California prison employees face new discipline process when inmates file complaints

·3 min read
Ric Francis/AP

Every formal allegation an inmate files against a California state prison employee would be reviewed at the prison system’s headquarters under a new proposal from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The proposal, announced Wednesday, would mean prison wardens can no longer reject inmate allegations of wrongdoing by staff before the allegations are reviewed.

The corrections department’s announcement said the new proposal was developed in conjunction with the Office of the Inspector General, which in recent years has been publishing “sentinel reports” highlighting some of the department’s most egregious failures in following protocols for disciplining officers.

One of the reports outlined how an unidentified Northern California prison ignored an inmate’s detailed complaint about employees not wearing masks during a COVID-19 surge in November 2020.

A California State Prison-Sacramento correctional officer pleaded guilty early this year to charges related to an inmate’s death and cover-up, and the FBI has been investigating other reports of employee wrongdoing at the prison.

Early this year, the Inspector General’s Office published a report saying prison wardens were largely ignoring a $10 million system the corrections department had put in place to try to improve the way it handled inmates’ allegations.

Under Wednesday’s proposal, inmate grievances would be routed to a new centralized screening team at CDCR headquarters, whose members would decide what to do with each allegation.

They’d either be sent back to the prison or parole office from which they originated or would go to CDCR’s Office of Internal Affairs, depending on the nature of the allegation.

Allegations involving violence, sexual harassment, dishonesty, discrimination, retaliation, failure to report misconduct, failure to prevent misconduct, overfamiliarity with prisoners and supplying contraband to prisoners, along with others, would go to Internal Affairs, according to the proposal.

New disciplinary categories would be added for employees accused of disabling body cameras, tampering with other audio or visual recordings and those accused of stalking, workplace violence or improperly using weapons off-duty, according to the corrections department’s news release.

After an Internal Affairs investigation, a prison warden or another high-ranking official at an institution would be able to review determinations on each allegation and each subject identified in the investigation and make determinations on each.

Wardens would be able to make determinations of sustained, not sustained, unfounded, exonerated or no finding — preserving some authority to decide whether some actions detailed in the reports were justified.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, chairman of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, called the proposal a good first step.

“Each prison is like their own fiefdom,” Jones-Sawyer said. “This needs to be brought up into the main office and into the light of day.”

Jones-Sawyer has pressed to expand the inspector general’s ability to investigate employee misconduct at the state’s prisons. He said he plans to continue to push for more money and an expanded role for the office next year.

The new grievance process would be rolled out in batches of institutions across the state with implementation deadlines beginning as early as May 31 of next year and as late as Jan. 31, 2023.

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