Prison and Jail Abuse in California
California Civil Rights Lawyers

Prison is a scary place.

Massive overcrowding, rampant violence and utter despair at times erupt into riots.  But mostly inmates just deteriorate slowly, out of the public eye.

The California prison system is as derelict as its crumbling buildings.  Whole segments have been declared unconstitutional and placed under federal oversight.  Even the newly poured concrete of Pelican Bay's "super-max" facility can't cover up the rot.

But people doing time have rights.  As one judge remarked, "there is simply no place for abuse and mistreatment, even in the darkest of jailhouse cells."1

Our California Civil Rights Lawyers can help you and your loved ones seek justice.2 We have years of experience in the criminal justice system and represent victims of all types of abuse, misconduct, excessive force & neglect by California jail and prison guards.

This article covers:

1. What abuse happens in jail?
2. What "rights" do inmates have anyway?
3. Why should I care?

(Click on a title to proceed directly to that section)

You might also be interested in our related article on Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Violations.

1. What abuse happens in jail?

California has one of the largest prison systems in the country.  In 2008, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation housed 171,085 adult inmates (not including parolees) at 33 institutions.3

The Los Angeles County jail system, which is run by the LA County Sheriff's Department, houses about 20,000 inmates at nine facilities.  It is the largest system of its kind in the country.4

California's prisons and jails are rife with abuse and misconduct.

Prison and jail abuse

Abuse in the joint runs the gamut from guard-on-prisoner abuse; prisoner-on-prisoner abuse; abuse resulting from inadequate conditions; and abuse resulting from inadequate care.

Here are some examples:

  • excessive force by jail & prison guards
    • punching with fists
    • kicking with feet
    • hitting with flashlights and batons
    • unreasonable use of tasers and pepper spray
    • unreasonable use of restraints
    • spiteful punishments
  • humiliation and threats by jail & prison guards
    • destruction of inmate property
    • use of racial epithets, slurs and demeaning language
  • sexual assault by jail & prison guards
  • failure of guards to protect inmates from prisoner-on-prisoner violence
    • prisoner-on-prisoner stabbings
    • prisoner-on-prisoner assaults
    • prisoner-on-prisoner rapes5
    • gang fights
    • gang executions
  • failure to provide inmates with livable conditions
    • severe overcrowding (triple-bunking, sleeping in day rooms)6
    • extreme isolation in "super-max" prison facilities
    • plumbing and temperature problems
    • unsanitary conditions (living with mold, rats, cockroaches)
    • unhygienic conditions (not being able to shower or have clean bedding)
  • failure to provide inmates with adequate care
    • medical care
    • dental care
    • mental health care
  • failure to release inmate when eligible

Deterioration in downtown Los Angeles:  the ACLU report

The ACLU recently released a report on conditions in Los Angeles Men's Central Jail that documented extensive abuse as well as a lack of transparency that prevents us from knowing the whole picture.7

Inmates told stories of being punched, kicked, slapped, stripped, tased and pepper sprayed.  Limbs were broken and diseases swirled in the filthy water of the clogged showers.

One inmate said guards hit him with flashlights like he "was a baseball or something."8 Another claimed that guards beat him and then called him a "nigger bitch."9

One inmate reported a rodent problem so bad that "a mouse fell on [his] face."10 Meanwhile, another inmate was placed in a cell with "blood and feces on the walls."11

The ACLU report expressed particular concern with the overarching problem of overcrowding and the inability of mentally ill inmates to receive adequate care.12

The report concluded that:

This violence, fueled in significant part by the overarching problem of chronic overcrowding in the cell blocks of the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail, is one of the most compelling reasons why this aging, decrepit facility must have its population drastically reduced, or be closed.13

Worst of the worst:  isolation, abuse and a culture of impunity

Inmates at Pelican Bay's super-max facility, located in an isolated region of Northern California, suffered similarly harrowing conditions during a period investigated by a federal judge.

After extensive study, the judge concluded that prison guards routinely used excessive force and brutality with inmates while prison officials looked the other way.14

Unlike the rat-infested decaying Men's Central Jail, Pelican Bay is brand new and state-of-the-art.  It houses the state's most difficult offenders in the "security housing unit" (or "SHU"), where inmates live in virtual isolation for years at a time, spending 22-1/2 hours each day in windowless cells.15

Here's what happened to one SHU inmate who refused to give up his dinner tray:

The supervising lieutenant then authorized his prison guard sergeants to forcibly remove Castillo from the cell.  To accomplish this removal, two rounds from a 38 milli-meter gas gun were fired into the cell.  A taser gun was also fired, striking Castillo in the chest and stomach.  Then, without attempting to retrieve the tray (which re-mained near the front of the cell), some number of officers entered the cell, walked past the tray, and advanced toward Castillo.  Castillo testified that one of the corrections officers then hit him on the top of his head with the butt of the gas gun, knocking him unconscious.  When he regained consciousness, he was on the floor with his face down.  An corrections officer was stepping on his hands and hitting him on his calves with a baton, at which point Castillo passed out a second time.  When he regained consciousness again, he was dragged out of the cell face down; his head was bleeding, and a piece of his scalp had been detached or peeled back.16

Another mentally ill inmate suffered severe burns over a third of his body after inciting the scorn of prison guards by biting an officer and smearing his cell with fecal matter:

Kuroda later observed, from her prison nurse's station, that Dortch was in the bathtub with his hands cuffed behind his back, with an officer pushing down on his shoulder and holding his arms in place.  Subsequently, another corrections officer came into the nurse's station and made a call.  Kuroda's unrebutted testimony is that she overheard the officer say about Dortch, who is African-American, that it "looks like we're going to have a white boy before this is through, that his skin is so dirty and so rotten, it's all fallen off."  Concerned by this remark, Kuroda walked over toward the tub, and saw Dortch standing with his back to her.  She testified that, from just below the buttocks down, his skin had peeled off and was hanging in large clumps around his legs, which had turned white with some redness.  Even then, in a shocking show of indifference, the prison officers made no effort to seek any medical assistance or advice.  Instead, it appeared to Kuroda that the corrections officers were simply dressing Dortch to return him to his cell.  When Kuroda told them they could not return him in that condition, Officer Williams responded, in a manner described by Kuroda as disparaging and challenging, that Dortch had been living in his own feces and urine for three months, and if he was going to get infected, he would have been already.17

Chillingly, the judge notes in a footnote in his 137-page opinion:  "Certainly, much has transpired at Pelican Bay California state prison of which the Court will never know."18

Major portions of California's penal system declared unconstitutional

Abuse and violence against inmates in California's prison system does not begin and end with physical confrontations.  Medical care is so woefully inadequate that as of mid-2005, an inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days.19

It is thus no surprise that federal judges have intervened.  Deciding that the state simply cannot handle its affairs in this matter, judges have placed the medical and mental health aspects of the system under the auspices of court-appointed officials.20

Population reduction order

When the judges looked at all of the problems in the jails and prisons, they decided that much of the abuse stems from overcrowding.a phenomenon itself attributed to a mix of get-tough-on-crime policies.21

Seeing no other option, the judges ordered the state of California to reduce the prison population to 137% capacity (from the present rate of 190%) in order to ensure the protection of inmates' fundamental constitutional rights.22

2. What "rights" do California inmates have anyway?

So what are these fundamental constitutional rights enjoyed by society's outcasts?

They are those civil rights that we as a civilized society recognize to be merited by all, regardless of their crimes, in accordance with evolving standards of decency.  They provide the framework that governs prisoner care and treatment.

General principles

There are many statutes, regulations and constitutional provisions that apply to prison conditions.  Here we'll discuss a few key principles.

Prison rules

Generally speaking, California's jails and prisons can implement rules that are designed for the legitimate running of the facility.   The rules must relate to the safety, security and efficiency of the custodial facility.  They cannot be arbitrary or based in malice.

Let's look at some examples:

Example:  Prison officials have learned that a number of prison gang attacks have been facilitated through inmate correspondence with fellow gang members at other correctional facilities.23 They also have learned that inmates have planned escape attempts through letters to and from felons at other jails.  Corrections officers implement a policy preventing inmates from corresponding with inmates (who are not family members) at other facilities.

This regulation meets constitutional standards.  It impacts an inmate's ability to communicate but does so for the legitimate penological goal of enhancing prison security.24

Example:  Corrections officials are worried about the increasing amount of weapons and contraband inmates harbor in their cells.  They implement a policy that allows corrections officers to conduct random cell searches to look for these items.  Inmate Jones is upset because last Saturday he was sleeping when the guards came for a shakedown.  He wants to sue them for inconvenience.

Inmate Jones will not succeed with his lawsuit.  Random cell searches are necessary for the legitimate running of a safe and secure institution.  Besides, as an inmate, Mr. Jones does not have the same "reasonable expectation of privacy" in his cell as he had in his home while a free man.25

Change the facts:  A prison guard asks Inmate Jones for the name of someone outside who can get him a gun on the cheap and sly.  Inmate Jones ignores the guard but reports the incident to authorities.  The prison guard is disciplined.  A few weeks later, the guard embarks on a retaliatory harassment campaign against Inmate Jones.  The guard searches Jones' cell 10 times in 19 days and destroys his personal property.

Inmate Jones may have a lawsuit under these facts.  The guard was not conducting legitimate random cell searches within the approved policy.  He was using his power to harass Inmate Jones because he did not facilitate a weapons transaction.  Even though Inmate Jones has no expectation of privacy in his jail cell, he is entitled to protection against cruel and unusual punishment.26

Deference to prison officials

A related principle is that courts should defer to prison officials in crafting policies.

The idea is that judges are in the business of running courtrooms, not jails or prisons.  They do not have the expertise to second-guess every decision.27

Excessive force by California Jail & Prison Officers

A critical source of protection for prisoners is the Eighth Amendment constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.  It governs many aspects of California prison care and protects prisoners against sadistic brutality from corrections officers.

Jail and prison guards can use reasonable force in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline but NOT maliciously or sadistically to cause harm.28

To see an example of a prison guard using force maliciously or sadistically, we need only return to our examples from Pelican Bay.

In the case of Inmate Castillo, who was beaten unconscious for refusing to return his tray, the judge came to the:

inescapable conclusion that Castillo was subjected to the use of excessive force that was imposed, not in a good faith effort to restore order or maintain prison security, but maliciously for the purpose of causing pain and inflicting punishment.29

And in the case of Inmate Dortch, who was scalded with hot water:

it is nonetheless clear, from all of the surrounding circumstances, that Dortch was given the bath primarily as a punitive measure and for the purpose of inflicting some degree of pain, in retaliation for, and perhaps out of frustration with, his prior offensive conduct.30

Other considerations

Litigation of abuse and violence by jail and prison guards can be as complicated as it is important.31

If you think you have a case, you should try to talk to a civil rights lawyer as soon as possible, as there are important deadlines that cannot be missed.

Our California Civil Rights Lawyers can discuss your case with you, including possible avenues for relief and issues relating to damages you might win to compensate you for abuse or punish wrongdoers.

3. Why should I care?

Even if it's not you or a loved one who is suffering in California's prison system, you still should care about what's happening.  Our strength as a civilized society is in part a reflection of how we treat the most despised and vulnerable among us.

Many jail inmates eventually will rejoin us out here.  Wouldn't you feel safer if they come out with the wherewithal to hold down a job and make good choices?  As one blue ribbon panel observed after an exhaustive study on America's prisons:

What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons.  It comes home with prisoners after they are released and with corrections officers at the end of each day's shift.  When people live and work in facilities that are unsafe, unhealthy, unproductive, or inhumane, they carry the effects home with them.32

And not everyone who is incarcerated is guilty.  Some unfortunate victims of the system have been wrongfully convicted.  Others are convicted for minor or non-violent crimes or haven't even been convicted yet at all.  Many inmates immersed in the deplorable conditions of the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail are simply too poor to make bail while they await trial.

What if it was you?

Just think for an awful second:  What if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time and suddenly found yourself among societies worst.  Arrested, handcuffed, strip-searched and tossed into the violent filth of Men's Central Jail or unfathomable barrenness of the Pelican Bay?

Wouldn't you want the law to help protect you?

Our California Civil Rights Lawyers Can Help.
Img call for help

If you or a loved one is being abused in jail or prison and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

You might also be interested in reading our related articles Police Use of Tasers, Police Use of Pepper Spray, and Racial Profiling.

Helpful links:

Prison Law Center

American Civil Liberties Union - Southern California

American Civil Liberties Union - Northern California

Center for Constitutional Rights - Criminal Justice and Mass Incarceration

National lawyers Guild - Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook

Families to Amend California's Three Strikes

Innocence Project

Lockup series on MSNBC

"The Farm:  Life Inside Angola Prison"

"Murder in the First"

"The Thin Blue Line"


1Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal 1995), 102.

2Our California Civil Rights Lawyers have local offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, San Diego, San Francisco, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.

3The federal prison system tops California's system in inmate population.  As far as states go, California and Texas run neck and neck.  See California Department of Corrections, Annual Report (Fall 2009).  According to a Pew Center on the States report, 1 in 100 adults is behind bars in the United States and 1 in 15 black males aged 18 or older are incarcerated.  See also U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin (2008).

4Annual Report on Conditions Inside Los Angeles County Jail 2008-2009 by ACLU National Prison Project and ACLU of Southern California, 3.

5The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was enacted to help address the scourge of prison rape, which happens in prisons and jails throughout the country.   See also National Prison Rape Elimination Commission 2009 report.

6For more photos of overcrowding in California's prisons, see CDCR website.

7See ACLU report, footnote 4 above ("A key difficulty in assessing the true extent of violence in Men's Central Jail is the sheriff's refusal to share information with the ACLU regarding, for example, the number of use-of-force incidents it investigates, and the resolution of those investigations.  This lack of transparency raises questions about the adequacy and independence of the Sheriff's Department's internal review process, and may even help encourage daily occurrences of violence within the jail.")

8Id at 11.

9Id at 12.

10Id at 40.

11Id at 46.

12Id at 27 ("Dr. Kupers concluded that the overcrowding in MCJ is so excessive, the other conditions of confinement in the jail so harsh, and the denial of basic mental health care so extreme, as to create a toxic environment likely to cause psychiatric breakdown, even in some individuals who do not have previous symptoms of mental illness.")

13Id at 1.  See also Donald Specter, Everything Revolves Around Overcrowding:  The State of California's Prisons, Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Feb 2010).  See also Confronting Confinement:  A Report of Commission on safety and Abuse in America's Prisons (June 2006) (blue ribbon panel convened by Vera Institute of Justice) 11-16 [finding in America's prisons prevalent violence including gang violence, rape, beatings by officers and intimidation; high disease and illness rate including staph infections, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and HIV; and needless isolation in super-max units where the environment is "so severe that people end up completely isolated, confined in constantly bright or constantly dim spaces without any meaningful human contact - torturous conditions that are proven to cause mental deterioration")]

14Madrid v. Gomez, infra, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 48 ("The court finds that supervision of the use of non-lethal force at Pelican Bay is strikingly deficient") and Id at 53 ("It is clear to the Court that while the IAD goes through the necessary motions, it is invariably a counterfeit investigation pursued with one outcome in mind:  to avoid finding officer misconduct as often as possible.  As described below, not only are all presumptions in favor of the officer, but evidence is routinely strained, twisted or ignored to reached the desired result.")

15Id at 17 ("Assignment to the SHU is not based on the inmate's underlying offense; rather, SHU cells are reserved for those inmates in the California prison system who become affiliated with a prison gang or commit serious disciplinary infractions once in prison.  They represent, according to a phrase coined by defendants, `the worst of the worst.")  Here's a bit more about the SHU:  "The cellblocks are marked throughout by a dull sameness in design and color.  The cells are windowless; the walls are white concrete.  When inside the cell, all one can see through the perforated metal door is another white wall.  A small exercise pen with cement floors and walls is attached to the end of each pod.  Because the walls are 20 feet high, they preclude any view of the outside world.  The top of the pen is covered partly by a screen and partly by a plastic rain cover, thus providing access to some fresh air. The overall effect of the SHU is one of stark sterility and unremitting monotony.  Inmates can spend years without ever seeing any aspect of the outside world except for a small patch of the sky. Food trays are passed through a narrow food port in the cell door.  Inmates eat all meals in their cells.  Opportunities for social interaction with other prisoners or vocational staff are essentially precluded..As the Court observed during its tour of the SHU, some inmates spend the time simply pacing around the edges of the pen; the image created is hauntingly similar to that of caged felines pacing in a zoo." Id at 87.

16Id at 25.

17Id at 29.

18Id at 42.

19Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, No. 2:90-cv-00520 (E.D. Cal) ("Coleman Order"), 6.

20Coleman Order and Plata v. Schwarzenegger, No. 3:01-cv-01351 (9th Cir. 2010).

21Coleman Order, 181 ("The massive 750% increase in the California prison population since the mid-1970s is the result of political decisions made over three decades, including the shift to inflexible determinate sentencing and the passage of harsh mandatory minimum and California three-strikes laws, as well as the state's counterproductive parole system.  Unfortunately, as California's prison population has grown, California's political decision-makers have failed to provide the resources and facilities required to meet the additional need for space and for other necessities of prison existence."

22Coleman Order, 110.  This order is now on appeal to the United States Supreme Court.  See Prison Law Office Information Letter (January 2010).  Note that it's not just courts that have recognized a problem.  In a 2006 State of Emergency Proclamation, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaims:  "WHEREAS, the current severe overcrowding in 29 CDCR prisons has caused substantial risk to the health and safety of the men and women who work inside these prisons and the inmates housed in them, because: With so many inmates housed in large common areas, there is an increased, substantial risk of violence, and greater difficulty controlling large inmate populations. With large numbers of inmates housed together in triple-bunks, there is an increased, substantial risk for transmission of infectious illnesses. The triple-bunks and tight quarters create line-of-sight problems for correctional officers by blocking views, creating an increased, substantial security risk.  WHEREAS, the current severe overcrowding in these 29 prisons has also overwhelmed the electrical systems and/or wastewater/sewer systems, because those systems are now often required to operate at or above the maximum intended capacity, resulting in an increased, substantial risk to the health and safety of CDCR staff, inmates, and the public, because:  Overloading the prison electrical systems has resulted in power failures and blackouts within the prisons, creating increased security threats.  It has also damaged fuses and transformers.  Overloading the prison sewage and wastewater systems has resulted in the discharge of waste beyond treatment capacity, resulting in thousands of gallons of sewage spills and environmental contamination.  And when the prisons "overdischarge" waste, bacteria can contaminate the drinking water supply, putting the public's health at an increased, substantial risk."

23Turner v. Safley (1987) 482 U.S. 78, 89 [upholding restrictions on mail between inmates at different institutions but striking down a restriction on inmates getting married while in prison] ("when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests")  In making such a determination, the court can look to whether a logical connection exists between the policy and goal; whether the objective is legitimate and neutral; whether other means exist to accomplish the goal; the "impact accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally;" and whether the policy seems to be an "exaggerated" response to the problem.


25Hudson v. Palmer (1984) 468 U.S. 517, 526 ("Notwithstanding our caution in approaching claims that the Fourth Amendment is inapplicable in a given context, we hold that society is not prepared to recognize as legitimate any subjective expectation of privacy that a prisoner might have in his prison cell and that, accordingly, the Fourth Amendment proscription against unreasonable searches does not apply within the confines of the prison cell.  The recognition of privacy rights for prisoners in their individual cells simply cannot be reconciled with the concept of incarceration and the needs and objectives of penal institutions.")  Note that strip searches and body cavity searches raise additional questions.  As discussed in footnote 27 below, a bitterly divided Ninth Circuit recently held that a blanket policy of visual strip searching all pretrial detainees held in general custody did not violate the Fourth Amendment.  But the Court did note that egregious violations of such policy might give rise to "strong claims."

26Scher v. Engelke (8th Cir. 1991) 943 F.2d 921 ("This is a clear case of a prisoner who was subjected to retaliatory cell searches and conduct violations for bringing the illicit conduct of a prison guard to the attention of prison officials.  The lawmaking retaliation for the exercise of a constitutional right actionable under 1983 has been established for some time and an objectively reasonable official could not fail to know of it.")

27Turner v. Safley, infra.  See also Bull v. San Francisco (9th Cir, 2010) No. 05-17080 cv-03-01840 [holding that blanket strip search policy for inmates including pretrial detainees entering the general population of the San Francisco jail system does not violate the Fourth Amendment even absent "individualized reasonable suspicion" and even as against Ninth Circuit precedent and that of other circuits] ("Because the Turner factors require us to give more deference to detention officials' determinations than does the balancing test in Bell, it is not surprising that our consideration of the Turner factors leads to the same conclusion.  San Francisco presented a well-documented record of the contraband problem in its jails, of individuals attempting to smuggle contraband into the jails via body cavities, and of the health and safety issues such smuggling raised.  The record includes a jail administrator's testimony that `it is of utmost importance in the operation of a jail system to prevent the introduction of drugs, weapons, and other contraband and that `[t]he safety and well being of all inmates, staff and the public demands no less." Id at 2259).  Referring to Bell v Wolfish (1979) 441 U.S. 520.

28Hudson v. McMillan (1991) 503 U.S. 1, 7 ("In recognition of these similarities, we hold that, whenever prison officials stand accused of using excessive physical force in violation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the core judicial inquiry is that set out in Whitley:  whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.")  Referring to Whitley v. Albers (1986) 475 U.S. 312.

29Madrid v. Gomez, infra, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 25.

30Id at 30.

31Passage of the Federal Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 has complicated the ability for inmates to sue for civil rights violations.  For example, the PLRA requires an inmate to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suits and also mandates a showing of physical injury for damages actions for violations involving mental or emotional injury.  See ACLU summary report on the act.  In the words of the Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook:  "The PLRA is extremely anti-prisoner, and designed to limit prisoners' access to the federal courts.  Why would Congress pass such a repressive piece of legislation?  Many people say Congress believed a story that was told to them by states tired of spending money to defend themselves against prisoner lawsuits.  In this story, prisoners file mountains of unimportant lawsuits because they have time on their hands, and enjoy harassing the administration.  The obvious truth - that prisoners file a lot of lawsuits because they are subjected to a lot of unjust treatment - was ignored.  The PLRA makes filing a complaint much more costly, time-consuming, and risky to the prisoner." Id at 4.  See also Human Rights Watch report on the PLRA.

32Confronting Confinement, infra, 11.



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