The Use and Misuse of Confidential Information in California State Prisons

Matthew Byrne and Marisa Endicott

Issue 56

Prison Focus Issue 56

California Prison Focus (CPF) has chronicled a pervasive pattern of abuses of confidential informants in at least 13 California prisons in direct violation of the Ashker settlement of 2015. Prisoner reports have revealed pervasive misuse of confidential information, leading to more SHU terms and other forms of punishment, such as the delay or denial of privileges. The misuse of confidential information even impacts the ability of people to be recommended for parole, and later for release by the parole board. California Prison Focus noticed a worrisome two-fold pattern taking place. First, formal reports filed by Confidential Informants (CIs) are used for any and all disciplinary offense, ranging from small, petty offenses, to narcotics smuggling, assaults, and even homicide, as well as to “validate” an STG nexus to any offense. Second, individuals have reported that guards retaliate against them if they refuse to become a confidential informant and “debrief,” i.e., report on their peers’ conduct. CI’s may have incentive to lie or exaggerate as part of a bargain with a guard, and there is a lack of vetting or corroboration of CI statements before they are used against a person. Therefore, the use of CIs can have grave consequences, including putting people’s welfare, safety and freedom in jeopardy.

This report spans from April 2016 to present and includes reports from the following prisons: Corcoran State Prison, Pelican Bay State Prison, CCI Tehachapi, Folsom State Prison, Salinas Valley State Prison, CSP Sacramento, USP Atwater, CIM Chino, Palm Hill, Wasco State Prison, Soledad, Correctional Training Facility - Soledad, Richard J Donovan Correctional Facility at Rock Mountain, and the Deuel Vocational Institute.


Pattern of Abuses, Misuses and Overuse of 1030s

“This [the abuse of debriefing and confidential informants] is an ongoing issue that is affecting a lot of individuals.” – Anonymous

Our prison-based reporters shared a range of abuses when it comes to the use of CIs. This includes active recruiting of other informants, improper use in gang/STG validations and use of CI reports as a means to retaliate against other prisoners. Some reports indicate that CI reports are not stemming from other prisoners, but from guards, falsifying reports as if they were from other prisoners. Exploiting the system in such a way is not only unjust but endangers the lives and well-being of others.


Recruiting, Coercion & Overuse:

  • “[A guard] has filed multiple confidential entries into my file claiming inmates tell him I sell drugs and that I want to assault staff. Other inmates have filed complaints on this corrupt officer because he tried to recruit them. He is untouchable.”
  • “[This prison] is actively running a snitch breeding program from top down where they have signs in every housing unit to recruit informants with a phone number directly to a supervisor at least at the lieutenant level.” This report was substantiated by several others.
  • One prisoner reported a correctional officer confiscated his personal property and refused to return it unless he agreed to inform on other inmates (a supposedly common practice for this C.O.). When the prisoner refused, the officer threatened to plant a phone on him among other things. The reporter filed a complaint and fortunately has two other C.O.s testimony corroborating the abuse.
  • One prisoner was coerced to become a CI in direct violation of the Ashker settlement agreement. He was informed he was an active Mexican Mafia member and was placed in Ad-Seg despite the fact that he was no longer affiliated. He was told that in order to be transferred to a sensitive needs yard, he would have to debrief. “All I wanted was clear passage to an SNY yard. IGI brought me a 37 page ‘debrief questionnaire’ to be filled out if I wanted to transfer. I went to ICC and was then notified of the Ashker agreement, given an intramediary SNY chrono and put in for immediate transfer to Corcoran DPU program debriefing processing unit.”

Improper Use of Confidential Reports in Gang Validations:

The improper use of confidential reports (“1030s”) in gang validations comprise the bulk of reports from incarcerated individuals. The vast majority of these reports were made against men of color. Once a person is gang-affiliated, it is far more difficult for that person to be released on parole. It can also serve as grounds to reject a candidate for the Nonviolent Parole Review Process, which takes place annually for certain prisoners eligible under Prop 57.

According to 2014 guidelines by Prison Law Office “the CDCR must have a certain amount of information” in order “to validate a prisoner as an STG [Security Threat Group - aka gang member] member or an associate.” To be considered “valid”, any debriefing or confidential information must go through a general protocol. The basic rule is that a validation requires at least three independent source items with a combined value of 10 points or greater, plus some "information/activity indicative of" membership or association. The source items can date from any time, except that photographs must be no more than four years old. For validation as a member or associate of an STG-1, there is an additional requirement that at least one of the source items must be a "direct link" to a current or former validated STG member or associate or to a person who was validated within six months of the activity described in the source item.

  • One person reported that multiple people have been validated “by the same group of gang investigators. When you compare their paperwork you see a clear pattern in which the same informants and source items were used in all of the cases: drawings, letters (often misinterpreted) and the Machactlomei symbol, which, prior to 2008, had never been used as a point.”
  • Another prisoner wrote: “[I] remained unsuitable for parole for my alleged ongoing gang affiliation because [he] refuse[s] to debrief and that [he] allegedly lack insight and remorse within my prison committing offense and because [he] failed to admit guilt in said case”.

Use of CIs & Debriefs to Retaliate Against or Silence Prisoners

  • “Once I was released from Ad-Seg, the courts wrote back saying that my lawsuits have been filed for excessive force. Once [the named Defendants] found out that they were being charged, they printed out false paperwork to make me look like a prison rat and had inmates try to kill me, Correctional Officers [names withheld] did this.”
  • “There is a serious flaw at the institutional head policy level, with systemic abuse when any correctional officer, including a rogue such as [name withheld] who has an open prisoner rights lawsuit filed against him, can write confidential information into inmates’ files who write staff complaints on them. I really have a grievance with this when this same confidential information is being used to give inmates RVRs, SHU terms, and DA referrals with no evidence whatsoever and the inmate cannot challenge or question any evidence/confidential info.”

Retaliation against Incarcerated Individuals Who Refuse to Debrief

  • “Bogus violation reports all stemming from me not turning into an informant,” which has led to “mental warfare and harassment and covering up the violation of my rights, and tampering with my mail to the point where they are purposefully taking out letters intended for one person, and switching it with outgoing letters intended for the other person.”
  • “[I] was battered by an inmate here at Salinas valley State Prison, . . . denied medical treatment, I was just placed by in my cell and force[d] by threats to sign a chrono, I was told if I did not sign[,] I will be placed in the hole and lose my property.”
  • "ICC retained me in ad-seg and told me I have 2 options: the debriefing process, or go back to Pelican bay SHU for the RCGP.”
  • “Now I’m being told I have to debrief, turn in another autobiography or go to Corcoran State Prison SHU.”

Unreliability of Debriefs and Incentive to Lie or Exaggerate

Informants can be notoriously unreliable sources of information, due to the fact that they may have incentive to lie or exaggerate, either because an officer can offer him something, or threaten him with personal consequences, or for other reasons like personal conflicts and debts and state of mind. Despite this, these statements carry great weight. For instance, one person expressed frustration that a CI that says a person is disruptive can lead to disciplinary consequences, even when the accused shows the contrary through his proactive approach and participation in self-help/rehabilitation groups. Even so, peer-to-peer misuse of debriefs makes up a smaller portion of the debriefing abuse than that by correctional officers and prison officials.

  • “When the prison disregards the dangers of relying solely on jailhouse snitches and arrests accused inmates with no other evidence, the inmate is being sand-bagged because he must be told how the snitch was used, what additional info the snitch was given because it may be exculpatory to his defense and what arrangements or favors the snitch may have received. Was the snitch negotiations made while he was on drugs/meds, beat up, or while in good health? What is the background of the snitch?”
  • One prisoner, incarcerated for nearly 25 years, stated that “the majority of the inmates making such ‘confidentially construed’ statements against another inmate only do so because they believe they will not be discovered for doing so, are often found to be deliberately false, confused, misleading and patently vindictive.” Debriefing is incentivized as it provides a means to “get transferred from one prison to another or to ‘get off the yard’ to avoid being assaulted because of an unpaid drug debt.”
  •  “CI-inmates have already learned that they can use this confidential wherewithal as a “pay back” towards other inmates for one reason or another, or for no reason whatsoever.”
  • “Confidential informants are awarded certain privileges by prison officials, to cover for them, by lying in the shoes of truth, to justify and protect the misconduct of these employees which happen to be prison officials.”
  • One prisoner explained that impunity is inherent to the process of 1030’s for two reasons: “staff will place the ‘statements’ into the file of the targeted inmate, thus helping the CI, and harming only the targeted inmate”, and “there is never any real dispute about what a “CI” tells a correctional staff person…Where the truth certainly had failed, the lies are always meant to substitute; the facts run contrary to the lies.”
  • "Jailhouse snitches' false statements lie for the pigs to benefit himself through a lesser sentence."
  • "Lifer inmates are helpless and lost hope and will do anything for brownie points, even from racist staff."

Denial or Delay of Rights, Privileges & Parole Based on Potentially Unreliable Information

Confidential reports are often cited during disciplinary hearings, and are used as evidence leading to punishments that include the denial of basic privileges to lengthy stays in solitary confinement, with all of the negative consequences that are accompanied by that, such as loss of good time credit and delay on accessing. Moreover, it seems that unsubstantiated information can hold serious weight in parole decisions, potentially preventing an inmate’s legitimate chance at freedom. The lack of transparency contributes to the CI system’s misuse and exploitation, and because information on debrief specifics seems to be often withheld from accused prisoners, they cannot adequately defend themselves.

  • Two incarcerated individuals noted that they were mandated to join the Step Down program as a result of allegedly improper 1030’s: “Claiming an STG [Security Threat Group] nexus and they want to try to send me back to the SHU for the Step Down Program, no gang related ties even exist since there are no drugs nor is there a conspiracy.”
  • Another person explained that he has been accused by others of becoming a confidential informant, and that he has been placed in protective custody as a result: “At Atwater I’m in hole for nothing. [name withheld] said that I snitched on a man named Oozy, I don’t even know this man. They got me on P.C. I didn’t even request it or sign for it. […] they are forcing me in a cell with people that I can’t even be with.”
  • 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.” This despite 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, overruling 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 acknowledged 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.

As a system, it appears that debriefing offers relatively comprehensive immunity to an informant, while shifting burden of proof on to the individual about whom the report is written. Rather than investigate these instances of abuse (which are clearly an open secret), it appears that prison officials and correctional officers are sometimes complicit in the abuses. We hope that this report will bring to light the alleged improper uses of the confidential informant (ie. debriefing) system, so that it may be implemented in a more just manner. Please continue to report to us any misuses or abuses.


*Names have been withheld to protect the identity of reporting inmates.

overflow: scroll;