From Prison Focus Issue 51
This is a summary of present conditions at High Desert State Prison, as collected by CPF through letters written to our office and a legal research visit conducted in November 2016. As with all prison reports published by Prison Focus, in order to protest those who write and visit with us, we do not use any names that will identify any of the people visited. Initials used to identify speakers are not representative of names, and the repetition of initials does not indicate it is the same person.
Longtime readers of Prison Focus may note that reporting on High Desert is a relatively new practice for us. In previous years, we exclusively reported on the conditions in the SHU, at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and occasionally Tehachapi. In recent times, however, due to the vast movement out of the SHU resulting from the Ashker v. Brown settlement, we have begun to hear more and more reports of the harsh and inhumane conditions in many of the other prisons, especially those places where former SHU residents have been moved. Accounts of extensive lockdowns, long stays in ASU, and lack of programming expected on the mainline have drove us to increase our attention to the level 4, high security prisons, where according to many SHU “kickouts,” conditions are as bad, if not worse, than the SHU. As one correspondent wrote, “High Desert has the thought that since it is in the far corner of the state, not too many people will care what happens.” We reject the idea that distance and isolation give CDCR a pass on following its own rules, and its obligation to treat humans with the basic dignity all deserve.
GENERAL CONDITIONS AT HD
The cell conditions at High Desert fall grossly below basic standards for livability. Inmates are responsible for cleaning their own cells, yet they are not provided with cleaning supplies. Mr. B reported that he has only received cleaning supplies, scrub pads, cups, and spoons twice in the months he has been at HD. The mattresses are stinky and tiny. Mr. U reported that his cell was leaking when it rained. He requested work order repair, did not receive anything, and was forced to personally patch the leak. He used soap.
In the day rooms, there only one phone. Even at Pelican Bay there were two phones per section.
The temperature in the cells at HD vary significantly based on locations. Mr. O reported that in his block, the temperature is warm, but elsewhere, he knows there are constant complaints of cold air pumped into the cells. Individuals in Ad Seg reported very cold temperatures.
Cell searches happen randomly every day. Each shift has to search 6 cells a day at random, according to an internal CDC memo. During searches the COs drag the mattress onto the nasty dirty ground.
Several individuals reported that laundry gets picked up but it comes back dirty every week.
Despite these conditions, one individual who was at HD from 2010-13, left, and recently returned, noted that the new Warden is making changes and is much better than the previous one.
As reported elsewhere in this issue, CPF has heard reports from across the prison system that X-ray Scanners are getting installed and used on a regular basis. At HDSP, interviewees told us that machines had been installed in early November 2016 on the way to the visiting area, but not yet in use. It was Mr. T’s understanding that they would be put into use in early 2017, after guards were trained on their use (we have not received any updated reports on their use at HDSP at the time of publication).
Until such time as the X-ray machines are put into use, the “regular” metal detectors are still used, but only when there are incidents on a unit.
RULES VIOLATIONS REPORTS (115S)
Several individuals we met with had not had trouble with arbitrary or false 115s. Others did report instances where 115s were issued based on poor evidence. For instance, Mr. B reported that one day, he was randomly handcuffed and told to stand in the back of my cell. One of his enemies walked by and threw a weapon from his sock into the cell. He was then convicted on constructive possession, which landed him in the SHU. Another individual reported receiving a 115 for constructive possession when his cellmate was found with a weapon. He is appealing this and his 602 is currently pending at the third level. He felt his due process rights were violated, as he was found guilty by association.
Mr. H reported that he had heard of someone getting written up for having toilet bowl cleaner in his cell. This was surprising given that cleaners are commonly allowed in other prisons.
Petty 115s are extremely frustrating to prisoners, as they affect people’s ability to transfer, and more than anything, people desperately want out of HDSP.
Mr. V reported a situation where he was told that legal mail addressed to Mr. Jones contained narcotics and did not pass through inspection. At the hearing, the guard admitted he had no proof Mr. V requested such drugs, however, he was still found guilty. His visits were taken away for one year, contact visits for two years, and yard for 30 days.
GRIEVANCES/ADMINISTRATIVE APPEALS (602s)
Several of our correspondents fully exercise their ability to file 602s. We commend these efforts, as they are the first step to access to the courts and an important mechanism for getting one’s rights enforced. Mr. H reported that most of his 602s are “partially granted,” but none are fully approved. This is frustrating because it limits his ability to appeal up the chain.
There were a few successes with the 602 process. Mr. I relayed one success with a 602 concerning his mail; he tried to mail a drawing of his daughter to his daughter, but it was returned back to him for not being suitable. He included copy of Title 15 in his 602 and was able to send the drawing. Others we correspond with feel that writing 602s are pointless because they are so rarely successful.
Mr. D reported that he had to file a 602 on his property, as it did not arrive for nearly 3 months following a transfer from another institution. He did finally receive (most of) his property.
Mr. M filed a 602 regarding a “stripped down” mattress. He never received a written response on the 602, but within two days, he received a replacement mattress. He was pleased this was resolved at his cell door, without a written response.
The general consensus is that doing time in general population at HD is like being in ASU or SHU but with less yard time. Mr. O stated that he had been at HD since May 2016 but had only been to the yard a total of 10 times.
In the fall, Mr. X reported a consecutive two month lockdown. They were told there were threats to staff and security, but a full search (which could be done in a single day) was not done. After that, the unit was put on a modified yard schedule due to construction on the yard for a wheelchair ramp. During modified programming, each tier gets dayroom every other day, but it's not consistent. The first official yard was the week prior to CPF’s November visit, the first time since August.
In another unit, Mr. K reported rolling lockdowns: two weeks on lockdown, back to yard for a week, then another lockdown. Reports guards are making up excuses for a lockdown, claiming “weapons” or “metal missing,” or even something like a cup missing in the chow hall, but then the guards do not conduct the typical searches associated with those risks, if they were real.
A couple interviewees did state they had regular yard access, although sometimes yard is cut short due to staffing issues, or will inexplicably start very late.
On the yard itself, there is extremely limited recreational equipment, and there are often fights. According to Mr. H, guards do not get involved, but instead throw small hand grenades at people to try to stop fights, or shoot at the wall.
Mr. L explained that HD law librarian does not have a contract with the state, so the library is only open when she is available. As a “Priority Legal User,” he is supposed to get a minimum of 4 hrs/week in the library, but it is inconsistent. “General Legal Users” have an even harder time, with a wait list of over 200 to gain access. On the week of our visit, the library was only open two days. Mr. E stated that he regularly waits up to two months between visits, which makes researching for a case he intends to file essentially impossible.
The law library is even more difficult to access during lockdowns. Mr. D noted that he had to file a 602 in order to gain access to the library because there are so many lockdowns.
It is almost unnecessary to state that our correspondents describe medical care at HD as grossly below basic standards. Mr. S stated that others in his yard have cancer but are not getting needed medications, and do not regularly see medical. Mr. Q told us that he had a knee injury over a year ago and immediately after, the doctor recommended an MRI for him. He has now seen the doctor two more times since then but has never received the MRI.
In one urgent case, Mr. X described a severe heart condition as a result of a stabbing at a different institution. He had emergency surgery, but was left with a hole in his heart. It is his understanding that there is no full-time doctor on staff, but only one on call, and that the closest hospital is quite small (only 25 beds) and prisoners are never transferred there. A nurse practitioner confirmed the facility cannot support his condition, but has not had success in advocating for his transfer.
The treatment of Hep C is especially frustrating to individuals. It is rumored that under CDCR policy, Hep C must reach stage 4 before individuals are eligible for any treatment. Mr. W told us that he receives no treatment whatsoever for his Hep C. When he does see a doctor, he checks his blood pressure and sends him on his way. As a result, Mr. C has very high anxiety about his health. He said that in the SHU at Pelican Bay, he had a significantly easier time getting prescription medication than at HD. Mr. J told us that his cellmate, who has late-stage Hep C, was hospitalized for two weeks and upon return received no follow up care.
Dental care is also difficult to receive and many prisoners expressed dissatisfaction with the level of care. Mr. C stated that the dentist is quick to pull out teeth rather than fix them. He had severe tooth pain and it took about 6 months to see the dentist after putting in a request. Others reported a delay of only 2-3 months to see the dentist. Mr. E stated that he has put in requests for a cleaning, but that is considered not serious enough to warrant an appointment.
“There is a different breed of prison up here. They follow their own rules.”
Mr. Z reported that ever since the 2015 Ashker settlement, SHU prisoners and other activist prisoners who promote positive programming are harassed either by getting removed from jobs, or through limitations on movement access, designed to deny them the ability to promote positive activities.
One individual who visited with CPF reported that he received threats of retaliation immediately after the visit for speaking with CPF. We condemn this behavior and the chilling of constitutionally-guaranteed access to the courts that it leads to. “The meetings will not go unheard or unnoticed in High Desert’s eyes…”
Mr. G reported that some guards are better than others, but many are not ready for change, such as new programming. Anything that requires guards to work harder is resisted.
Mr. H stated that the guards at HD are more petty than at many other institutions where he has been housed, such as yelling at prisoners on intercom for extremely minor violations.
Mr. V confirmed that sentiment, stating that this is the worst prison out of all of the Level 4's that he's been at (almost all of them) because of the guards. They hold a lot of tension and aggression toward prisoners.
Mr. U felt that because he doesn’t interact with the guards, the guards leave him alone. He reports that the guards only “bug” the inmates who speak out to them.
In one especially troubling report, Mr. B described a “Fight Club” where guards put prisoners of different races into the yard together when they are at war with one another. They set up controlled situation and allow prisoners to “clear the air” while they place bets on the winner.
More than some other facilities, CPF receives a lot of reports of violence at HD. Mr. I reported that there are rumors that three prisoners died in October alone at HD. One person reported that someone was killed the day after our visit. We do not have details on whether the suspected killer was another prisoner or a guard, but regardless, it is the responsibility of CDCR to ensure the integrity of every individual’s life in their care. Failure to protect other prisoners from violence is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Reports of the quality of food were varied. Some stated it was bearable, although they would prefer more variety and access to a healthier diet and especially more vegetables. Others reported that the quality of the food was very low: undercooked, cold, and tasteless. Mr. W stated “I prefer the food at Pelican Bay, and that’s saying something.” Mr. E stated that he is regularly served rotten milk, bruised apples, or moldy bread, but the food is not replaced if he complains. This is especially difficult for those who are indigent and thus don’t have access to the canteen.
One of the biggest issues with access to mail centers around the censorship of an allied newspaper, the SF Bay View. Many people across the California prison system, including those at High Desert, did not receive the Bay View Sept/Oct issue, but never received notice of censorship, as required by Title 15.
Mr. H reported that it took 4 months for his cellmate to receive a letter from the Bay Area. Another individual stated that he is in the process of filing 602s about timeliness of mail. Most reported a delay of two or three weeks before delivery, including for legal mail. Several individuals reported that in the lower D yard, a big stack of mail was thrown in the trash. Large bulk of mail for prisoners from all races/ethnicity. It was discovered by kitchen workers.
There is a new rule about magazines and many people complained that they are no longer allowed magazines if they are not “educational.” This is frustrating to people who have paid for magazine subscription but believe they are getting thrown out.
Programming and Work Assignments
There are very few educational and programming opportunities at HD. Mr. K reported that there is one GED class and two college classes for the whole prison. The classes are apparently not at capacity, although there is a waiting list of over 100 people. Mr. K received a letter stating that the wait list for college classes is approximately a year and a half.
Mr. Y had heard that starting in 2017, HD is supposed to receive more programming opportunities, including autobody, electrical, building maintenance, as well as a pre-parole class for individuals who are less than two years out from release. There is presently a re-entry hub, that has classes on substance abuse, family relations, anger management, and criminal thinking, but it is not available to most prisoners, including those with the longest sentences.
Mr. T reported that even though he received a GED and AA degree, but they are not reflected in his C-file.
Mr. C described access to a self-control program, which consists of essay assignments inside the cell two times per week. He liked it. It is the only program he's had since he's been at HDSP.
He signed up for anger management, never got called.
Several of our correspondents reported that they did have work assignments, including yard crew, a recreational clerk on the yard, and a law clerk. Mr. U explained that there are also opportunities to work porter jobs, laundry, canteen, medical, kitchen, and in the educational department. In general, however, there are not enough jobs for everyone and people expressed frustration at the forced boredom of their lives. Mr. H stated there are only 42 jobs available in his whole unit. Several prisoners volunteer to do work without pay just for something to do.
Several correspondents, especially those transferred out of the SHU, noted that it took weeks, if not months, for their property to be delivered after their transfer to HD from Pelican Bay. Some reported that all of the property arrived, others described items of personal importance that they are still missing. Mr. E told us that when he arrived at HD, he was told many pieces of property he had at Pelican Bay were not allowed at HD. He was told he could send the property home, but his family has never received it. He filed a 602 about this issue, but has not received a positive response. Technically, the prison is supposed to compensate him for missing property, but he is not hopeful.