Richard J. Donovan Prison Report

Cameron MacKenzie

Issue 55

From Prison Focus Issue 55

Over the past 12 months, Prison Focus has received a multitude of reports concerning the inhumane conditions, improper staff behavior, and abusive mistreatment of prisoners at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. While these kinds of reports are sadly indicative of the general state of affairs in prisons throughout the US, the disturbing number of letters we have received corroborating heinous staff misconduct and dangerously poor facilities single RJD out as one of the worst prisons currently operating in California.


“Yes I am now here at Donovan. Ad-Seg. This place isn’t fit for ADA inmates. No electricity plug(s) in cells. This has to be the oldest place I’ve been to. Run down.” –J.C.

“Your article on the ‘Donovan’s Ad-Seg’ medical was 100% true!! It’s unbelievable what goes on in here!! So many rule violations – unsafe for mental health inmates…unbelievable what this place gets away with! Medical facility!! My foot!!” – Anon

“I’ve been in multiple ASUs/SHUs and this is by far the worst one” –Anon.

Conditions at RJD are poor to the point of constituting a danger to the mental and physical health of the prisoners forced to endure them. Problems stem from the age of the facility itself (constructed in 1987 with apparently little renovation since), as well as from a lack of proper maintenance. Corroborated examples include:

• A total lack of electrical outlets in Ad-Seg cells, denying prisoners the appropriate property privileges the opportunity to acquire appliances such as TVs or radios, as guaranteed to them by 15 CCR § 3190. This is a particular hardship for prisoners with mental health conditions, and could rise to the level of “cruel and unusual” considering the amount of in-cell time spent by those held in Administrative Segregation. As a veteran prisoner observed, “Every other ASU/Ad-Seg has wall sockets”. According to one correspondent, this deficiency is not just limited to the ASU but also at least some of the General Population Yards. “Also on the mainline on D Yard and other Yards there aren’t outlets. They have to mickey mouse through the light socket. Hazards and violations. Dangerous. They have not insulated or repaired the outlets for years. It’s a code violation for sure. Where is the money being spent? All prisons are (supposed to be) up to date, especially electricity. This is an ADA-SNY Yard too.” Meanwhile, “the C/Os watch football on TV while on duty”.

• The danger of electrical shock goes beyond dangerous wiring from gutted outlets as RJD appears to have a problem with flooding that puts the most vulnerable of prisoners at risk: “The plumbing here is bad. Leaking water in all the chases…In this Ad-Seg they house ADA inmates with breathing problems where they need a machine to plug in[to[. Well they use a cord in the chase that goes under the door. Water is in the chase. Very dangerous.” According to one letter some cells were flooded for over a week without any sight of a plumber. The staff did not even bother to mop.

• Multiple correspondents have attested that the ASU visiting rooms, showers, and yard cages are not ADA compliant, thus furthering the negligence of custodial staff towards disabled prisoners.

• Showers are dangerous and a source of humiliation for many. ASU Prisoners at RJD are forced to parade to showers in front of other prisoners, correctional officers, and female staff\. Shower shoes are not provided to them. “They won’t turn on the lights in the showers. No mirrors to shave in the shower. No mirror when we are allowed hair cutters. Hair cutter is old! Broken teeth and (it) gets hot. Burns your head in 2 minutes”. According to one report, there was no hot water for “at least 3 weeks”.


“This place is a straight dump where they do as they please” –J.C.

“Inmates here are going CCCMS just to leave this prison for the records show this” –Anon.

Many of the letters we have received detail ways in which RJDCF is failing to provide a basic level of care for its prisoners. This issue is particularly disturbing when it extends to prisoners with medical or mental health needs. Like many Californian prisons, RJD San Diego is 130% overcrowded– the most current monthly count puts the population at 3,905 – a full 1,000 prisoners over its design capacity. Prisoners with medical needs are not receiving scheduled doctor’s visits or prescribed treatments and are waiting months to obtain basic necessities such as walkers or reading glasses. Prisoners with mental health issues are not receiving access to group therapy, only one-on-one sessions once a week for 5-10 minutes. Because of the lack of outlets in the cells, there is no access to programming via television nor any entertainment except for wind-up radios. However, these radios are being issued only on temporary “21-day intake loans”, contrary to the property privileges of the prisoners. Food is being served on “dirty”, “old and nasty” trays without lids. As one experienced prisoner writes, “In all the other prisons everything had been replaced so the food was delivered in small trays with lids. These trays are piled on top of each other where everyone’s food sticks to the bottom of each tray.” According to one prisoner, the Ad-Seg canteen ran out of supplies for over 2 months, “orders are getting lost”.

No jackets are provided when it rains or is cold in the yards, and prisoners are not allowed to wear thermal tops or bottoms to cage yard. There are no exercise bars provided in the cages.The law library has been described as “a joke”, with reports that there is only an officer on duty to allow prisoners to conduct legal research once a week. Officers are “disrespectful to inmates” conducting legal research. And finally, prison closed-circuit cameras are apparently obviously turned off or nonfunctioning.


“They aren’t actually fit to be guards. They are sick guards. They don’t even treat animals this cruel. Yet they are allowed to treat Americans worse than animals. Here they totally abuse it!” –Anon.

Reports of staff misconduct at RJD received by Prison Focus range from simple breaking of regulations and dereliction of duty, to officials ignoring and obstructing prisoner complaints or appeals, to destruction of prisoner property, humiliation, excessive use of force and calculated assault on prisoners by correctional officers. Guards are reportedly smoking on prison grounds, behind the windows of some prisoners, in contravention of §3111.07 the California Operations Manual for correctional officers. Correctional officers blast the radio “so loud” for their own enjoyment during meal and shower times that, “if someone needed help in the morning, no one could hear them.” One prisoner, who preferred to remain anonymous, wrote that officials are “not responding to CDCr 22 complaints. Appeals coordinator office refuses to send log # and due date notices to inmates. Some C/Os refuse to collect/sign/date legal mail.” Another prisoner wrote, “They left a few inmates handcuffed behind their backs for hours. They parade inmates butt-naked in front of women that are overlooking Suicide (Watch) inmates. Degrading them while inmates in Ad-Seg laugh at them. They know it’s not procedure and discriminating, cruel, and unusual punishment.” An overweight prisoner was mocked and guards refused to take him out of his cell because the correctional officers “hate using waist chains.” This kind of discrimination creates circumstances where individuals are essentially held in solitary confinement for no other reason beyond size. According to another letter, some guards are spreading false information that certain prisoners are “sex offenders and child molesters” in order to instigate prisoner-on-prisoner violence. “If an inmate puts in 602 grievances the same guards get their cowards [other prisoners] to assault them and also allow [other] inmates to steal the inmates’ property, TV, Radio etc.! I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many inmates have come back here to Ad-Seg and the guards let the tenders and inmates steal their property. They are allowing inmates to pack inmates property – jobs that guards are responsible for…” In another letter, a correspondent related how a fellow prisoner on his block who had been accused of assaulting correctional officers was harassed and threatened all night before his court hearing, in order to deny him sleep and sabotage his chances of a fair trial. Correctional officer Sanchez allegedly “beat up” a handcuffed prisoner in his cell and then wrote him up for staff assault. This tactic is reportedly fairly common. “On C Yard inmates are being allowed to jump on inmates. Beat them down to get them off the Yards and leave the 2 or 3 that jumped on one inmate. While inmates are getting assaulted staff allows this type of behavior and gives the inmates that get assaulted a write-up. Just so there will be no victim. Craziest thing I ever seen or heard. This is being allowed on all SNYs! Because CDCr wants violence to take to the public and Sacramento so they can start the SHU programs back [up]. Inmates are getting assaulted by 2 or 3 or even 4 and allow all 4 back to the Yards. That’s not fair to no one!!”


“Now they’re trying their best to use the confidential information against me” –Anon.

A disturbing trend that is found throughout the California prison system is the use of information given by ‘confidential informants’ to substantiate Rules Violation Reports (115s), move prisoners into more restrictive forms of housing, deny privileges, or parole, or delay parole hearings. We received reports of this method of control implemented at RJD in full force. In one letter to Prison Focus, a prisoner at RJD detailed how his petition to advance his parole hearing was denied solely on the basis of confidential information claiming he was, “involved in the illegal distribution of drugs and cellphones. Therefore, the Confidential Source(s) now claim you as an enemy.” This was in spite of the fact that the prisoner had never received a Rules Violation for possession of drugs or cellphones in his 24 years of incarceration. The Board of Parole Hearings admitted that the confidential information was given “significant weight” in the decision – in fact, it overruled the fact that the prisoner was now recognized as a youthful offender under SB 261 & Penal Code §3051, and had fulfilled all of the recommendations made by the panel following his initial denial of parole four years prior (at which time he was not recognized as a youthful offender). The board admitted that in that time he had earned a GED, numerous AA degrees, participated in a bevy of self-help programs, received multiple laudatory “chronos,” and had remained disciplinary-free since his last hearing.


“Now the Suicide Check is another issue. They abuse the hell out of it and use it as a mind thing! Mental health to torture inmates. They bang it and want problems! They enjoy it!” –Anon.
“Sit ins come in and sit and go to sleep. C/Os all do overtime and have a good old time. Walk away and leave the cell.” –Anon.

Most horrifically of all, Prison Focus has received letters alleging that suicide watch is being abused and improperly performed at RJD, while at the same time prisoners are attempting and even succeeding suicide in their cells. In a letter from May of 2017, a prisoner informed us that a prisoner with severe mental health diagnoses qualifying for the Enhanced Outpatient Program (EOP) was found dead in his cell. It was determined that he had died up to three days prior, but was left undiscovered by correctional officers, despite the protocol of performing “wellness checks” every half hour around the clock for individuals on suicide watch. In a letter from another prisoner just two months later, an attempted suicide was barely prevented by one conscientious correctional officer, who noticed that a cell window was “boarded up” so that no one could see into the cell. Upon investigation he found the prisoner hanging inside. According to the letter writer, typically a sign is placed on cell doors alerting guards that someone is inside and identifying who they are – but in this case, there was no sign or photo identifying the prisoner to alert the guards that the cell was in fact occupied. As he writes, “When the officers brought the inmate out after cutting him down we could see the people overlooking the suicide inmates laughing while the guards on 3rd watch were tending over him. They look like they saved his life…All we want is to be treated fair and with respect as humans! And one guard makes a difference. As does the guard that is corrupted.”

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