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High Desert State Prison, Susanville, Lassen County, California.

As shocking as the crimes covered in the latest investigation of conditions in California’s prisons is the fact the same abuse, racism and corruption continue.

“Guards at an isolated state prison have created a “culture of racism,” engage in alarming use of force against inmates and have a code of silence encouraged by the union that represents most corrections officers,” reports the Sacramento Bee.

The problems have been exacerbated by High Desert State Prison‘s relative isolation in the high Sierra town of Susanville which has a population of only 16,000. The prison holds more than 3,000 prisoners despite only being designed for 2,300.

The report 2015 Special Review: High Desert State Prison, Susanville, CA (PDF) by the California Inspector General details rising violence in special housing units designed to protect vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, gang dropouts and prisoners with physical disabilities.

“So-called sensitive-needs yards, which are supposed to shelter inmates likely to be attacked in the general population, instead were “just as violent” as the rest of High Desert — “with gang politics meting out abuse and punishment for drug and gambling debts and extorting vulnerable inmates for protection, all of which is exacerbated by the tacit acquiescence of custody staff”,” reports the fastidious and essential Paige St.John for the Los Angeles Times.

The report describes use of the N-word and the derogatory insult “wetback” being used routinely by guards. Prisoners report Green-Walling which is a form of unity and silence that guards adopt to hamper investigation. The California prison-guards’ uniforms is green.

More shocking, but not surprising, the guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, advised its members not to cooperate and filed a lawsuit and collective bargaining grievance in a bid to hinder the investigation, says Inspector General Robert Barton.

“The union sent a letter last month to Gov. Jerry Brown and every state lawmaker in what Barton called “the latest strong-arm tactic … to obstruct the … review and attempt to discredit the OIG in advance of the release of this report”,” reports the Sacramento Bee.

Read the full report: 2015 Special Review: High Desert State Prison, Susanville, CA (PDF)

“I thought it was about the right policies and the right principle. It is really about the money.”

Jeanne Woodford, Former Warden of San Quentin and Former Secretary of the CDC, on the California prison system.

On one occasion in the past, I drew both criticism and praise for an unapologetically emotive tone. In that instance it was on the colliding social issues of Hospitals, Schools & Prisons.

Yesterday, with Beds in Gymnasiums: Prison Guards and Prison Overcrowding in California, I feel I may have ventured into similar territory as per my thoughts on the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). Consider this post a back up and not a back down of my previous sentiments. Consolidation is good for the soul.

So, allow me to describe two important podcasts I listened to yesterday and today and hopefully the dots will join themselves.



Folsom Embodies California’s Prison Blues (NPR) traces the decay of the California Department of Corrections from heights I wasn’t even aware of. Apparently, in the late 70s Folsom Prison was the shining light of progressive American prison cultures. All prisoners lived in their own cells, virtually every inmate was enlisted in a program or had a job, and upon release very few of them returned. It was record envied across the US.

Today, over 4,400 men live in the facility designed for 1,800. Folsom is entirely segregated by race. Education, rehabilitation and work programs are down to a few classes with a waiting list of over 1,000. Folsom and California has the worst recidivism rate of any state – over 70% will return to prison within three years.

The real juice of this podcast is the look at the history of this situation: the lobbying millions of the CCPOA, the disguised money, the pandering and the electioneering. Jeanne Woodford, an inspiring and honest inside voice, talks about how the CDC was hamstrung by the CCPOA’s power. Her sentiments are echoed by the Secretary who succeeded her.


For the past twelve months British comic/rabblerouser, Mark Thomas, has made sense of the global recession by interviewing ‘good’ bankers, economists and policy gurus. All of these are available via podcast.

Professor Richard Wilkinson talks about Western nations and their success/failure in providing a good quality of life for their citizens.

The theory backed up by reputable statistics (WHO and others) is that social problems are more acute in countries with the most inequality. Affluence has nothing to do with social harmony. Wide differences in affluence can destroy social harmonies.


Wilkinson notes in countries such as Japan, Sweden and Finland the richest 20% are 4 times richer than the 20% poorest. In Britain, US and Portugal the richest 20% are 9 times richer than the poorest 20%. In the more inequitable countries depression and mental health problems are more widespread; there is more friction in family life as reflected in the harshness of the unjust society. Wilkinson questions the psychological landscape of western nations and asks, “What sort of society I am growing up in? Will I be fairly treated?”

Inequality is about dominance – not reciprocity – which explains why the harshest sentencing (subjugation) exists in America – the most unequal of societies. Wilkinson goes on to discuss prison systems and how their harshness is in direct correlation with social inequality. IT’S A MUST LISTEN.

On the increase of the prison population in the US, Wilkinson quotes estimates that only 10-20% of the increase is due to increased crime.* The remainder is due to more punitive sentencing.

In possession of this information, we must think about how crime, sentencing and prisons relate to society – YES, PRISONS ARE WITHIN NOT OUTSIDE OF SOCIETY. And that said, I’ll be making a return on this blog to discussion of our exposure to, and consumption of, images of prisons and prisoners.

*Both the UK and the US have been incarcerating more and more people, while crime has been falling.

The San Jose Mercury News which, for as long as I can remember, has been the standard bearer for Bay Area reporting on prison issues produced a short multimedia piece on Monday.


The presentation is mainly a prison official’s description of the conditions, needs and startling figures at California Institute for Men, Chino. This facility was the scene of riots in August. It is also the CDCr Reception Center for Southern California, which means all new men processed into the system will first go here, before given security classification and shipped elsewhere. Of course, the mix of over-population, diverse and historically antagonistic groups, and non-permanence leads to a tense institution.

My main problem with the piece however is that I – unlike the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) – cannot ignore recent history, lobbying, political action committee millions and the resultant harsh sentencing.

Since the 1980s, the CCPOA – the prison guards union – bolstered its membership from 2,600 to over 45,000, drew in union fees to swell its coffers and began hurling them at victims rights groups, tough on crime politicians and public fear campaigns.

The CCPOA grew year-on-year as well as any corporation. It’s shareholders however were not a disparate public, but a 30,000 strong (comparatively) homogeneous group within a burgeoning prison industry and a Napoleon-complex.

Prior to the mid 80s the CCPOA had virtually no political capital. They were a small union in a small state sector … and they were largely ignored. By 1992 the CCPOA operated the state’s second largest PAC. By the year 2000 the CCPOA was the pariah of the union community in California. The CCPOA bankrolled and won ballot initiatives that meant increased prison funding and construction. Other unions, particularly the teachers, were not blind to this boom in incarceration … all the while public education funds dwindled.

All of this is very difficult for me to forget.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to legislate to put a cap on union spending during his first year in office, he was in fact only interested in controlling the rampant CCPOA. It wasn’t a classic anti-labour Republican maneuver but rather the absolute necessary move if California was to reign in prison spending. In some respects it was the politics of a progressive! Schwarzenegger failed doubly. The initiative was heavily defeated and he forced the CCPOA and other unions closer together by virtue of a shared enemy.

The CCPOA took advantage of the situation and stepped back into line with the agendas of other unions. For years it had unilaterally forced its agenda through. But the CCPOA could see the ‘good times’ were coming to an end. No new prisons have been built in California since 1998. That figure explains the overcrowding, but also reflects recent political and public rejection of yet more warehousing without rehabilitation (as has been the norm).

So while we can all share in a dismay, even disgust in the failure of government to provide adequate housing or programs for those it takes into custody, we should all be sharing in the knowledge of how this situation came about. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; the CCPOA are guilty as hell – the rank and file change, the leadership less so, but the organisation remains the same.

This is what I think of when I see correctional officers under stress and duress … I think that their union sold them out a long time ago.

The CCPOA made it’s bed.

UC Berkeley’s Dept. of Governmental Studies provides this brief but comprehensive history of the CCPOA.

The San Jose Mercury News has its own Photoblog.


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