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Explosive Complaints Allege Abuse, Assault by Donovan Corrections Officers

The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

An inmate at the Richard J. Donovan state prison who was part of a class action lawsuit [1] filed earlier this year over claims of abuse and assault in the facility has since died as a result of staff abuse.

That’s one of the explosive claims in a new filing [2] in the lawsuit, which alleges that corrections officers at the San Diego County facility are “assaulting and terrorizing incarcerated people with disabilities.”

The original lawsuit, filed in February, contained 54 declarations from people with disabilities at Donovan, who described officers throwing people out of wheelchairs, punching deaf people when they cannot hear spoken orders, beating people with disabilities who request help carrying heavy packages, closing cell doors on people who use walkers and wheelchairs and attacking suicidal people when they ask for mental care.

“Broken bones, shattered teeth, bloodied faces, and concussions are routine,” reads the February complaint. “Officers assault people who are restrained and not resisting or who they have already knocked unconscious. Those who complain about mistreatment become the officers’ next victims or receive false disciplinary write-ups.”

Officers even retaliated against a Corrections Department psychologist who, following policy, reported misconduct perpetrated by staff, according to the complaint. Following the psychologist’s excessive force report, an officer entered her locked office without permission, went into her desk, removed feminine hygiene products, and scattered them on the floor of her office. No one followed up with the employee after she reported the incident.

The newest motion adds 39 declarations detailing abuse [3] in other facilities throughout the state and an additional 19 from people incarcerated at Donovan. There are now 112 declarations of abuse, assault and retaliation by correctional officers from people with disabilities being held at six institutions across the state included in the court filings.

“One of our overarching concerns about the situation is that we think what’s happening with police brutality inside prison is really the same sort of violence that there is an international uproar over police misconduct outside of prison,” said Penny Godbold, an attorney at Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, one of the firms involved in filing the suit. “I think many people don’t realize that it doesn’t stop on the streets. People who are in custody in the prison context are really isolated from the outside world, so the brutality in prison is sometimes not as obvious to the public as what we see in the streets and in the news.”

A use of force expert for the plaintiffs reviewed disciplinary records [4] from Donovan and found “the profound shortcomings of the system allow staff to assault and retaliate against people with disabilities with near-impunity, only facing discipline in the rare cases when video evidence or staff reports make it impossible for [the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] to find that the misconduct did not occur.”

Since Jan. 1, 2017, inmates at Donovan have made approximately 1,100 complaints against staff. During that same period, authorities at the facility terminated nine officers for their involvement in five incidents of misconduct against inmates, according to court documents. Many of the staff misconduct incidents that result in disciplinary action statewide relied on reports from fellow staff or video corroboration, but the vast majority of Donovan lacks camera coverage. All five incidents involved people with disabilities.

“Most troubling, just like at [Donovan], incarcerated people with disabilities at these other [Department of Corrections] facilities are terrified of staff,” reads the new motion. As a result, according to the filing, many don’t ask for accommodations or other help for their disabilities, people suffering from mental illness don’t report suicidality or need for treatment and refrain from filing grievances against staff for fear of retaliation.

“In some ways, the impact is magnified when you’re actually in custody because there are so many disincentives to speaking out,” Godbold said. “You are really dependent on those very same officers for the limited liberties that you do have. If you want to get out of your cell, if you want to get food, if you want to get medical care, you need them.”

Dina Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation, but said “we take the safety and security of inmates very seriously, and will be carefully reviewing the complaint.”

When Staff Misconduct Leads to Death

One 68-year-old who had filed a declaration [5] in January for the original complaint was killed in February after officers refused to take his safety concerns seriously and encouraged him and his cellmate to fight, according to the new filing.

According to multiple witnesses, the man and his cell mate repeatedly requested that officers move them to separate cells because of safety concerns, court documents detail.

“In response to those requests, officers repeatedly told the declarant and his cell mate to ‘fuck or fight’, i.e. get along or fight to prove they were incompatible,” the complaint reads.

Finally, the two men did fight and officers failed to respond for 15 to 30 minutes, the court filing alleges. The inmate died from his injuries 15 days later.

In 2016, the Corrections Department let one of the officers involved in the man’s death keep his job after finding that he had used and failed to report unreasonable force that resulted in the death of another incarcerated person. The officer received a 10 percent salary cut over 18 months, which totaled $12,500, and he “continued to work in a position where he was able to harm other incarcerated people, including the now-deceased declarant,” according to the court filing.

The court documents also allege that one of the witnesses in the incident that led to the 68-year-old’s death faced significant retaliation from staff for speaking with attorneys about it.

In the now-deceased man’s declaration [5], he wrote that Donovan officers allegedly told other prisoners that he was homosexual, a child molester and encouraged them to attack him.

“After [redacted] told me that information, I lived in fear that any day my cell door would be popped open by staff and incarcerated people would be let in to attack me,” he wrote in his January declaration.

The man had been incarcerated in state prisons for 20 years. Donovan, he said in the declaration, is the most violent prison he had ever been in.

The plaintiffs’ use-of-force expert also detailed another incident [4] in which staff failed to respond in a timely manner to a suicide attempt by an inmate who’d previously experienced abuse.

On Nov. 10, 2018, an officer was conducting required cell checks. When he looked into the man’s cell at approximately 3:05 a.m., he saw him with his head in the toilet and “large amounts of blood, on the floor, on the bed, and on the inmate,” according to court documents. He sounded a medical alarm. The officer was using his flashlight and could see that the man was moving his hands on the toilet. The officer tried talking to him through the cell door, but he did not respond.

A sergeant, another officer and two registered nurses arrived and eventually called 911. The man was pronounced dead at 4:35 a.m. after being transported to a local hospital.

Two other incarcerated people later reported that after the man was discovered in his cell, staff got physical with him, which may have contributed to his death according to the report. That use of force was not ever reported by staff.

In one of the accounts, the witness – a transgender inmate who lived in the same housing unit as the man – said she saw him yelling from his cell that he had cuts on his arms and legs, banging on his cell door for help.

Roughly 30 to 45 minutes later, two officers pulled him out of the cell and slammed him on the ground.

She said one officer stood on his back, while the other pressed his knee into the man’s back, while they yelled, “Stop resisting, stop resisting.”

The witness said the man was not resisting, but yelled, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” according to court documents. He eventually stopped moving.

Another witness also described the officers standing on his back after he had cut himself one night and was yelling for help. That witness also reported that the man was yelling that he couldn’t breathe as the officer stood on his back. Eventually, according to court documents, the man “just stopped yelling and went still.”

Expert: Misconduct Investigations Are Inappropriate, Inconsistent

The report [4] from the plaintiffs’ use-of-force expert, Jeffrey Schwartz, found several issues with how Donovan officials investigate claims of staff misconduct. Schwartz is president of Law Enforcement Training and Research Associates Inc. and has been working with prisons and jails for the past 20 years, assisting them in applying national corrections standards to their operations.

Schwartz reviewed more than 43 investigations into allegations of staff misconduct at Donovan.

“In most correctional facilities, the units housing mental health inmates, developmentally disabled inmates and inmates with physical disabilities are staffed with individuals who gravitate toward those inmates because of empathy and specialized skills,” Schwartz wrote in the report. “At [Donovan], it appears the opposite is true.”

He found staff bias against those incarcerated colors their investigations, that investigations are often incomplete and that physical evidence and plagiarism in staff reports are often ignored.

Schwartz also found staff discipline was often inappropriate or inconsistent. Staff members often continue to work even when they’re under investigation. And only one case he reviewed was referred for possible criminal investigation.

Inmates are also actively discouraged from filing grievances and complaints and staff retaliation for using the complaint system is rampant, Schwartz said.

Every use of force incident by staff is supposed to be reported, according to the state’s Department Operations Manuel [6], and several entities investigate and review such instances, like the Deadly Force Review Board.

Schwartz recommended that the state install more cameras throughout Donovan. In both Los Angeles and San Bernardino jails, over 90 percent of use of force cases include video of the incident, which becomes central to the analysis of each case, he said.

“If California did nothing more than to install cameras in all of their prisons, it would be a huge step towards identifying bad actors in the system, and exonerating staff who are wrongfully accused. In most use of force situations, it would provide definitive evidence of whether the force was justified or excessive,” Schwartz wrote. “The failure to take even this first step, a step already taken by many correctional and jail systems throughout the country, demonstrates the state’s indifference and further condones serious staff misconduct.”