Inmate mixing (Parts 1 & 2)
By MATTHIAS GAFNI, Times-Herald staff writer
SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON - Five current San Quentin employees say ongoing illegal mixing of dangerous and nonviolent inmates at this overcrowded prison has led to a number of riots, and the practice threatens the staff as well as nearby residents.
The employees say the problem has been most prevalent over the past two years and has been largely ignored by San Quentin officials, despite repeated warnings from a worker from Vallejo who blew the whistle on the practice.
She and four other San Quentin employees agree that prisoner riots, including one on May 23 that led to a lockdown, were likely a direct repercussion of the poor screening.
In that May 23 riot, up to three dozen inmates, or roughly 10 percent of the 320 housed in the Reception Center gym, a large cell-less hall, were involved. No weapons were recovered and no serious injuries were reported, but staff had to use pepper spray and 40 mm rounds to quell the fight, according to a California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) report.
At least one prison counselor told the Times-Herald that unless the inmate mixing problem is addressed, those within the prison walls and in the surrounding Marin County area are in danger.
The counselor said the situation is explosive, can only get worse, and that prison officials are not dealing with the situation.
"The placement of inmates in correctional facilities is becoming a major issue," said the counselor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's a nightmare ready to explode and the public doesn't even know."
"They know it's a powder keg and they're basically rolling the dice to keep it going as long as they can," the counselor said.
Prison officials strongly deny such chronic mixing occurs. While conceding that fights break out, they contend there are no serious safety issues that have been ignored.
One lawyer versed in inmate rights said, however, if the allegations are true, the situation would not only be unsafe, but unconstitutional as well.
A Times-Herald investigation shows the alleged inmate mixing at the overcrowded prison began at least as far back as early 2002. Exactly how many inmates may have been misclassified is open to question, but the screening affects thousands of prisoners from the moment they arrive at San Quentin and for weeks afterward.
San Quentin's two main facilities are the Reception Center and the general prison (Mainline). The Mainline is a Level 1 and 2 facility (minimum to medium security) and is set up to house only Level 1 or Level 2 inmates. Such inmates are those deemed less dangerous who were convicted of nonviolent crimes.
However, a handful of San Quentin employees, including Vallejoan Kathy DeoCampo, allege that prison officials - led by Warden Jeanne Woodford of Benicia - have been moving Level 3 and Level 4 inmates into the Mainline over the past two years. Such felons by law are required to be in medium-high to high-security confinement.
An internal memo states that since April 15, 2002, and until May 31, 2003, more than 2,500 inmates have been transferred to San Quentin Main "without benefit of audit by a (Reception Center) Analyst." Many of those inmates could be Level 1 or 2s, but policy dictates they all must undergo screening before they are assigned to a cellblock.
DeoCampo, who helped classify inmates, said the mixing of inmates poses a threat to inmate, employee and public safety.
A San Quentin official said inmates are not intentionally mixed, but conceded that due to human error some Level 3s may have entered the Mainline. However, the official stressed those inmates are tracked down through the prison's checks-and-balances system. The official denied that Level 4 inmates had entered the Mainline, despite employee statements and prison documents showing otherwise.
Repeated Times-Herald calls to Warden Woodford's office for comment were forwarded to the spokesperson's office.
DeoCampo, who has worked as a San Quentin analyst for 20 years, said her warnings about the prisoner mixing led to harassment. She has filed a formal complaint with the State Personnel Board claiming her rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act were violated.
DeoCampo has been on extended sick leave since Aug. 13, after a dead mouse with a whistle around his neck was discovered under her desk.
The dead mouse incident had its origins early last year when DeoCampo was assigned to move inmates out of the Reception Center. Soon she became disturbed by what she saw.
"I found a breach of security and I tried to report it, but no one listened," DeoCampo said. "I started realizing what I was doing and how I was jeopardizing lives, so I got off it."
Weeks later she asked to be released from the assignment, outlining the risks she saw from the inmate mixing.
"It became a very dangerous environment for correctional officers and inmates," DeoCampo said. "You shouldn't have lifers in a Level I facility. Š Those are Pelican Bay (prison) type of inmates."
Nine days later, she was allowed to return to her normal tasks, with a memo from her supervisor that included: "Thank you very much Kathy for identifying a very serious problem."
She said, however, that the problem continued. In subsequent months, DeoCampo said she contacted everyone from the director of the Department of Corrections, to the Inspector General's Office, to Gov. Gray Davis.
Meanwhile, further evidence of the mixing continued to surface, DeoCampo said.
A June 4, 2003, memo from a DeoCampo supervisor to an associate warden supported her allegations: "Effective April 15, 2002, San Quentin Reception Center began transferring unaudited DPU (Detention Processing Unit) cases to San Quentin Main. As of May 31, 2003, 2,508 have been transferred without benefit of audit by a (Reception Center) Analyst."
DPUs are generally Level 1 or 2 inmates, but they still must be processed because some have returned to prison for more serious crimes and have raised security levels.
One prisoner's records included in DeoCampo's complaint shows the inmate arriving at the Reception Center on Feb. 4, 2002, then being trasferred to a medium security Mainline the next day. Finally, on March 20, 2002 - six weeks later - the inmate, who DeoCammpo said was a Level 4 inmate, was returned to the appropriate maximum security lock-up.
"There was no way that man saw a counselor to ask about enemies or anything," DeoCampo said.
She said it takes an average of 45 days to two months to classify an inmate.
"They were taking them out of their orange jumpsuits (the standard issue before classifying them), putting them in blue denim and mixing them in the general population," DeoCampo said. "And they lost track of them."
A long-time correctional counselor at San Quentin, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed that the inmate mixing problem has existed for the past two years and still occurs.
The counselor estimated at least hundreds of unclassified inmates have slipped into the Mainline over the past two years. The counselor said the improper inmate mixing created a threat to the public because some of the medium security units were outside the main prison structure.
Prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon said the administration goes strictly by the book. "It would never be done purposely," Crittendon said. "We have had in the past staff errors that occurred. Nothing has ever posed a threat to the public."
As far as the memos and inmate transfer information, Crittendon said he could not respond without seeing the material.
DeoCampo said she provided the material to prison administrators and state supervisors.
Why would a prison want to mix populations?
"It's a population management issue," the counselor said. "There are only X amount of cells at San Quentin."
The prison is required to take inmates when buses come from county jails, and if there's no room, they must redirect inmates to other reception centers.
"That costs money," the counselor said.
Plus, "they are embarassed at San Quentin that they're not engaged in population management. It's like running a hotel and being overbooked," the counselor added.
Crittendon said the high number of inmates poses a challenge that the prison handles safely.
"It's an ongoing challenge to classify inmates," Crittendon said.inmates. "When you're dealing with the human element, yes, errors could occur. That's why we have levels of review."
The counselor said the mishandling has not been a chronic problem through the years. "This didn't happen in the old days. Guys who were supposed to be in a cell were in their cell," the counselor said. "In recent years, there's been a change of administration that just flat out didn't know what they were doing."
Keith Wattley, staff attorney at the Prison Law Office in San Rafael, just outside San Quentin's walls, expressed concern over the allegations. "There's some pressure to move people out of the reception centers as soon as possible," Wattley said. "The (San Quentin) Reception Center is so overpopulated it presents a strain on prison resources."
Shortly after first notifying superiors of the problem, DeoCampo said a riot broke out in the Reception Center gym in March 2002.
The gym is supposed to be Level 1 and 2 inmates only because the prisoners are not placed in cells.
"The gym is what it is, a big gym. It has nothing but bunkbeds in there, no cells. It's easy for things to jump off there," DeoCampo said.
The gym is in the Reception Center, which means the inmates have yet to be formally classified, but an initial screening should weed out the more hardened criminals. Those dangerous inmates can be placed in other Reception Center blocks that have individual cells, like Badger, Carson, Donner, Alpine and West Block.
"They had Level 3s and 4s (in the gym), and gangbangers," said DeoCampo, who blamed the riot on the mixing.
The anonymous counselor agreed. "I personally reviewed it after the riot and there were 3s and 4s in there," the counselor said of the gym.
The following month, a riot broke out in H-Unit, a prison facility about four blocks from the main prison structure.
"Where that happened was outside the walls of San Quentin," the counselor said. "Had that not been controlled, that would have been a meltdown which spilled into the community. The only thing to keep them from going into the community was a cyclone fence. There were 800 inmates in there and you have Charles Mansons out there."
Crittendon said the incidents were not serious, never posed a threat to employees nor the community, and were not caused by inmate mixing.
He described the gym riot as a fist fight between two different factions that lasted less than six minutes and was contained inside the building. He added there were no staff injuries and no inmates seriously injured.
Crittendon said the H-Unit fight also was only fist fighting between two inmate factions, this one lasting less than 10 minutes. No staff was injured and those responsible were identified and removed, he said. The fight never left H-Unit, he said.
"It wasn't attributed with Level 4 inmates in the H-Unit area," he said. He added that he said he wasn't sure if Level 3s were in the unit.
"Inmates fighting each other unfortunately goes on in prison," he said.
A correctional officer, who wished to remain anonymous, said he's scared to work at H-Unit.
"That's one of the things I'm so concerned about. There are unclassified inmates down there (in H-Unit) and we don't know what they're going to do," he said.
H-Unit is a dormitory setting, consisting of five dorms with 200 inmates each. There are no individual cells and the inmates sleep in bunks. One officer patrols each dorm during the day and two at night, he said.
The correctional officer said the mixing still occurs.
"There are Level 4s down in H-Unit right now, there are 4s in the gym. It's really a mess there," he said.
The guard said currently in West Block there are 10 to 20 unreported inmates alone.
Since the Times-Herald began investigating the allegations, the correctional officer said the administration issued a memo to all employees telling them not to speak to the press.
"I haven't seen a memo like that unless someone was going to be executed," the guard said.
The guard said more employees would come forward about the problem, but are intimidated.
"They're afraid to talk. They're afraid of retaliation. They're afraid of harassment," he said.
Marvin Wilson, of Vallejo, retired from San Quentin in 2000 after 27 years in the maintenance department. He still works at the prison part time and said he has not seen any mixing of populations.
"I know (Warden) Jeanne (Woodford) won't play any games like that. She's from the old school. She was a correctional officer first and now she's warden," Wilson said. "They're not going to do anything without approval from the proper people."
Margot Bach, California Department of Corrections spokesperson, said her department hasn't heard of mixing problems at San Quentin.
"Every once in awhile someone is misclassified, but there are checks and balances, and if they are, they're going to be caught," Bach said.
"If it was an ongoing process where inmates were regularly being misclassified I think the Inspector General would be there in a minute," she said.
DeoCampo wrote the Inspector General's Office on April 4, 2002, called on June 3 and 4, and again wrote on June 4, 2002.
A call to the office for comment was not returned.
Wattley, the Prison Law Office staff attorney, said he hadn't heard of the screening mixups. In fact, he said, he mainly hears the opposite.
"The more common thing I hear is they just don't complete the classification process for a long period of time. (Inmates) sit in the Reception Center longer than they should," Wattley said.
"If (the inmate mixing is) true, then that's a problem. It's a very dangerous situation," Wattley said.
"Having people doing time without making any problems, housed with people having a history of committing trouble - that's not a good mix," he said. "They may have more experience with prison, gang politics, know how a prison is run, how to survive and prey upon other inmates."
In fact, he said, the alleged practice may be unconstitutional.
"It does to the extent it puts prisoners at risk of being harmed by other prisoners because they take a short cut in the classification process," Wattley said.
"San Quentin and the CDC are legally required to protect prisoners from each other, by mixing them they may be violating the inmates' rights under the 8th Amendment," he said.
The 8th Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
The five employees who said there was a mixing problem, believe the situation is explosive.
"So far, we've been very, very fortunate. But, it's just a matter of time," the counselor said.
"The game San Quentin started to play was: Let's take some guys who should be in a cell and put them outside a cell," the counselor said. "There's an entire Marin County community outside San Quentin and they are unaware that they are exposed to that."
Crittendon said the claims have no merit.
"Those allegations are unfounded. There is no supporting evidence of any threat to public safety, no inmate has lost his life or faced serious injury because of any classification issues in San Quentin the last two years. No employee has been injured at San Quentin the last two years because of classification issues," he said.
San Quentin analyst claims she blew whistle, paid price
By MATTHIAS GAFNI, Times-Herald staff writer
Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on inmate screening at San Quentin State Prison.
SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON - Shortly after first leveling allegations that maximum- and low-security inmates were being mixed illegally in San Quentin State Prison, Kathy DeoCampo sought whistleblower status.
In the ensuing months, DeoCampo said, she was harassed for raising what she saw as a serious problem, even finding a dead mouse under her desk with a whistle wrapped around its neck.
DeoCampo, of Vallejo, said she left her post as a correctional case records analyst after she said she found the mouse Aug. 13, and has been on extended sick leave due to stress.
A San Quentin official strongly denies her charges of inmate mixing and any prison employee harassment against her. The official described DeoCampo as a "disgruntled employee" who wasn't getting along with other workers.
The allegations, backed by four of her co-workers, were detailed in a Sunday Times-Herald article.
The State Personnel Board rejected DeoCampo's initial complaint, filed in 2002, that claimed whistleblower retaliation. An appeal was delayed in September and DeoCampo expects it to be heard early next year.
DeoCampo's saga began in February 2002, when she received an assignment from Warden Jeanne Woodford of Benicia to expedite the processing of 71 inmates. About two weeks into her assignment, DeoCampo said, she found that higher-security inmates were being mixed into the prison's general population with lower-security prisoners, contrary to California Department of Corrections policy.
Once DeoCampo discovered the alleged mixing, she alerted the prison's employee relations officer in early March, but she said she was rebuffed. In an employee grievance statement, she said that when she voiced her concerns, the officer told her: "It's my job to protect the warden and this institution and ... I will do whatever it takes to protect the warden!"
She asked for whistleblower status and that the officer be removed from his position.
DeoCampo continued to receive more processing duties. On March 6, the chief deputy warden sent her a letter stating: "I would like to take this opportunity to ex-press my appreciation to you for your efforts and willingness to 'go the extra mile.' "
The same day, DeoCampo wrote to Woodford, asking the warden to take her off the special assignment because what she "experienced was very degrading."
In a handwritten response, Woodford wrote to DeoCampo's supervisor: "Please discuss with Kathy - assure her she will be supported when she is doing what the warden request (sic)."
Woodford referred numerous Times-Herald requests for comment to a spokesperson.
Nine days later, DeoCampo again asked to be transferred back to her original position because "this project has affected my physical and mental health in an adverse way."
Her supervisor approved the move and wrote: "Thank you very much Kathy for identifying a very serious problem."
However, DeoCampo said, "I started experiencing a whole lot of harassment. My doctor was refusing to let me go back. She was saying I was affected mentally, emotionally and physically because of the harassment."
A few days later, DeoCampo filed a workers' compensation claim. Her psychiatrist wrote: "I feel strongly that she needs to leave the work of corrections," and she was relieved of her duties for several weeks.
As DeoCampo continued to warn state officials about the improper inmate mixing with letters and phone calls, her supervisor asked for a doctor's note about her prior stress leave. DeoCampo said she had never previously been asked for a note.
DeoCampo said she tried to file a grievance for the doctor's note incident, but her paperwork was returned and it was denied.
In May 2002, San Quentin officials accused DeoCampo of being rude to some part-time employees and being insubordinate to a supervisor. A month later, she was accused of yelling at her supervisor and leaving work early. DeoCampo denies both incidents.
In general, San Quentin spokesman Vernell Crittendon said, DeoCampo's claims were untrue and the work of a "disgruntled employee."
"I'm not aware of anyone harassing Miss DeoCampo. I believe Miss DeoCampo for a number of years under numerous supervisors had been counseled on her work level and in turn she said her supervisors were harassing her," Crittendon said.
However, employee review records gave her positive performance evaluations from 2000 and 2001.
In the 2000 review, the supervisor wrote: "Kathy, you have shown commitment and dedication to the mission of Reception Center Records, as well as your assignment as a Correctional Case Records Analyst. Thank you for all your hard work."
DeoCampo said the negative feedback from supervisors only came after she notified supervisors of the mixing problem. "Within one year I was the worst employee that they ever had," she said.
In a memo to DeoCampo, a co-worker wrote that on Aug. 11 she saw DeoCampo's desk "ransacked" and that no other desks in the area were out of place. The incident was "clearly not acceptable," the co-worker wrote.
On her last day, Aug. 13, DeoCampo said, she found the dead mouse. "I was hysterical, tears were coming down my face. I told my boss, 'I'm leaving,' " she said.
Crittendon said he remembers the issue with the mouse, but didn't recall a whistle. He said seismic retrofitting increased the amount of dead rodents in the old facility at that time.
DeoCampo filed a complaint in 2002 before the State Personnel Board, claiming she was a victim of retaliation after blowing the whistle on San Quentin's alleged mixing problem.
The board initially denied her allegations of whistleblower retaliation, holding that DeoCampo failed to prove any harassment as a direct result of her complaints about inmate mixing.
DeoCampo had an appeal hearing set for Sept. 8, but decided to postpone it and seek a settlement. She wrote to the Equal Employment Opportunity manager for the Department of Corrections on Aug. 18 offering to drop her lawsuit if San Quentin fills out a disability retirement election application and the Department of Corrections pays her $20,000.
No settlement has been reached.
"I went through the checks and balances, and no one protected me. I was left wide open," she said.
- E-mail Matthias Gafni at email@example.com or call 553-6825.
Three Strikes Legal - Index