMUs to other prison housing. But when I visited Calipatria State Prison, prisoners said extreme deprivation and isolation in the behavior units had pushed many to use psychotropic drugs -- an expensive line item for prisons.

PK_PRISONS 0071.jpg"Damn near everybody...since they've entered the BMU, they're in mental health," said inmate Derek Hardy, 32. "How's this supposed to be helping somebody when everybody's in mental health and getting on these medications?...I'm one of them people because this is cruel and unusual punishment right here." (Hardy is on the top cell bunk, above.) See an audio slide show of prisoners talking about conditions in these units here.

-- Charles Piller

May 13, 2010
Prison investigation draws fire -- and ire
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for RB Corcoran BMU 9.JPG

We knew readers would respond to Charles Piller's latest investigation, about allegations of prisoner abuse in special "behavior management" units at prisons. And respond they have, beginning with a string of spontaneous comments on the promo for the two-part series, seconds after it popped onto Friday afternoon. Many readers were angry, saying we gave convicted felons -- many of them well-versed in lying -- too large a platform. A few were furious, suggesting the reporter spend a few nights in a cell with his new buddies. But amid the anger and fury and name calling were some measured thoughts on both sides.

If you have a strong stomach for conflict, take a look for yourself. In addition to the online commenters, others reached out to the reporter directly and they had some intriguing things to say as well:

Thank you for your work on the California Prison Behavior Modification Units. You are delving into areas which need to be brought to the surface. Please disregard the vitriolic retorts from the mostly correctional officers commenting. Their hate filled verbiage only serves to substantiate what you are reporting on. There is much more than you will ever be allowed to see or hear about, but your work is not in vain.

Yes, (criminals) are sent to prison for a crime, they have lost their freedom, to be "locked" away from society...Does this mean that they should be punished physically? Emotionally? Denied the basic human rights? To suffer? To suffer inhumane conditions?

Interestingly, that second email came from a former probation officer whose son has served time in prison.

If you want to hear Charlie discuss the story, and respond to some of the accusations of liberal bias in his own measured way, listen in to his interview with our partner, Capitol Public Radio, here.

-- Amy Pyle

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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