Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Sac Bee Investigates “Behavior Modification Units” in California Prisons

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The Sacramento Bee has published a two-part investigative series on so-called “behavior modification units” in California prisons (Part One, Part Two). The series is well worth reading in full for a glimpse into daily life in the CDCR, and the bottom line seems to be that these specialized units, “marked by extreme isolation and deprivation,” may be counterproductive at best, a gross human rights violation at worst. About 1,500 inmates have passed through the units located across six different prisons. Since this blog has a legal focus, I thought I’d highlight the string of litigation and administrative grievances that these units have generated:

Many of [the inmates’] 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. An inmate of the Salinas Valley State Prison behavior unit won a lawsuit last year to get regular access to the prison yard after five months without exercise, sunlight or fresh air.

State prison officials have known about many of these claims since at least July 2008, when Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation social scientists sent to High Desert to assess the program reported allegations of abuse – including denial of medical care, racial slurs, gratuitous violence and destruction of protest appeals.

The Bee’s investigation also revealed a broad effort by corrections officials to hide the concerns of prisoners and of the department’s own experts. Their final report, released only after The Bee requested it in April, downplayed the abuses.

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