Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rural insularity, racism blamed for problems at High Desert State Prison, California

If you've ever seen the 2007 documentary, Prison Town USA, you won't be surprised by a report released yesterday by the California Inspector General.  That report was the subject of a New York Times story headlined, "California Rebukes Rural Prison for Racism."  Here's the lede for Timothy Williams's story:
Guards at a rural California prison use other prisoners’ possessions to reward inmates who assault each other, discriminate against black and Latino inmates, and routinely engage in unnecessary force, according to a California inspector general report released Wednesday. 
High Desert State Prison, in Susanville, which is in the northeast of the state near Nevada, was also found to be significantly overcrowded and to be imbued with a “culture of racism and lack of acceptance of ethnic differences,” according to Robert A. Barton, the state’s inspector general.
The Sacramento Bee story about the report unpacks a bit more why "rural" appears in the headline--that is, why rurality seems relevant to what is happening at High Desert and not merely to where it it happening.  Here's the lede for Jon Ortiz's story:  
Prison officers at a remote state prison have excessively used force on inmates in a “culture of racism” nurtured in social isolation and encouraged by a union that coached its members to stymie investigators, according to a scorching report issued Wednesday.
To further unpack the "social isolation" reference, Ortiz later reports: 
“(A) perception of insularity and indifference to inmates exists at High Desert State Prison,” the report states, “exacerbated by the unique geographical isolation, the high-stress environment, and a labor organization that opposes oversight to the point of actively discouraging members from coming forward with information that could in any way adversely affect another officer.”
(emphasis added) 

To illustrate and explain the "unique geographical isolation" and racism points, Ortiz explains:  
Located in California’s northwest corner, High Desert and a second state correctional center there employ more locals than any other business in Susanville, population 16,000. Three-quarters of the nearly 1,000 staff are white, compared with just 18 percent of the prison’s 3,500 inmates. Many of the employees are from Susanville.

A section of town is reportedly known as “CO Row” for its concentration of prison-officer residents and their families. Outsiders to Susanville, the report says, tend to come and go.
Further, the prison is at 149% of capacity.

Damn depressing stuff, but much of it was depicted--sometimes subtly, sometimes not--in "Prison Town USA," which is a very powerful documentary.   Not to make excuses, but the film gives you such a vivd sense of how economically depressed Susanville is that it's not hard to imagine the corrections officers (COs) taking power where they can find it--from the inmates.  The Bee story lists a number of abuses detailed in the report.  Both news stories also make clear that steps are being taken to mitigate the problems, including the recent appointment of a new warden.

Susanville is the county seat of Lassen County, population 31,749, of which 66% is non-Hispanic white.  Nearly 9% of the population is black, 18.8% of the population is Hispanic, and 4.8% is American Indian.  In Susanville, 12.5% of the population is black, 23.7% Hispanic, and 55.4% non-Hispanic white.  Those data indicate just how much a prison population--counted where the prison is located, not where the prisoners are from--can skew a county's racial/ethnic demographic when it is is home to a prison.  Lassen County's poverty rate is 16.9%.

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