Report: California Prison Guards Broke Use of Force Rules in Nearly Half of 2018 Incidents

An armed California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer escorts a condemned inmate at San Quentin State Prison's death row on August 15, 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Prison guards in California routinely violated use-of-force rules, according to an official review of 2018 incidents.

While state prison guards are allowed to use force on inmates who threaten the safety of others or the security of institutions, the new report from California's Office of the Inspector General found that staff routinely used force unnecessarily and in violation of department policy.

“The department’s overall compliance rate remains low, with the department finding only 55% of incidents in full compliance with its policies and procedures,” Inspector General Roy Wesley wrote in a letter to state lawmakers. The report found that officers at contract facilities, where state prisons house an overflow of inmates, often fail to specify exactly how they were threatened and why they needed to use force.

The report cited several examples, including one where an inmate refused to put on handcuffs, but didn't pose any apparent threat. A prison guard was caught on video grabbing the inmate from behind and forcing him to the ground. Other guards jumped into the scuffle. The inspector general said there was no threat that would justify the kind of force used.

The prison warden, though, disagreed and determined that the guards had followed protocol.

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The inspector general's office reviewed 6,426 incidents that had been recorded by California prison officials in 2018 and found “only minimal improvement” in getting guards to comply with use-of-force policies since the last review in 2017.

“Whatever training they're using to reinforce the policy isn't working,” said Don Specter, an attorney with the Prison Law Office. “There's very little accountability.”

Specter’s firm has been tracking use of force on California inmates for 25 years.

“The good news is that when they review the use of force they figure out that there were violations of policy,” Specter said. “The bad news is, they don't do anything about it. So there's no improvement from year-to-year.”

The inspector general found that half of all uses of force involved chemical agents, such as pepper spray. Officers used physical restraint and control holds a third of the time, and resorted to rubber bullets, batons and Tasers 19% of the time.

Specter was most concerned with the inspector general’s finding that many of the incidents in question involved inmates who were confined to their cells and didn’t pose an imminent threat.

The inspector general’s review also found that prison staff often did not properly follow procedures for investigating inmate complaints by “completing untimely interviews, not recording inmate injuries, completing interviews in a non-confidential setting, or conducting interviews even though they were involved in the incident.”

“The department is supposed to take pictures of people who allege excessive use of force or who are subject to uses of force within 48 hours so that you can document the extent of the injuries, if any,” said Specter. “But they fail to do that in a timely manner as well, and that eliminates some pretty powerful evidence.”

Prison officials were still evaluating the findings Tuesday, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Vicky Waters.

“Use of force is sometimes necessary when dealing with incidents that may pose a safety and security risk for both inmates and staff,” Waters wrote in an email. “It is a priority for our department that all staff follow policies, protocols and procedures, and we will continue to collaborate with the Office of the Inspector General to ensure full compliance.”

The inspector general recommended that the state prison system require all its correctional officers to attend use of force training to ensure compliance with the department’s policy, and suggested the department impose discipline of increasing severity against supervising and participating staff who violated policy when an inmate was in a controlled space, such as a cell.

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