Few labor groups have more clout in California government than the prison guards union, whose members draw an average annual salary of almost $55,000, not counting their often-copious overtime.
But the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has been put on formal notice that its members can’t get away with simply doing whatever they want, whenever they want, to inmates in the state prison system.
Lawyers for convicts have long claimed that’s been the actual situation in prisons from Pelican Bay in Del Norte County on the Oregon border to Chuckwalla in eastern Riverside County, and everything in between.
Now, though, the prison guards have learned their storied and frequent political contributions may buy them a lot of influence in Sacramento, but not so much in federal courts around the state.
That’s one lesson of a ruling from Senior U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, a Bill Clinton appointee based in San Francisco, in a case mostly affirmed the other day by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that included one judge each named by ex-Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama.
As a result of the new ruling, guards in at least one prison now must wear body cameras when dealing with inmates because of documented excess use of force. Some actions described included tipping over the wheelchairs of disabled prisoners, punching a hard-of-hearing inmate in the face when he asked for written communication from the guard because he couldn’t hear what the guard had said and using pepper spray on mentally ill convicts.
The prison most affected by the ruling is the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in the Otay Mesa area of San Diego, about 1.5 miles north of the Mexican border. Wilken had made her order apply also to five other prisons, but the appeals court panel found alleged abuses at those facilities were not as firmly documented as those at Donovan.
The Donovan facility was designed in part to prepare inmates who are undocumented immigrants for eventual release to U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services for deportation to their home countries. It teaches skills they can use after they are returned home. Donovan also specializes in prisoners with mental illness or high risk medical issues. Inmates there have recently included high profile criminals like Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan, Manson Family member Chares (Tex) Watson, the parent-killing Menendez brothers and onetime record executive Suge Knight.
Donovan features a shoe factory making footwear for state prisoners around California and a bakery that supplies bread and cakes to several other prisons daily.
State and union officials fought the order imposing surveillance and body cameras, new training and a new complaint process, and kept those changes away from prisons aside from Donovan. They said the claimed mistreatment of prisoner/patients was not well documented, but San Francisco attorney Gay Grunfeld and the San Quentin-based Prison Law Office collected 179 declarations from prisoners detailing alleged abuses by prison guards.
The appeals court panel also said the charges upheld at Donovan were closely related to previous claims the state has mistreated disabled inmates in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland, an Obama appointee, called the incident where the partially deaf convict was hit in the face “a violent denial of accommodations” that might deter other inmates from seeking help required by the ADA. She said both the convicts and Judge Wilken had no need to “sit idly while (guards) violated (prisoners’) rights.”
While striking down parts of the initial court order that applied to other facilities, the appeals court ruling put the prison guards on notice that they, like police on their beats, are not immune from punishment for violating people’s rights, even people they have reason to dislike.
For one thing, Friedland noted there is “plenty of evidence” of mistreatment of prisoners at other facilities, but it was “not as thoroughly corroborated” as what happened at Donovan.
So prison guards around the state now know they can be observed and probably should at least pull their punches if they want to avoid the kind of discipline underway at Donovan.
It also lets union leaders know the clout they enjoy in the state Capitol has some limits.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net