By Andrew Sheeler
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California prison wardens have largely ignored a new system set up to handle prisoner complaints of staff misconduct, according to a new report from the Office of the Inspector General.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in April 2020 implemented a new system for managing inmate complaints about prison staff misconduct — a system designed to place responsibility for handling complaints outside of the prison command structure.
The state spent $10 million to launch the program and assigned dozens of experienced officers to staff it.
“Unfortunately, our review, which covers a five-month period in 2020 after the department established (the new complaint system), found that wardens largely avoided referring staff misconduct grievances to the new unit,” Inspector General Roy Wesley said in a letter accompanying the report.
During the five-month period that OIG looked at, from April through August 2020, inmates filed 50,412 grievances. Of those, prison wardens found that just 4.6%, (2,339) actually alleged staff misconduct. Of those, just 541 grievances were sent to the new system.
“Ultimately, the lack of referrals undermined (the new system’s) reason for existence—increasing the independence of the process—and diminished the new unit’s effectiveness in making that process more independent,” Wesley wrote in his letter.
Wesley said that a possible contributor to the lack of referrals was the complexity and subjectivity of the referral decision-making process.
“The department’s process provides numerous methods of diverting allegations of staff misconduct away from (the system), giving wardens ample reasons for retaining such allegations at the local prisons,” Wesley wrote.
The inspector general also voiced concern in his letter for the low rate in which prison wardens found their staff had violated policy in some way.
Between June 1 and Aug. 31, wardens responded to 1,293 prisoner allegations. Of those, wardens found staff wrongdoing in just 22 cases, or 1.7% of the time.
“Our experience monitoring the department’s formal disciplinary process over the last 15 years leads us to conclude that an exoneration rate of more than 98 out of every 100 instances demonstrates a lack of fairness in the process,” Wesley wrote.
The report also found that the department is lacking in its ability to effectively identify trends or perform meaningful assessments of its process.
“Despite having numerous information systems that contain data related to the staff misconduct process, the department lacks the ability to produce reports that are capable of identifying the names of all staff accused of misconduct or the names of all staff who were found to have violated policy as well as several other types of critical information,” Wesley wrote. “We also suspect the department has severely undercounted — potentially by the thousands — the number of allegations of staff misconduct.”
Without that data, the department has no way of measuring the effectiveness of its regulatory changes or its successes, Wesley concluded.
In response to the OIG report, Corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison wrote in a letter that the department “takes every allegation of employee misconduct very seriously, and we are committed to ensuring all allegations are properly and fairly reviewed, whether at the department or at the local level.”
Allison wrote that some of the OIG findings may be premature, “given the (new system) was activated less than a year ago.”
“As is expected with the activation of such a significant new unit and processes, CDCR has encountered challenges, especially in the beginning. Wardens and grievance coordinators struggled with the new screeening process. However, CDCR has not found evidence demonstrating wardens are intentionally circumventing the new process. Rather, typical learning curve challenges have transpired,” Allison wrote.
The secretary added that the department has worked to provide additional training to wardens and grievance coordinators.
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