Lawmakers Grill California Prison Officials on Misconduct Reporting Failures

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation promised to improve how it handles inmate reports of staff abuse and misconduct but delivered a bureaucratic mess instead.

General population inmates walk in a line at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., in 2016. State lawmakers Monday grilled prison officials on staff misconduct reporting failures. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

(CN) — California prison officials sat before a panel of lawmakers in Sacramento two years ago and promised to overhaul the way prisons handle inmates’ complaints of staff misconduct.

They asked for, and got, $9.8 million to start a new staff investigative unit called the Allegation Inquiry Management Section (AIMS). 

At the time, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz assured legislators that wardens would be removed from the staff complaint process and that independent inquiries would be made outside the prison setting.

These promises were not fulfilled, and on Monday, California lawmakers grilled Diaz’s successor Kathleen Allison as to why.

“The bottom line is we made it too complex,” Allison said.

For example, there were too many exclusions for what counts as misconduct. Definitions of certain terms were also confusing and led to fewer cases being forwarded by wardens to AIMS.

“CDCR takes every allegation of staff misconduct very seriously, and we are committed to ensuring all allegations are properly, fairly, and thoroughly reviewed,” Allison added.

The Office of the Inspector General was brought in two years ago to review inmate allegations of staff misconduct at Salinas Valley State prison, one of 35 operated by the CDCR. “We found a system that was utterly and completely broken,” Inspector General Roy Wesley said. “The inquiries conducted at Salinas Valley were rife with botched interviews, officer bias and no semblance of fairness.”

While the CDCR professed to agree with the Inspector Generals’ findings, a report released last month by the Office of Inspector General revealed serious weaknesses persist. The AIMS unit specifically established to solve the problem had failed.

“Wardens undermined the purpose of AIMS by not referring cases and keeping inquiries in the institution,” Wesley said, adding that wardens had likely grossly undercounted instances of staff misconduct by recategorizing them. They also exonerated their staff more than 98% of the time.

From April 1, 2020, to Aug. 31, 2020, the unit accepted 428 inquiries “or about one-fifth of what it was supposed to handle,” Wesley said.

Wardens also chose to refer only 541 of the 2,339 (23%) of grievances alleging staff misconduct to AIMS.

Lawmakers said the department’s failings are part of a long history that resurfaces every budget season.

“Discussing the shortfalls of the CDCR is nothing new. It’s a topic we have revisited year after year after year,” Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said at Monday’s hearing for the committee that oversees the budget for prisons and law enforcement. “It is clear we need additional tools to bring about more accountability to our corrections system.”

In September, a federal judge overseeing a decades-long civil rights case brought by disabled prisoners ordered guards to wear body cameras at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, where civil rights attorneys have documented correctional officers punching, kicking, and using excessive pepper spray on disabled inmates.

Now the department wants $13.5 million this year, $10.1 million next year, and $7 million in 2022-23 to deploy those body cameras, along with an audio surveillance system, and to expand AIMS to comply with the judge’s order. 

But the low numbers infuriated lawmakers, who said they were not sure they should throw more money at the problem.

“It looks like the money we gave you has been misspent,” Assemblymember Mark Stone, a Scotts Valley Democrat said. He was a member of the committee two years ago.

“With all due respect, you have a significant credibility problem on this issue given what we were told two years ago when we approved this money. It seems like the system was set up with too many gates to ensure that complaints never got to the unit. And now you’re actually asking us for more money to provide oversight for a system that was supposed to be oversight. I’m not sure this committee should allow more money to fix a  problem that should not have arisen in the first place.”

Budget chair Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco, was even more incensed.

“Would you agree that Secretary Diaz stood here a year ago promising to have a completely independent process?” he asked Allison, who said she recalled Diaz’s comments but could not speak to her predecessor’s intent. She took over the job after Diaz retired on Oct. 1, 2020. 

She also could not explain why the wardens were inserted into what was supposed to be an independent process.

Ting continued to pepper her with questions. “Why did the department complicate the process? You’ve been with the department for how many years now? You act like you’re a new employee.”

Allison said she had been with the department for 33 or 34 years, but said she was not responsible for overseeing AIMS. She vowed to have “constant oversight” of the process.

“Every allegation will be immediately forwarded to the outside unit. They will no longer go through a screening at the local level,” she said. “That is the first and foremost correction that needs to be done.”

Jones-Sawyer said in addition to misconduct reporting, the department is also failing at discipline. He pointed to a December report from the Inspector General on the department’s delays in processing employee discipline cases. From January through June last year, the department’s discipline delays cost taxpayers approximately $312,584. The department also settled cases despite the Inspector General recommending higher penalties. 

Jones-Sawyer said he will push for the Inspector Generals’ office to receive $11 million to fund its continued oversight of the department.

“It is entirely unacceptable that in an already limited budget, CDCR has wasted over $312,000 in just six months because of delayed discipline,” he said. “But even more important, we should not be allowing individuals to get way with gross attacks on vulnerable, incarcerated populations.”

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