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KQED Sues California Department of Corrections for Records on Staff Use of Force and Misconduct

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a man in a prison uniform unlocks a gate for an inmate
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officer opens the gate for an incarcerated person who is leaving the exercise yard at San Quentin State Prison. KQED is suing CDCR to compel the agency to release records about staff use of force and misconduct. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

KQED is suing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to compel the agency to comply with state law enforcement transparency laws. The prison agency’s response to KQED’s requests for public records “has been both wildly delayed and seriously insufficient,” the complaint alleges.

CDCR did not respond to a request for comment on the filing.

Four years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1421, the landmark “Right to Know” police transparency act, which provides public access to records related to internal investigations into serious use of force, dishonesty and sexual misconduct by peace officers. Last year, the Legislature imposed a 45-day deadline on agencies to provide records in response to requests.

KQED’s suit comes after more than three and a half years of correspondence between CDCR, the largest employer of peace officers in the state, and The California Reporting Project, a statewide coalition of news organizations. The coalition requested records of internal investigations dating back to 2014.

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CDCR has provided complete files for around 260 cases of dishonesty, sexual assault and use of force by prison guards. But the prison agency still hasn’t made public any reports of deadly force or serious misconduct after 2019.

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CDCR has said that its disclosure of all cases between 2014 and 2019 is complete. But KQED has uncovered at least 10 incidents before 2019 in which officers were found to have lied and/or seriously injured incarcerated people that the agency failed to disclose.

Additionally, declarations signed in a lawsuit brought by Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld on behalf of incarcerated disabled people detail dozens of incidents alleging officers broke their ribs or their eye sockets or severely injured them in other ways. Only one of those incidents was disclosed to KQED by the department.

The agency’s disregard for statutory deadlines, illegal redactions and hidden incidents leaves KQED with “no choice but to file this action,” the complaint filed Tuesday in Sacramento County Superior Court said.

“It’s an outrage that they have not adopted sufficient systems and processes for full compliance,” said David Loy, legal director for the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit public interest organization that advocated for SB 1421. “Transparency is the oxygen of accountability, and delayed disclosure can be as bad as no disclosure.”

CDCR has “been responsive to all of KQED’s questions and records requests,” spokesperson Dana Simas said in an email before the suit was filed. She said the agency will “continue to work through several years of disciplinary records, make redactions to hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, and provide documents to numerous entities.”

Simas did not respond to questions about how the public records unit has been staffed or how it prepared for the new deadlines set by the Legislature. She also did not answer specific questions about how cases discovered by KQED were overlooked by the unit.

CDCR has a month to respond after being served with KQED’s complaint.

One internal investigation that, KQED’s reporting uncovered, was withheld by the agency occurred in 2016, when officers severely beat two men incarcerated at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, and then attempted to cover up the beatings. According to documents obtained from the state’s inspector general of prisons through a public records request, in that instance at least 12 officers, four sergeants and three lieutenants were disciplined or fired for a range of misconduct, including excessive force, dishonesty and engaging in a “code of silence.”

The trouble started on July 20, 2016, when officers in the receiving area at the state prison in Tehachapi, a city about 35 miles east of Bakersfield, started handing out hot meals to 23 men who had just arrived from another prison. The officers didn’t give the men, who were being held in holding cages, any utensils to eat with.

One man, Richard Carrasco, told officers the incarcerated men shouldn’t have to eat like dogs or animals, according to court records. Officer Johnny Cababe told Carrasco he didn’t have to eat at all. In response, Carrasco challenged Cababe to open his cage door.

The officer took the bait, according to court records.

“I remember the look on the inmate’s face when he looked at us like, ‘Oh, crap, I shouldn’t have opened my mouth,’” Joshua Heckathorn, who was among the men being held in the receiving area that day, said in a recent phone interview from Kern Valley State Prison, where he is now held.

Heckathorn, who was sent to prison for attempted murder in 2010, said Tehachapi’s correctional officers had a reputation for violence and corruption, but he “didn’t trip on it” until he saw what the officers did to Carrasco.

As Cababe and Carrasco fought, other correctional officers joined in beating the incarcerated man with their batons while pepper-spraying him. After he was handcuffed, Sgt. Robert Ruiz kicked him in the neck, back and stomach, according to a lawsuit filed by Carrasco. The officers severely injured his spine and he permanently lost vision in one eye, the lawsuit states.

a diagram of injuries
Medical staff diagrammed the injuries an incarcerated man named Joshua Heckathorn received at the hands of Tehachapi prison officers on July 20, 2016. Both his hands were fractured, and he needed 13 staples to close the wound on his head. (Courtesy of Mark Redmond)

Heckathorn, who has asthma, struggled to breathe once the pepper spray the officers released worked its way into his lungs. Heckathorn alleged that Ruiz mocked him and told him to “stop crying like a girl.”

“I passed out a couple times,” Heckathorn said, recalling how his body slumped against the sides of the narrow cage that had only enough room to stand in.

At some point a nurse was brought in to check the then-29-year-old as Ruiz continued to mock him, Heckathorn said.

“So I said, ‘Do you think my life’s a joke or what?’” Heckathorn recalled.

Ruiz threw his sunglasses on the ground and, Heckathorn said, came toward him with his “fist balled up.” Jumping up, Heckathorn said he ripped off his blood pressure cuff and met the sergeant halfway.

“It just exploded from there,” said Heckathorn, who told KQED that he fought with Ruiz and a handful of other officers until he couldn’t fight back any more. One of the guards split his head open with a baton, Heckathorn said, and he lost consciousness.

“I can hear it tear my scalp open,” he said.

Officers continued to beat Heckathorn after he was on the ground and handcuffed, according to court filings. Heckathorn said he doesn’t know how long the beating lasted because he kept passing out.

“I remember the third time I woke up, I had handcuffs on behind my back, and they were just hitting my hands, only my hands with the stick as hard as they can,” he said.

Then a sergeant shot Heckathorn point-blank in the leg with a less-lethal rubber bullet, tearing his leg open. Both of his hands were broken, and the injuries to his head and leg were stapled shut at the hospital, medical records show.

a medical record photo showing the back of a man's head with staples
Medical records show staples on the back of Joshua Heckathorn's head, due to injuries he received at the hands of Tehachapi prison officers on July 20, 2016. (Courtesy of Mark Redmond)

The incident was described very differently in official reports, documents obtained from the inspector general of prisons show.

Capt. Edward Yett, whose job it was to review the incident, found the official reports, which justified the use of force, had “inconsistencies” with what incarcerated witnesses said happened, according to emails between the warden and a sergeant.

The officer whom Heckathorn said shot him in his leg wrote it up as an accidental discharge. And the names of some officers who were there were missing from official reports entirely.

Yett put in a request for internal affairs to take a look at the case. A couple of weeks later, records show that Yett found his vehicle in the prison parking lot with the word “rat” written in dust.

CDCR’s office of internal affairs investigated 21 correctional officers and three nurses, according to documents from the inspector general of prisons. The investigation concluded that officers failed to report use of force, wrote false information in reports, falsified logs and lied in interviews.

Warden John Garza was transferred to a prison in Bakersfield, where he ran things until he was arrested for the solicitation of prostitution in 2018.

Attorneys for the involved officers either did not respond or declined requests for comment. Four officers appealed their firing all the way to the superior court in Sacramento. KQED discovered the incident through those petitions, the last of which a judge heard in August. A final decision in that case is still pending. The other three appeals were denied.

A lieutenant and seven officers — including Cababe, who opened the cage door to fight Carrasco — were fired, according to court records and documents from the inspector general of prisons. CDCR settled with Ruiz, another sergeant and two officers, allowing them to resign. Three officers, two sergeants and two lieutenants were suspended or had their pay cut, but kept their jobs.

a car window with the word 'rat' written in dust
Capt. Edward Yett’s vehicle with the word 'rat' written in dust. Yett asked internal affairs to open an investigation into the July 20, 2016, incident after he found inconsistencies in officers' reports. (Courtesy of California's inspector general of prisons)

“We took swift and significant action to hold all culpable staff accountable for their involvement in this incident,” CDCR spokesperson Simas wrote in an email. “This incident was abhorrent and in complete conflict with the way that we train our officers and staff.”

CDCR also sent the case to the Kern County district attorney, recommending that more than a dozen officers and their supervisors be charged with crimes ranging from writing false reports to battery and inhumanity to prisoners. The civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice also reviewed the case. Both agencies declined to file charges against the correctional staff, according to court filings. The DA said “there was insufficient evidence” to prove the charges. The DOJ didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Heckathorn was written up for battery on a peace officer with a deadly weapon. According to the rules violation report written by Ruiz, Heckathorn grabbed an officer’s baton during the fight, hitting another officer on the head with it. Heckathorn said he never had a weapon. He said he was put in solitary housing for about 16 months.

Heckathorn filed grievances against the officers, which were denied. While in solitary, he got in touch with attorney Mark Redmond, who agreed to help him file a civil suit.

Redmond said the agency moved to resolve the case quickly, settling with Heckathorn in 2018 for $575,000. The agency paid out $400,000 to Carrasco in late 2020.

“Sometimes, defense is wise enough to know how bad the skeletons are,” Redmond said.

Heckathorn, who said he’d always wondered why no one asked about his story sooner, believes the officers who beat him should have been criminally charged.

“You’re a correction officer, and you take an oath, and you’re just betraying that oath,” he said. “You’re supposed to protect us. You’re not supposed to try to kill us.”

Special thanks to KQED’s Julie Small, and to Will Jenkins, Julietta Bisharyan and Armon Owlia, students at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's Investigative Reporting Program, for their work sifting through the records CDCR provided.

This story was produced with The California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 news organizations across the state, including KQED, UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program and Stanford University's Big Local News. The project was formed in 2018 to request and report on previously secret records of law enforcement misconduct and use of force in California.

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