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Report: Calif. prison system accused of mishandling staff misconduct cases, ignoring proper procedures

The special review from the inspector general found CDCR wrongfully closed and reclassified 595 complaints of staff misconduct as “routine grievances” between Feb. 24, 2022, and Feb. 27, 2023

San Quentin State Prison

Inmates exercise outside in the yard at San Quentin State Prison on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. In March 2023, Gov. Newsom announced a plan to transform the prison into the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. The transformation is being guided by a team of correctional, reentry and rehabilitation experts.

Paul Kitagaki Jr./TNS

By Maya Miller
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s prison system used inappropriate tactics to whittle down a backlog of staff misconduct cases, according to a new special review from the Office of the Inspector General, the state’s prison watchdog agency. As a result, staff violated departmental policy and presented conflicts of interest by reviewing and ruling on their colleagues’ alleged misconduct toward inmates.

This is not the first time the state inspector general has criticized how the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation handles misconduct cases. In fact, CDCR’s current process for classifying, referring and investigating staff misconduct came about in 2022 as a result of inspector general’s oversight and recommendations to improve transparency and reduce conflicts of interest. The department received $34 million to restructure its process, and the OIG report states that CDCR still failed to follow the proper procedures.

When an inmate files a grievance, a centralized team at CDCR headquarters in Sacramento reviews the complaints and separates any that include allegations of staff misconduct. Those cases are then referred either to the Allegation Investigation Unit within CDCR’s Office of Internal Affairs or to designated investigators at the prisons who have received special training on how to investigate staff misconduct. Any grievances that don’t include misconduct allegations are denoted as “routine grievances” and returned to the individual prisons for investigation and closure.

The special review released Monday found CDCR wrongfully closed and reclassified 595 complaints of staff misconduct as “routine grievances” between Feb. 24, 2022, and Feb. 27, 2023. (As the report notes, these cases did not include improper use of force and violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.)

Some cases passed the statue of limitation

Of those cases, 127 of them had sat in the backlog for so long that their statute of limitations expired before they were even referred. The Inspector General’s Office found 22 of those 127 expired cases included allegations that, if substantiated, could have resulted in penalties that ranged from a letter of reprimand to dismissal.

The report says that CDCR’s actions “circumvented control measures that were put in place to prevent prison authorities from making potentially biased decisions.” Additionally, the reclassification and rerouting of misconduct grievances “resulted in a wasteful duplication of efforts and misallocation of resources.”

“Consequently, the department’s action circumvented regulations and authorized prison staff who had been found to conduct inadequate and potentially biased investigations to respond to allegations of staff misconduct without oversight.”

CDCR chief says complaints were ‘incorrectly screened’

In a signed letter responding to the overseer’s findings, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Macomber said the agency “acknowledges and takes responsibility for the reassigned grievances” that exceeded the statute of limitations. He also asserted that the 595 selected cases were “incorrectly screened” as containing allegations of misconduct, and CDCR rerouted them to relieve pressure on the understaffed, centralized team at headquarters.

“Of note, the reassigned grievances amounted to less than one-third of one percent of all grievances reviewed by the department in calendar year 2023,” Macomber noted.

The Inspector General’s Office called out the department in a follow-up response, saying there was never any indication that CDCR had reviewed the 595 cases and determined they were mistakenly flagged for misconduct. The inspector general also asserted that CDCR never informed them of its decision to review and reroute those cases.

“The department’s attempt to downplay the impact of its decision by pointing out that it only affected a small percentage of grievances ignores the impact its decision had on the incarcerated people whose allegations of staff misconduct were not reviewed in compliance with the department’s current regulations.”


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