SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Employees at a remote Northern California prison largely view inmates as “little more than wild animals” incapable of being rehabilitated, according to the latest in a long series of critical reports.
California corrections officials sought the external review after the state inspector general reported last year that High Desert State Prison guards had created a “culture of racism” and engaged in alarmingly frequent use of force against inmates.
The Association of State Correctional Administrators found little evidence of overt racism, but plenty of other problems at the maximum security prison housing about 3,800 inmates near Susanville, nearly 200 miles from Sacramento.
Employees view themselves as united in a two-front battle against some of the state’s toughest inmates on one side and a distant, disconnected state bureaucracy on the other, according to the report provided to The Associated Press.
The report blames a lack of communication and leadership at the prison, which has had 15 wardens in its 21 years of existence — five in the last 18 months.
That “has left the staff without a clear sense of direction, and in particular unaware of the change toward rehabilitation in the department’s mission,” says the report. “In their view, efforts to rehabilitate inmates of the type housed at HDSP, who they view as little more than wild animals, are both futile and dangerous.”
Guards rarely interact with inmates unless violence erupts, tacitly allowing illegal activities like gambling among inmates as a way of keeping the peace, the review team found.
“It was as if the officers and the inmates had reached an agreement. ‘You can do your thing, and we’ll do ours, so long as you don’t get violent,'” the reviewers wrote. “Viewing inmates as dangerous animals, the officers do little to prevent violence but rather keep their distance waiting for it to occur. When it does occur, which it does almost daily, they react quickly en mass to suppress it with force.”
Nichol Gomez, a spokeswoman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents most prison guards, said Friday that the union was reviewing the report and she could not immediately comment.
Employees of all races denied the institutionalized racism described by the inspector general.
Minority inmates denied being addressed with racist language, though they believed they were victims of discrimination. Reviewers found white inmates were disproportionately assigned to skilled jobs, while Latinos were underrepresented. Black inmates were disproportionately likely to face discipline and use of force.
“They found all the same statistical disparities that we did,” said Shaun Spillane, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office. He said his agency examined different things than did the latest review.
Don Specter, director of the non-profit Prison Law Office that represents inmates, said his law firm’s investigation last year found that inmates were often subjected to racist comments.
“It’s incredibly difficult for the Department of Corrections to rehabilitate prisoners when at least some of the staff have those kind of comments — suggesting that the prisoners are not human or, even milder, not fit for rehabilitation,” he said.
Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan ordered the nearly $188,000 report in March.
The department “recognizes there is good work being done by our staff at High Desert State Prison under difficult circumstances, and will continue to strive for improvements,” he said in a statement, adding that, “Our overarching goal is to ensure safety for everyone and to promote rehabilitation in support of public safety.”
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