More than 1,500 California inmates have passed through behavior modification units in six state prisons. A Sacramento Bee investigation into the units uncovered evidence of racism and cruelty at one facility. Inmates described hours-long strip-searches in a snow-covered exercise yard. They said correctional officers tried to provoke attacks between inmates, spread human excrement on cell doors, and roughed up those who peacefully resisted mistreatment. Many of their claims were backed by legal and administrative filings, and signed affidavits, which together depicted an environment of brutality, corruption, and fear.
Behavior units at other prisons were marked by extreme isolation and deprivation – long periods in a cell without education, social contact, TV or radio, according to inmate complaints and recent visits by the Bee. One behavior-unit inmate won a lawsuit last year to get regular access to the prison yard after five months without exercise, sunlight, or fresh air. Prison officials have known about many of these claims since at least 2008, when corrections department social scientists were sent to one unit to assess the reported allegations of abuse – including denial of medical care, racial slurs, gratuitous violence, and destruction of protest appeals. The Bee investigation found a broad effort by corrections officials to hide the concerns of prisoners and of the department’s own experts. Their final report downplayed the abuses. Scott Kernan, corrections undersecretary for operations, was quick to dismiss the claims as typical of prisoner gripes, adding: “I don’t see drastic abuses.”