The state of California issued a report this week on conditions at High Desert State Prison. It is a nightmare.
The full report, which can be found here, describes a remote, isolated, lawless penal hellscape in which guards abuse some inmates and choose to allow other vulnerable groups of inmates to be abused by their fellow prisoners. This prison, HDSP, has had six different wardens in the past eight years, which should give you a hint as to its level of institutional dysfunction. It has been the subject of media scrutiny for years, which helped lead to this state report.
The report describes a pervasive code of silence among staff members reinforced by strong groups of friends known as “cars”:
On the other hand, some former staff described the negative consequences that could occur if you were not a member of the “car” or if you spoke out or reported misconduct against a member of the “car.” These consequences could include unfavorable job changes, being ostracized and labeled as a “rat,” shunning in the community, retaliatory investigations, verbal badgering and abuse, the threat of not responding to an inmate assault on staff, and even physical assault by a custody supervisor.
Former HDSP inmates testified to extremely widespread racism in day to day life in the prison. Some excerpts included in the report:
.. officers called inmates the N-word or wetbacks. Black inmates wouldn’t get enough time to eat; the officers would ‘kick’ the blacks out of the chow hall first and then the Hispanics. The white inmates didn’t have to leave, they were running the kitchen.
.. never saw such a lack of respect toward black inmates than he experienced at HDSP. Officers called black inmates the N-word and threatened them. This disrespect occurred with free staff as well, including medical staff.
.. there were a lot of disrespectful staff at HDSP. The staff at HDSP were openly racist. The sergeants and lieutenants were worse than the officers. Blacks were treated very differently: they are on lockdowns a lot longer; they go to the hole for the smallest of reasons; and officers messed with their food.
.. officers were racist, called black inmates the N-word, and black inmates were locked down for longer periods of time than other races.
.. the biggest issues are race-related. Once heard an officer call blacks “skid marks.” Regardless of who was involved in an incident, the black population was always held responsible. Since HDSP was run by predominately white staff, the white inmates were favored. White inmates always got the better jobs. Clerical jobs were mainly given to white inmates. Black inmates have to wait at the end of the line during canteen. The canteen manager allows Hispanic and white inmates to run canteen, resulting in the black inmates often not getting a chance to have their canteen orders filled.
Inmates also say that officers at HDSP would point out sex offenders to other inmates so that they would be brutalized. Furthermore, the report says that inmates who were placed in the “Sensitive Needs Yard” (SNY) because they needed protective custody wound up with little protection whatsoever, due to institutional apathy:
The growing numbers of gang dropouts being placed in SNYs has resulted in numerous new gangs forming and warring with rivals on the SNYs. Gang violence has grown so bad that some SNY inmates have asked to return to mainline yards rather than continue to face the gangs on the SNYs. However, once an inmate has been housed on an SNY facility, he then becomes a target or is labeled as soft, making it very difficult to ever transfer out...
Also indicative of the increased violence in SNYs is the proportion of inmate homicides that occur involving victims assigned to SNY housing. In the OIG’s October 2014 SemiAnnual Report, Volume II, it reported on the homicides that took place on sensitive needs yards. Of the 11 inmate-on-inmate homicides reported, 10 occurred on Level IV sensitive needs yards, 8 of which were in-cell homicides. In addition to the 11 homicides, another case reported was an in-cell great bodily injury case that also occurred on an SNY facility, but did not result in death.
We sentence people to prison. The punishment is the loss of their freedom. They are not sentenced to be harassed, discriminated against, targeted with slurs, subjected to gang-like prison guards, and murdered even when they are supposed to be specially protected.
Don’t send people to prison if you can’t protect their human rights.