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Sacramento Bee

Probe Uncovers Strip Searches, Chains and Racism at Prisons

Charler Piller


An officer stands in a tower overlooking the behavior management unit at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran. Five years ago, the state opened behavior units for inmates deemed troublemakers. At High Desert State Prison, inmates have alleged serious abuses. (Image: Randall Benton / SacBee)

SACRAMENTO - Jason Brannigan's eyes widened as he relived the day
he says prison guards pepper-sprayed his face at point-blank range,
then pulled him through the cellblock naked, his hands and feet

"I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" Brannigan recalled gasping in pain
and humiliation during the March 2007 incident.

walking me on the chain and it felt just like ... slaves again," said the
African American inmate, interviewed at the Sacramento County jail.
"Like I just stepped off an auction block."

33, said the incident occurred in the behavior modification unit at
High Desert State Prison in Susanville, Calif., where he was serving
time for armed assault. He is one of more than 1,500 inmates who have
passed through such units in six California prisons.

investigation into the behavior units, including signed affidavits,
conversations and correspondence with 18 inmates, has uncovered
evidence of racism and cruelty at the High Desert facility. Inmates
described hours-long strip-searches in a snow-covered exercise yard.
They said correctional officers tried to provoke attacks between
inmates, spread human excrement on cell doors and roughed up those who
peacefully resisted mistreatment.

Many of their claims were
backed by legal and administrative filings, and signed affidavits,
which together depicted an environment of brutality, corruption and

Behavior units at other prisons were marked by extreme
isolation and deprivation - long periods in a cell without education,
social contact, TV or radio, according to inmate complaints and recent
visits by The Bee. An inmate of the Salinas Valley State Prison
behavior unit won a lawsuit last year to get regular access to the
prison yard after five months without exercise, sunlight or fresh air.

prison officials have known about many of these claims since at least
July 2008, when Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation social
scientists sent to High Desert to assess the program reported
allegations of abuse - including denial of medical care, racial slurs,
gratuitous violence and destruction of protest appeals.

The Bee's
investigation also revealed a broad effort by corrections officials to
hide the concerns of prisoners and of the department's own experts.
Their final report, released only after The Bee requested it in April,
downplayed the abuses.

James Austin, a researcher who served on a
2007 panel formed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to evaluate state
prisons, said such allegations would automatically trigger an
investigation in most correctional facilities.

"You don't really have an option," Austin said. "It's like reporting a crime to the police."

in an April 6 interview, Scott Kernan, corrections undersecretary for
operations, was quick to dismiss the claims as typical of prisoner
gripes, adding: "I don't see drastic abuses."

A week after The
Bee asked about the behavior unit, internal affairs in the Corrections
Department opened a narrowly defined probe, Kernan later said, into
what managers did after researchers informed them of the abuse

Results of that inquiry will not be made public, he said.

modification units, later renamed behavior management units, were
created in six prisons in 2005 and 2006. They were designed for
troublemakers and inmates who refuse a cellmate - as an intermediary
step between draconian high-security cells and general prison housing.

units were to feature classes in "life skills," such as anger
management. In practice, most classes have since been eliminated and
budget cuts have closed three units, including High Desert's.

inmates in state prisons are incarcerated for serious crimes and are
hardly the most reliable sources. But state researcher Norman Skonovd
said he and his colleagues found the prisoners credible because they
provided highly consistent stories in separate interviews.

Bee tested that conclusion by tracking down more than a dozen men who
served time in the High Desert unit. Now scattered across the prison
system, they had no apparent opportunity to consult with each other.
Their stories, supported by hundreds of pages of legal and prison
documents, included remarkable consistency about incidents that some
called "cruel and unusual."

'We do what we want'

"It was a
strip-search, buck-naked in the snow," said Rufus Gray, an inmate who
spent eight months in the High Desert behavior unit.

Gray, now an
inmate at Calipatria State Prison east of San Diego, was one of several
who complained to state researchers or The Bee about such checks.

Magnani with the American Friends Service Committee, an advocacy group,
was visiting High Desert on a bitterly cold day in 2007 when she saw a
similar scene: a prisoner, in underwear and shoeless, "paraded" across
the frozen yard.

"To us, it looked like pure humiliation," Magnani said.

they stood shivering, inmates said, High Desert guards ransacked cells
in a search for contraband, in the process damaging personal photos,
and dumping tooth-cleaning powder in toilets.

When The Bee
requested a response from High Desert officials on this and other
issues in the research report, Kernan said he would answer for them.
Such complaints are "very common for inmates in restricted programs,"
he said, and don't necessarily warrant follow-up beyond a normal
complaint-resolution process.

But prisoners said the strip-searches were emblematic of everyday life in the High Desert behavior unit.

cells leaked in rainstorms, soaking mattresses, they said, and blankets
and toiletries were routinely withheld. Birds trapped in the unit
defecated in prisoners' food trays, and prayer books and rugs were
confiscated without recourse.

Edward Thomas, who served time in
the unit, said in a phone interview from his current setting,
California State Prison, Sacramento, that High Desert guards also
contaminated inmates' food with dirt and insects and often starved
those who complained.

The experience, Thomas said, "was like something that happens in a concentration camp."

46, is partly disabled. His repeated requests for mobility assistance
were denied, according to affidavits from 10 inmates.

Guards said
Thomas was faking, although medical records show that prison doctors
had diagnosed a permanently disabling back condition.

Thomas and
former High Desert inmate Lawrence Larry, currently incarcerated at
Calipatria, described separate incidents in which the contents of an
incontinent inmate's diapers were smeared on cell doors or pushed
underneath by guards.

Often, inmates alleged, mistreatment escalated to threats and outright assault.

his first night in the High Desert unit, James Williams requested a
blanket. In response, "the guy put me in cuffs, squeezed them real
tight, pulled my arm up my back," Williams said. "He said, 'This is
High Desert. We do what we want.' "

Antonio Scott, now imprisoned
in Corcoran, said High Desert guards damaged his kidney after he and
other inmates withheld food trays to protest poor conditions. Guards
beat up five of them in their cells, Scott said.

If true, said
Jeffrey Beard, Pennsylvania corrections chief and another member of
Schwarzenegger's expert panel, such violence exceeds anything he knows
of nationwide. "We make it very clear in our system that we don't
tolerate that type of behavior," he said.

Kernan said he could
not respond to any specific allegations made by inmates but "we have an
extensive procedure for any allegations of inappropriate use of force."

"Man down!"

Brannigan and his cellmate, Lawrence Larry, heard loud pounding after
breakfast on Nov. 3, 2007, they suspected a fight on the upper tier.
But there were no shouts, and the sounds went on for over an hour.

10 a.m., a guard sounded the alarm, rushed into the cell where the
commotion had come from and pulled out Gerardo Martinez, according to
the Lassen County coroner's report. Martinez didn't have a pulse.

scene was reflected in windows of the guard tower as if on a big
screen, inmates said, allowing them to clearly view officers' futile
efforts at resuscitation.

Martinez, 39, alone in his cell, had
hanged himself with a torn sheet tied to the bed frame. He had been
moved to the behavior unit because High Desert's security housing was
overflowing and, according to the autopsy report, he was on suicide
watch. The Tulare County resident, who had a history of mental illness,
was imprisoned for stabbing his father to death.

The coroner
wrote that guards had checked Martinez at 9:30 a.m. Brannigan and Larry
said that they saw no such checks occur and no guard seemed to notice
the pounding.

"He wouldn't have died," Larry wrote in a letter to The Bee, if "officers and sargents (sic) were doing their hourly checks."

Lewis, a stocky, young African American, also tried to hang himself in
2007, said his former cellmate, Stephon Fletcher, now out on parole in
Los Angeles.

One night Fletcher awakened to sounds of grunting
and choking. Lewis - whom Fletcher described as despondent over abuse
in the unit combined with a lack of family support - was hanging from a
torn sheet. Fletcher rushed to hold him up, loosening the noose.

yelled, 'Man down! Man down!' " Fletcher recalled. But he said the
guards suspected it was a ruse to get out of the unit. "If you don't
stop playing," they said, according to Fletcher, "we're going to let
your fat ass die."

After watching for 30 seconds, they told
Fletcher to let go, he said. When Lewis went slack, they stormed in and
cut him down. Lewis survived.

Court records indicate suicidal
inmates are typical in behavior units. So are prisoners heavily
medicated for psychosis, and delusional and bipolar disorders.

mental health monitors said Salinas Valley placed an inmate in its
behavior unit for refusing to share a cell after he had been sexually
assaulted repeatedly. The man suffered from panic attacks. "His risk of
self-injury and suicide should be assessed thoroughly and often," the
monitor wrote.

At High Desert, a behavior-modification inmate was
moved to a special care unit "during the monitor's visit after
attempting suicide."

In 2006, the prison system's own experts
advised against placing any inmates, particularly those who are
mentally ill, in behavior units, said a senior official who helped
review the High Desert program.

"Mental health officials said the
programs going into High Desert didn't meet behavior modification
clinical standards, and research did not support the program as
effective in modifying criminal behavior," said the official, speaking
on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals. "They worried
that some mentally unstable inmates could be harmed by the program."

The Bee's March 30 visit to Calipatria, stress seemed to rattle
behavior-unit inmate Vu Ha. He wiped his toilet with a towel, wiped his
floor, then placed the towel on the floor, carefully lining it up with
the cell door. He paced, picked up the towel and repeated the process,
over and over.

In an interview, Ha, 30, complained of boredom and
isolation. Asked what he does all day, the Vietnamese immigrant
replied: "Try not go crazy. Sometimes this (unit) make you want to take
some psych med."

Kernan, who oversees all state prison
operations, expressed surprise that such inmates were in the behavior
units, known in prison lingo by their acronym, "BMU."

somebody had been sexually assaulted or was on a heavy level of meds or
was suicidal," Kernan said, "it's hard for me to understand how a
warden would say, 'no, you're going to double cell (or) I'm going to
throw you in the BMU.' "

"Black monkey unit"

Six months
after Brannigan claims he was pepper-sprayed, correctional officer
David R. Vincent falsely and openly called him and another inmate "PC"
- prison shorthand for someone in protective custody - according to a
formal complaint filed by Brannigan, provided by his grandmother.

within earshot of other prisoners, it was like putting a target on
their backs, even though "PC" inmates are never housed in the behavior
units, according to Kernan.

Protective-custody inmates, often
child molesters, informants or gang defectors, are magnets for prison
violence. Brannigan said angry inmates confronted him in the law
library, but he convinced them that he had been set up.

prisoners backed his account in signed statements. Brannigan later
withdrew his complaint, according to an official memo. But the prison
still examined the case and, in January 2008, Vincent was exonerated
without explanation.

Numerous inmates linked such treatment to skin color.

than half of the 164 inmates who had passed through the High Desert
behavior unit by fall 2007 were black, while African Americans made up
about a third of the prison's total population. Inmates said blacks
routinely are targeted.

"Several inmates described an incident
when staff left one inmate on the floor with rectal bleeding and
refused to take him to get medical attention," according to the state
researchers' report. When guards arrived, "they said 'It's the f---ing
n----- again, let him die.' And they left him there."

labeled the behavior modification unit the "black monkey unit," inmates
said. Officers joked, Brannigan said, about how "monkeys" are "always
hanging around in there" - a macabre reference to suicide attempts by
prisoners of color.

Brannigan's pepper-spray nightmare took place against this backdrop of alleged discrimination.

"It feels like your lungs are on fire," he said, describing the incident.

who is from Sacramento's Fruitridge neighborhood, honors his
great-grandmother with a forearm tattoo that quotes from the Bible,
"Then the Angel said to them do not be afraid ... " From the jailhouse
visiting booth, he outlined the offense that he said triggered the
pepper-spray episode: not returning his meal tray after two or three
minutes - the time he and other inmates said typically was allotted for
meals in the behavior unit.

When "extracted" from his cell,
guards slammed him to the ground and savagely kicked his legs,
Brannigan said, and "made me strip naked to try to degrade me." They
led him to one shower room, and then another, to wash off the burning
spray - but found no more than a trickle of water.

An officer later threatened to post online a recording of the incident, which he dubbed "the S&M video," Brannigan claimed.

he was led by a chain through the cell block, nearby inmates, including
his cellmate Larry, gazed in stunned silence through gaps in barriers
that guards had placed over cell windows.

A centuries-old icon of inhumanity, Larry said, seemed to have been transported into today's world.

"You will not be informed"

prisoners knew this sort of abuse was illegal, and they complained via
the prison's appeal process. Their complaints usually were discarded,
rejected or ignored, they claimed in interviews and formal filings
obtained by The Bee.

Nor did prisoners receive responses to
letters they said they sent to the FBI or the state inspector general,
an independent agency that investigates corrections.

When they
requested confirmation that their mail had been delivered, as required
by law, officials said mail logs had been lost in a computer crash,
according to a memo from the mailroom supervisor obtained by The Bee
from Brannigan's grandmother.

When an inmate persisted in
pressing claims of excessive force, they claimed, guards sometimes
fabricated a charge of "disobeying a direct order," which can add time
to a sentence. Or guards implied they would retaliate.

quoted officer Leo F. Betti in a written complaint: "You and I better
come to an understanding real soon," Betti purportedly said, "or it's
going to get a lot worse for you up here."

In 2007, Brandy Frye,
a Sacramento resident and Brannigan's then-girlfriend, provided
complaints from several inmates to internal affairs and asked for an
examination of High Desert. Frye received a response from High Desert
Chief Deputy Warden M.D. McDonald.

"Many of the allegations you
speak of," McDonald wrote on July 17, 2007, "have been investigated via
the appeals process. ... It has been determined that (High Desert) staff
is following the policies of (the state corrections department). If
staff misconduct is discovered during the inquiry, the appropriate
corrective action will be taken. However, you will not be informed of
the results of the inquiry or the nature of the corrective action

Corrections undersecretary Kernan said that no formal
department probe of the allegations had taken place and he was not
aware of any investigation by the inspector general.

'Hide the findings'

state researchers left High Desert shaken by their July 2007 visit,
said Skonovd, a sociologist and member of the group. Skonovd, who also
lectures at UC Davis and has more than 25 years of corrections research
experience, said he had never seen a similar case.

prisoners' alarming claims, guards seemed to view behavior modification
as a license to make inmates as miserable as possible to compel

The researchers immediately alerted the correction
department's research director, Assistant Secretary Steven Chapman,
expecting him to warn higher-ups and prepare for a formal investigation.

Instead, they said, Chapman chastised them and insisted that prisoner complaints be toned down and buried.

became visibly angry at the staff and manager ... (and) directed the
staff and managers to take no further actions to inform administrators
of their findings," research manager Nikki Baumrind wrote after the
meeting, in notes obtained by The Bee.

The Bee requested
interviews with Chapman and Baumrind, but neither was made available by
the corrections department, nor did either respond to direct requests
for an interview.

Baumrind's description of Chapman's response
was confirmed in notes recorded after the meeting by Skonovd and the
other field researchers.

"We did not say that we believed the
allegations - just that they were serious and we thought they needed to
be reported to the Administration at Headquarters - these involved
allegations of constitutional rights violations!" Skonovd wrote.
"(Chapman) told us all to not take this information any further - that
he would handle it. He was very emphatic about that."

The Bee
asked Kernan if Chapman had informed prison or headquarters authorities
about the claims. Kernan said Chapman insists that before leaving the
prison, the researchers themselves had duly alerted the deputy warden.
Yet those researchers and Baumrind all indicated in their notes that
they had not - adding that Chapman actually had rebuked them for
failing to do so.

Abuse claims were prominently featured in an
initial draft of the researchers' report, obtained by The Bee. In the
final version, managers directed that the allegations be relegated to
an appendix "to hide the (abuse) findings," Baumrind wrote.

the spring of 2008, Skonovd said he reported the allegations to the
state inspector general. The agency would not confirm whether an
investigation ever was conducted.

By then, Skonovd maintains, Chapman had begun to retaliate against him, denying him deserved promotions.

did not give up. In April 2009, he said he met confidentially with
Elizabeth Siggins, chief deputy corrections secretary for adult
programs, about the abuse allegations and his retaliation concerns.
Siggins declined to be interviewed for this story.

"It is not my
custom to go outside the 'chain of command,' " Skonovd wrote in an
e-mail to Siggins obtained by The Bee. "However, these issues involve
matters of conscience and professional research standards."

Last week he filed a formal retaliation complaint.

wasn't really a behavior modification program in any positive sense,"
said Skonovd, explaining why he continued to push for a formal
investigation of the allegations. "In the end it was mostly about
punishment and controlling behavior through fear."


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