Reviews find poor oversight of California prisons, jails
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Despite the state spending nearly $10 million a year to improve its handling of inmates’ allegations of staff misconduct, California’s inspector general said Tuesday the corrections department’s “process remains broken” and is neither independent nor fair.
Wardens exonerated more than 98% of prison employees under the new system, a rate even higher than the 97% who were cleared when the inspector general’s office criticized the old system two years ago. Most complaints were never passed on to the newly created Allegation Inquiry Management Section, which is underperforming despite the $9.8 million infusion, the review found.
“The lack of independence we highlighted two years ago still persists,” Inspector General Roy Wesley said in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers outlining the findings.
The new unit was intended to take complaint reviews away from individual prisons, so officials wouldn’t be investigating their fellow correctional officers. But of more than 50,000 inmate grievances in a five-month period ending in August, wardens decided more than 95% did not allege staff misconduct and referred just 541 to the new investigation unit.
The new investigation unit, in turn, opened just 86 inquiries a month, less than one-fifth of what it was intended to handle when lawmakers and Newsom allocated the money.
“It confirms what we have been arguing, which is the department’s investigation and discipline system is broken and biased,” said attorney Gay Grunfeld, who represents inmates with disabilities in one of the major federal class-action lawsuits that guide many prison policies. “They keep a lot of the allegations of staff misconduct at the prison, where they are investigated by their friends.”
Corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison said in a response letter that the inspector general’s criticism “may be premature” given that the new system is less than a year old.
The department “has encountered challenges, especially in the beginning,” Allison wrote. But she said the department “has not found evidence demonstrating wardens are intentionally circumventing the new process. Rather, typical learning curve challenges have transpired.”
The department is providing more training as it works to improve the process, she said.
The new unit declined to investigate more than one of every five of the few grievances that were forwarded by wardens, the review found, including allegations of sexual misconduct, neglect of duty, unreasonable use of force, threats and intimidation, retaliation and dishonesty.
The inspector general’s report said poor data collection means the department likely “has severely undercounted — potentially by the thousands — the number of allegations of staff misconduct.”
Moreover, 15 years of monitoring the department’s disciplinary process “leads us to conclude that an exoneration rate of more than 98 out of every 100 instances demonstrates a lack of fairness in the process,” Wesley said. Among other things, his report recommends that inmates be required to submit their grievances directly to the new unit, bypassing wardens’ screening process.
In a separate review also released Tuesday, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the state’s process for inspecting about 550 local detention facilities, including county jails and juvenile lockups, lacks a clear mission and goals.
Even if the Board of State and Community Corrections finds and reports violations, the board has no way to enforce the standards, for instance with fines.
Moreover, the board’s current membership “does not have sufficient expertise and balance of perspectives” to make sure that the local facilities are providing legal, safe and humane conditions, the analyst said.
Six of the 13 board members run correctional agencies, four of which are subject to the inspections, so the analyst said they “have an incentive to avoid approving standards that they believe would be difficult or costly to meet.”
The analyst recommended that lawmakers add board members who are experts in overseeing detention conditions.
“I think they’re spot on. The regulations from my perspective are relatively useless,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office. “The regulations aren’t even designed to figure out whether they have serious health and safety risks or other serious problems.”
His firm has reached consent agreements with six of California’s 58 counties over alleged constitutional violations, and Grunfeld’s firm has an agreement with a seventh county.
Responding to complaints, Newsom a year ago ordered the board to follow national best practices, focus on facilities with a history of problems, and highlight problem facilities at public meetings. The board did not immediately respond to the latest recommendations.