Abuse and Cover-Up in California Prisons’ “Behavior Management Units”

High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California. Photo by Ben Kutchins from the 2007 documentary film "Prison Town USA."

The American prison system is rife with euphemistic acronyms for the places where inmates are held in solitary confinement: Our prisons contain SHUs, SMUs, ASUs, CCRs, and most recently CMUs.* Now, a powerful two-part expose by Charles Pillar in the Sacramento Bee shows what goes on inside the BMUs–the “Behavior Modification Units”–in several California prisons.

These units are supposed to combine SHU-style isolation and deprivation with a special program that includes classes in “life skills” like anger management, substance abuse treatment, and other measures to prepare troublesome prisoners to return to the general population, or to the outside. But the classes have been eliminated for cost reasons–if they ever existed at all–and what’s left is solitary confinement.  

Some of the inmates’ “behavior problems” undoubtedly resulted from untreated mental illness. Whatever their cause, these problems were unlikely to be improved by round-the-clock lockdown. And at some of the BMUs, inmates reportedly lived in particularly brutal conditions, in an environment where, according to the Sacramento Bee, “guards seemed to view behavior modification as a license to make inmates as miserable as possible to compel obedience.” 

A Bee investigation into the behavior units, including signed affidavits, conversations and correspondence with 18 inmates, has uncovered evidence of racism and cruelty at the High Desert facility [in Susanville, CA]. Inmates described hours-long strip-searches in a snow-covered exercise yard. They said correctional officers tried to provoke attacks between inmates, spread human excrement on cell doors and roughed up those who peacefully resisted mistreatment. 

Many of their claims were backed by legal and administrative filings, and signed affidavits, which together depicted an environment of brutality, corruption and fear. 

Behavior units at other prisons were marked by extreme isolation and deprivation – long periods in a cell without education, social contact, TV or radio, according to inmate complaints and recent visits by The Bee. An inmate of the Salinas Valley State Prison behavior unit won a lawsuit last year to get regular access to the prison yard after five months without exercise, sunlight or fresh air. 

The list of abuses reported by the prisoners goes on: “Some cells leaked in rainstorms, soaking mattresses, they said, and blankets and toiletries were routinely withheld. Birds trapped in the unit defecated in prisoners’ food trays, and prayer books and rugs were confiscated without recourse.” When they complained, inmates said, “mistreatment escalated to threats and outright assault.” 

Prisoners also alleged that racism played a role in their abuse, reporting that guards used racial slurs and referred to the BMU as the “black monkey unit.” One inmate who was marched down the corridor naked and in chains after a “cell extraction” said that he felt “like I just stepped off an auction block.” 

Pillar’s articles document not just the abuses themselves, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s extensive efforts to ignore, discredit, or bury these abuses.  

State prison officials have known about many of these claims since at least July 2008, when Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation social scientists sent to High Desert to assess the program reported allegations of abuse – including denial of medical care, racial slurs, gratuitous violence and destruction of protest appeals. 

The Bee‘s investigation also revealed a broad effort by corrections officials to hide the concerns of prisoners and of the department’s own experts. 

Inmates believe that the letters of complaint they wrote to the state inspector general and FBI were never sent out by the prison–and if they pressed the issue, they said, they were subject to retaliation. Several state researchers also say that corrections official told them to to keep quiet about the abuse allegations, and to downplay and bury them in official reports.   

The articles deserve to be read in full–both part one and part two. And it looks like they may actually have some measurable impact: In a follow-up to its expose, the Sacramento Bee reported: 

Comments

  1. I read this article with great interest because my late younger brother died in such a unit at Salinas Valley during this period of time. The callous comment about hanging around sickens me. They claim he hung himself but we believe he died at their hands since he was due to be released and threatened them with a law suit when he got out. He died two weeks later and his remains were cremated and tossed into the Pacific without us being aware of his death. Only after the death of our mother and his father a few months later did we learn of his death. This is not about race it is about brutality my other is white.

  2. Alan, I am sorry for your lost. What are the state laws and guidelines
    for a death in the prison system. It makes me sick to think that California considers inmates their property, to do with as they see fit without consulting family members. Something is really wrong here.
    Something needs to be done about this, it’s got to stop.

    After reading the articles, and the comments, it dawned on me that I’ve never seen so many blind people, they can’t see, and they refuse to hear. Yet they all have their score book out, and that’s all the involvement they want, is to be able to keep score. They don’t want to give anyone in prison a chance to become a good person, a good father, a good mother, or a good spouse. They just want inmates kept in mental prisons without any human rights, and then when they are legally freed and those who return, they will say “I told you so,”
    and no changes will have made within the walls, or outside the walls.

  3. Thank you Fannie and I agree with everything you wrote. How many of these blind citizens will finally open their eyes in a cell. New laws keep racking in more and more people. Few of us have never broken a law. How many of us have drank alcohol and unwisely drove? Just an example but lets say they don’t how about their kids in college? Even worst then going to prison is watching your kids enter those fateful gates of hell.

    The sad thing about my little brother’s case is he was non violent and near his release date. Our ailing mother saw it coming after visiting him on several occasions and seeing bruises from the guards. No matter if they drove him to kill himself or they covered up their own actions the system is responsible.

  4. Dear Alan,

    Just last night I was at a meeting with a mother who’s child died in prison and she still doesn’t have the answers about his death. This was nine years ago. She has been searching for other people who share her experience because she is still grieving. Would you be interested? Or know of any support groups that you have reached out to?

    Investigative journalism yes. Maine, Cali, and Illinois have been moved. PA is next!

    Amanda HRC

  5. No Amanda I haven’t any knowledge of a support group. I vent on blogs like this because of a guilty conscious I guess. Did I do enough when he was alive? Obviously I feel I didn’t. Sadly he himself is partly to blame he asked for us all to stay away. He felt that when my mother raised hell he caught hell from the guards. Mom actually even walked into the governors office to complain.
    I can’t help him now but I can speak out here in hopes that others that can be saved have a better chance to survive.

  6. MY NAME IS TWYLA SLEMMER I HAVE A HUSBAND AT HIGH DESERT STATE PRISON IN SUSANVILLE ON B YARD DANIEL HAYES SLEMMER #D55638 HE WAS ABUSED BY A CO THERE ON JAN 23 2011 AND THE CO WAS OUT OF LINE THE CO PUNCHED HIM IN THE JAW AND HE BLEEDING FROM HIS MOUTH AND THREW HIM TO THE GROUND ON HIS CHEST AND PUT HIS KNEES INTO HIS BACK AND PUNCHED HIM IN THE BACK MY HUSBAND IS NOW FILING A LAW SUIT ON THE CO AND A FEW OTHERS HE HAS EVERY RIGHT TO DO THAT ITS HIS RIGHT WHILE HE WAS IN ADSEG D YARD FROM 1-23-11 TO 6-511 THEY TOOK ALL HIS PERSONAL PROPERTY AND BROKE HIS KTV TELEVISION I THINK THATS WRONG TO DO THAT BECAUSE A INMATE FILES ON WHAT HE THINKS IS RIGHT AND IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO AND THEN WOULDNT LET HIM TRANSFER OUT OF THEIR I STAND BY MY HUSBAND ALL THE WAY ITS IN HIS RIGHTS

  7. Mrs."J" says:

    Hi Twyla, I read your message about your husband, That was so wrong in what happen to him. I do pray that justice take place in what they did to him. I have heard about that prison and of all the bad and wrong things that goes on in there. I to have a love one in their and we have been trying to get him closer to home. Transfer out still waiting. We have going through this for a good while. Do you have any suggestions and do you have any names of some Activist that we or I can speak with? Your help would truly be apprecitive. God Bless you and your husband.

  8. Nonya Biz Ness says:

    Twyla, I have also read your comment, but also know the man you speak of is a BIG crap talker, a thief, and A GINORMOUS LIAR, and does a lot to instigate others. He will never change! Although I don’t think the CO’s should be touching him in this manner(not necessary), but that doesn’t change the way he is!

  9. Wow Alan,
    My family and I just found out that my brother hung himself in Lancaster Prison 4 years ago they cremated his remains and threw his ashes God knows where. No family was notified and we don’t believe my brother did this to himself. He had only 90 days left of his sentence. We want justice for my brother. He had a criminal history but he also had family that loved him! This sickens my heart and something needs to be done!

  10. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    @Angie How ironic that you commented on this now. I forgot about this sadly it sounds like it was not uncommon. Jean has a post I’ve just written. I wrote it the day after Father’s Day when I saw an article titled A Father’s Pain about a father who knows his son is being abused in DJJ in CA. His pain on Father’s Day was especially acute. I don’t want to give away the rest keep an eye out for it.

    Good luck I hope you get justice. I feel your pain!

  11. KIZZIE JONES says:

    HELLO MY NAME IS KIZZIE JONES…MY FATHER IS IN HIGH DESERT PRISON…THE CO HAS JUMPED ON MY FATHER.IN SEXUAL ABUSE HIM.I SENT HIM A PACKAGE THE PRISON SENT IT BACK FOR NO REASON AT ALL…MY DADDY HAS A PACEMAKER IN HIS HEART HE IS NOT IN THE BEST OF HELP…..THEY DONT LET HIS MAIL GO OUT.IT IS JUST NOT RIGHT HOW THEY TREAT THE INMATES ..CAN SOME ONE PLEASE HELP ME THIS STUFF NEED TO STOP ITS JUST NOT RIGHT..WHEN YOU CALL TO THE PRISON ITS JUST MAKES IT WORSE ON THE INMATE…..ITS NOT JUST MY FATHER BUT ALL THE INMATES WHO OR GETTING BULLY BY THE CO’S ITS NOT RIGHT…..PLEASE EMAIL ME IF YOU COULD HELP OR KNOW SOMEONE THAT COULD…..KIWILOVE777@GMAIL.COM

  12. ana braganza magallon says:

    hi my name is ana braganza. my borhter is in high deserst prison. iam in the same page as u sayin kizzie jones they sexual him for nothing i send $ to him they take some out and keep it give like 5 or 10 doller and ya they do treat them its hurts me alot he my only lil brother i have i miss himm so much

  13. MS. JUSTICE says:

    HI I AM WRITING BECAUSE I JUST RECEIVED NOTICE THAT MY SON AND OTHER INMATES SENT FROM CALIFORNIA TO MISSISSIPPI WERE JUST MADE TO STRIP OUTSIDE IN THE SNOW BUT ASS NAKED. IN FRONT OF OTHER INMATES. DOES ANYONE KNOW WHAT I CAN DO TO HELP. STOP THIS INHUMANE BEHAVIOR. OR A REALLY GOOD LAWYER?

  14. I was in H. D. S. P. You have to find out what happens by inmates of his race who were on his yard while he was there. Period. They know what really happened. B yard is SNY yard and has been for a few years at HD. I don’t know how it works on SNY, but I know they were stabbing each other every day on B yard while I was on A yard. Every day!

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