High Desert State Prison Report

Katie Tertocha and Penny Schoner

From Prison Focus Issue 50
Fall 2016

The following report is compiled from correspondence with individuals at High Desert State Prison (HDSP) and from an in-person visit with legal investigators conducted in June, 2016. To prevent retaliation, we have refrained from using names, and use random initials instead. All quotes are from incarcerated men at HDSP.

CPF investigators traveled to High Desert on June 20, 2016, and interviewed five men out of the seven visits they had scheduled. According to the Correctional Officer (COs) who escorted the investigators, two men refused their visits. The guard stated to investigators, “I have never heard of an inmate refusing an attorney visit,” but insisted that one person refused even after he offered the visit five times. Overall guards were polite to investigators and made the visits go smoothly.

The visiting sections were far apart from each other, a long walking distance in the hot sun and wind. The visits were conducted in rooms with two-way mirrors, and the two guards that accompanied investigators were behind those mirrors throughout the visits. When leaving the prison and returning ID badges, investigators saw a flyer inviting guards to a July 4th BBQ and raffle where the winning prize was an AK-47.

This was the first visit from CPF for all of the men we met. This is not surprising as it is the first time in many years that CPF has conducted a visit at HDSP. Average time in CDC custody ranged from 3 years to 11 years, with some much longer. Three were survivors of solitary confinement in the past. Most of the men were currently housed in close custody units.

In 2010, High Desert received a directive from headquarters stating that they cannot have lockdowns that last longer than two weeks without permission from Sacramento. However, we heard many reports of extended lockdowns lasting for up to a month or longer without explanation. In general, the men felt lockdowns were put in place arbitrarily and used as a tool of retaliation when guards were unhappy.

At the time of our visit on June 20, B-unit and D-unit had been on lockdown since May 6. Several men had heard the lockdown would continue until the end of June. Mr. G reported that there was a small fist fight in early May which triggered the lockdown, but there was no need to lock down the whole unit. News reports have labeled this incident as a riot involving 65 prisoners. Punishment of an entire group for one or two individual’s actions is an ongoing and serious problem throughout CDC. The men did not believe there was permission from Sacramento for the extended lockdown, because no high level officials had come to visit, as they have done in the past. For over a month, the men were not allowed yard time, access to canteen, or delivery of quarterly packages.

During the lockdown, they replaced all kitchen workers and for four days, they fed everyone on paper plates, 1/3 smaller portions. All the new kitchen workers were Mexican. That ended on Tuesday of the week prior to our visit, the day after the warden came to visit with them.

Mr. G reported that on Monday, June 14th, the day after letters arrived to prisoners noticing the upcoming CPF visit, the Warden came into D unit and talked to several people about “what can be done to resolve this issue.” The very next day, canteen slips were passed out. On Thursday, quarterly packages were delivered. On Friday, there was fully integrated yard with no problems. The men speculated that the lockdown would end, now that the visit had occurred. Mr. G suspected that the Mexican prisoners would be the last off lockdown, even though they have not been fighting and are respecting the Agreement to End Hostilities.

The B Unit had also been on lockdown for close to 30 days at time of visit. No one was provided with a reason. One block has been designated as a “program block” about a week prior to the visit. It is the only one that receives any programming out of the entire B Unit. According to one man in B Unit, the men who qualify for the program block do so because they “kiss guards' asses.”

Yard time in High Desert is rare due to the frequency of lockdowns. Yard is cancelled with no notice about one or two days a week. Another man confirmed that his yard is also canceled about once a week. The guards claim this happens because they don't have enough staff, or because they have to go to a different yard. Day room is also cancelled on days when yard is cancelled.

Mr. V described B-yard, “They [prison guards] run this yard like a 180 yard, but it's a 270.” The men have to be cuffed wherever they go. His particular yard, B-5 which is a SNY, doesn't get night yard, and that is the only one. On normal programming, B-5 gets yard about every other day, and two buildings go out at a time. In D-unit, even when on normal programming it does not meet the 10 hour per week requirement for yard time. When on normal programming, prisoners who don't have a job get yard Tuesday and Thursday, then on alternate weeks get yard three times in a week. During those alternate weeks, they only get about an hour or so at yard. If prisoners do have a job, they get yard Saturday and Sunday for only an hour.

“This is a violent prison because the guards make it that way.”

We received consistent reports of violence, retaliation, and aggressive treatment by guards. Mr. O, a Latino man for whom English is a second language, was accosted by guards calling him gay; one guard grabbed his buttocks twice, while other guards laughed. This man has heard that this CO does that to other Mexican prisoners regularly. Mr. O also reported that he was hit by a guard with baton a month prior to our visit. Two other men had been fighting on the yard. Everyone was told to get down, but one guard told him to move. When he didn’t go down, another guard hit him. When this man brought it up with custodial staff in his unit later, they just laughed it off.

Mr. K, also Latino, described to us how he was forced by prison guards to pick a gang and be classified as a Northerner. He does not consider himself in a gang, and does not relate to any gang, “at all, or any of that.” Mr. P said that he is afraid to speak specifically on guard harassment. He reported that once while he was in B-3 block and out at yard, tower guards opened his cell door to let other prisoners run through his cell, taking his appliances, and messing with his papers. Mr. Y reported that there is discrimination and abuse focused on a transgender prisoner in his unit, which includes guards calling her “princess,” “cupcake,” and other sexualizing, diminutive names.
Mr. V, who had been to High Desert previously in the 1990s, repeatedly stated that all of the reports of corruption at High Desert is all true. Informants are easily branded as such, for no reason. Guards pressure people to inform more here than other places.

SHU kick-outs are especially subject to harassment. The gang investigation unit (IGI) has targeted those men more than usual since December 2015, around the time a lot of DRB kick-outs came to High Desert.

Reports indicate that COs still employ contraband watch, i.e. “Potty Watch.” This is an investigation tactic used by IGI when individuals are taken from their cell, put in a barren cell with no clothing, and forced to wear an adult diaper for several days in order to observe for contraband. One man reported that he saw one man all taped up, taken away, and then released a short time later.

Mr. G explained to us that there is only one doctor, and he did not know how many days that doctor is on the premises. At High Desert prisoners get bunched together to go to medical and so they have to wait in a long line. Sometimes people leave because of the long wait.

Two men stated that they have been pressured to take psych meds, rather than pain killers. Mr. U stated that he has pain related to scoliosis, but instead of providing him with pain medication and physical therapy as he’s requested, they have prescribed him a psychiatric medication, which he refuses. One investigator did some research into the medication he was prescribed, Trileptal, and found that it is indicated for treating seizures and epilepsy in adults and children over two years old. The drug has serious side effects and could have a substantial impact on his cognitive abilities as well as physical health if it is not needed. This man says that it is common for medical doctors to try to get prisoners on drugs like this, which make people go crazy, so they can keep them in isolation. At the time of the visit, Mr. U had been waiting for a doctor appointment for 3 weeks to discuss his physical health. He is at third level 602 regarding inadequate medical treatment, and will go to outside court if denied again.

Mr. B also reported that he was not diagnosed with any mental health concerns but was “badgered” by the medics to take Trileptal. He had been on medication for paralysis on his right side for ten years. Now High Desert is saying that his medical condition, neuropathy, is actually a mental health condition and has placed him on Trileptal and Lyrica. He has tremors with the Trileptal. His pain is a lot worse now, and his muscles are so constricted that he does not go to chow hall but rather eats in his cell, and he can't go to yard. The guards told him that soon he would lose permission to eat in his cell and would have to come to the chow hall, since he no longer had a documented physical condition. He felt that if he had outside contacts who wrote to him, the medics would know better than to do this and would leave him alone.

Mr. S had requested appointments with a doctor since December, but had yet to see one. He has a torn ACL and was awaiting cortisone shots and physical therapy. His last cortisone shot was in May 2015, before he was transferred to High Desert, and his physical therapy stopped without notice in December 2015. He felt the physical therapy was inadequate, which was a treatment consisting of 15 minutes of electric shocks without stretching or exercises, but he still felt that it was better than nothing.

The overall sense investigators got during the visit is that High Desert has very few opportunities for programming. Programs supposedly offered at High Desert include building maintenance, mechanics, computer literacy, Spanish language courses, and some educational opportunities. However, we did not talk with anyone who was enrolled in any of this supposed programming. Mr. R explained that there used to be a computer class, but the instructor was escorted out when guards saw movies being shown on the computer, and the instructor has not been replaced. As noted above, only one block in unit B was getting programming at time of interview.

People also reported that there are extraordinarily long wait lists to receive any of the educational opportunities. Mr. L had his GED and had signed up for a class at Lassen Community College, but he has been waiting to start his class since shortly after he got to High Desert because of a long waiting list. Mr. T had a high school diploma, but was told he needed to raise his TABE score before he could enroll in community college. Mr. M explained that only 10-12 men in his unit are in college classes at a time.

The Law Library is only available two days a week for limited hours. The Inmate Advisory Council has requested access Monday through Saturday, 8am-2:45pm, as is available at other General Population institutions. Mr. A had put in a request in for library use a month prior to our visit and was still waiting; another man filled out the form when he got to High Desert eight or nine months prior to our visit, and had only just received the ducat when we saw him. He believes this may have been related to our attention to the facility. Mr. H estimated a backup of at least 300 prisoners who needed to use Law Library and did not have access.

Mr. W stated that there used to be a Law Librarian who genuinely helped prisoners, but he was put under investigation and removed. He believes that it was pure harassment by the IGI because the librarian was helping prisoners.

Mail is consistently slow to move through the facility in both outgoing and incoming directions. Mr. L reported that mail typically arrived two to three months after it was mailed, even though it was just coming from Redding. His cellie had just received mail from February the week of our visit in June. However, legal mail had been coming in just a few days. Other men reported an average of two weeks to receive their regular mail, and that their legal mail was coming through much faster.

The consensus from all of the men we spoke with was that the food at High Desert is not good. Sometimes it is cold or comes late; sometimes the prison serves spoiled milk and moldy bread; other days it is OK.

The largest issue with property is related to transfers into High Desert. Two men received their property relatively quickly (i.e., within two weeks) after transferring to High Desert; one from Jamestown, and another from Calipatria. Others reported much longer delays. Mr. P reported that his cellie arrived in April and had just gotten his property a few days before our visit in June. He explained that the guards had been making rules up since January 2016 such as “A-yard is starting a new gang with Nike symbols” so they wouldn't let prisoners keep items in their packages with that symbol.

While people do use the 602 process at HDSP, we did not hear about the process leading to a satisfactory outcome for anyone. Mr. J had two 602s at the time of our visit; one regarding property theft, and another for receiving the wrong medication (psychiatric instead of pain). Both 602s had been denied and were at the third level review. Similarly, Mr. D was suffering due to a prescription for the wrong kind of medication. He filed a 602 shortly before our visit because medical staff had taken him off a medication for neuropathy and replaced it with a psychiatric medication. The other area where men had filed 602s was in protest of the extended lockdown on the D-5 block. We were told several men filed individual 602s, and there was also a group 602 filed challenging the legitimacy of the lockdown.

Because High Desert is a general population facility, contact visitation is allowed. However, the rules at High Desert are arbitrary and more severe than at other facilities. There is a patio outside which is supposed to allow for outdoor visiting, but no one has ever seen it in use. Mr. T reported that guards are very strict about physical contact: nothing more than hand-holding is allowed during visiting, and when taking photographs no touching at all was allowed. Just recently, at the end of August, CPF received correspondence that this rule was changed and now people in High Desert can take photographs together while touching, as long as their hands are visible. This is due to the advocacy efforts of a friend of someone in High Desert, after she wrote an email to the warden about this seemingly absurd rule.

Mr. I reported that that Southern Mexicans are the first to be kicked out of visiting if it becomes overcrowded, instead of following the first-in, first-out rule as written in Title 15.

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