SACRAMENTO — Jason Brannigan's eyes widened as he relived the day he says prison guards pepper-sprayed his face at point-blank range, then pulled him through the cellblock naked, his hands and feet shackled.
"I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" Brannigan recalled gasping in pain and humiliation during the March 2007 incident.
"They're walking me on the chain and it felt just like slaves again," said the African American inmate, interviewed at the Sacramento County jail. "Like I just stepped off an auction block."
Brannigan, 33, said the incident occurred in the behavior modification unit at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, Calif., where he was serving time for armed assault. He is one of more than 1,500 inmates who have passed through such units in six California prisons.
An investigation into the behavior units, including signed affidavits, conversations and correspondence with 18 inmates, has uncovered evidence of racism and cruelty at the High Desert facility. Inmates described hours-long strip-searches in a snow-covered exercise yard. They said correctional officers tried to provoke attacks between inmates, spread human excrement on cell doors and roughed up those who peacefully resisted mistreatment.
Many of their 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.
James Austin, a researcher who served on a 2007 panel formed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to evaluate state prisons, said such allegations would automatically trigger an investigation in most correctional facilities.
"You don't really have an option," Austin said. "It's like reporting a crime to the police."
Yet, in an April 6 interview, Scott Kernan, corrections undersecretary for operations, was quick to dismiss the claims as typical of prisoner gripes, adding: "I don't see drastic abuses."
A week after The Bee asked about the behavior unit, internal affairs in the Corrections Department opened a narrowly defined probe, Kernan later said, into what managers did after researchers informed them of the abuse allegations.
Results of that inquiry will not be made public, he said.
Behavior modification units, later renamed behavior management units, were created in six prisons in 2005 and 2006. They were designed for troublemakers and inmates who refuse a cellmate – as an intermediary step between draconian high-security cells and general prison housing.
The units were to feature classes in "life skills," such as anger management. In practice, most classes have since been eliminated and budget cuts have closed three units, including High Desert's.
Most inmates in state prisons are incarcerated for serious crimes and are hardly the most reliable sources. But state researcher Norman Skonovd said he and his colleagues found the prisoners credible because they provided highly consistent stories in separate interviews.
The Bee tested that conclusion by tracking down more than a dozen men who served time in the High Desert unit. Now scattered across the prison system, they had no apparent opportunity to consult with each other. Their stories, supported by hundreds of pages of legal and prison documents, included remarkable consistency about incidents that some called "cruel and unusual."
'We do what we want'
"It was a strip-search, buck-naked in the snow," said Rufus Gray, an inmate who spent eight months in the High Desert behavior unit.
Gray, now an inmate at Calipatria State Prison east of San Diego, was one of several who complained to state researchers or The Bee about such checks.
Laura Magnani with the American Friends Service Committee, an advocacy group, was visiting High Desert on a bitterly cold day in 2007 when she saw a similar scene: a prisoner, in underwear and shoeless, "paraded" across the frozen yard.
"To us, it looked like pure humiliation," Magnani said.
While they stood shivering, inmates said, High Desert guards ransacked cells in a search for contraband, in the process damaging personal photos, and dumping tooth-cleaning powder in toilets.
When The Bee requested a response from High Desert officials on this and other issues in the research report, Kernan said he would answer for them. Such complaints are "very common for inmates in restricted programs," he said, and don't necessarily warrant follow-up beyond a normal complaint-resolution process.
But prisoners said the strip-searches were emblematic of everyday life in the High Desert behavior unit.
Some cells leaked in rainstorms, soaking mattresses, they said, and blankets and toiletries were routinely withheld. Birds trapped in the unit defecated in prisoners' food trays, and prayer books and rugs were confiscated without recourse.
Edward Thomas, who served time in the unit, said in a phone interview from his current setting, California State Prison, Sacramento, that High Desert guards also contaminated inmates' food with dirt and insects and often starved those who complained.
The experience, Thomas said, "was like something that happens in a concentration camp."
Thomas, 46, is partly disabled. His repeated requests for mobility assistance were denied, according to affidavits from 10 inmates.
Guards said Thomas was faking, although medical records show that prison doctors had diagnosed a permanently disabling back condition.
Thomas and former High Desert inmate Lawrence Larry, currently incarcerated at Calipatria, described separate incidents in which the contents of an incontinent inmate's diapers were smeared on cell doors or pushed underneath by guards.
Often, inmates alleged, mistreatment escalated to threats and outright assault.
On his first night in the High Desert unit, James Williams requested a blanket. In response, "the guy put me in cuffs, squeezed them real tight, pulled my arm up my back," Williams said. "He said, 'This is High Desert. We do what we want.' "
Antonio Scott, now imprisoned in Corcoran, said High Desert guards damaged his kidney after he and other inmates withheld food trays to protest poor conditions. Guards beat up five of them in their cells, Scott said.
If true, said Jeffrey Beard, Pennsylvania corrections chief and another member of Schwarzenegger's expert panel, such violence exceeds anything he knows of nationwide. "We make it very clear in our system that we don't tolerate that type of behavior," he said.
Kernan said he could not respond to any specific allegations made by inmates but "we have an extensive procedure for any allegations of inappropriate use of force."
When Brannigan and his cellmate, Lawrence Larry, heard loud pounding after breakfast on Nov. 3, 2007, they suspected a fight on the upper tier. But there were no shouts, and the sounds went on for over an hour.
At 10 a.m., a guard sounded the alarm, rushed into the cell where the commotion had come from and pulled out Gerardo Martinez, according to the Lassen County coroner's report. Martinez didn't have a pulse.
The scene was reflected in windows of the guard tower as if on a big screen, inmates said, allowing them to clearly view officers' futile efforts at resuscitation.
Martinez, 39, alone in his cell, had hanged himself with a torn sheet tied to the bed frame. He had been moved to the behavior unit because High Desert's security housing was overflowing and, according to the autopsy report, he was on suicide watch. The Tulare County resident, who had a history of mental illness, was imprisoned for stabbing his father to death.
The coroner wrote that guards had checked Martinez at 9:30 a.m. Brannigan and Larry said that they saw no such checks occur and no guard seemed to notice the pounding.
"He wouldn't have died," Larry wrote in a letter to The Bee, if "officers and sargents (sic) were doing their hourly checks."
Charles Lewis, a stocky, young African American, also tried to hang himself in 2007, said his former cellmate, Stephon Fletcher, now out on parole in Los Angeles.
One night Fletcher awakened to sounds of grunting and choking. Lewis – whom Fletcher described as despondent over abuse in the unit combined with a lack of family support – was hanging from a torn sheet. Fletcher rushed to hold him up, loosening the noose.
"I yelled, 'Man down! Man down!' " Fletcher recalled. But he said the guards suspected it was a ruse to get out of the unit. "If you don't stop playing," they said, according to Fletcher, "we're going to let your fat ass die."
After watching for 30 seconds, they told Fletcher to let go, he said. When Lewis went slack, they stormed in and cut him down. Lewis survived.
Court records indicate suicidal inmates are typical in behavior units. So are prisoners heavily medicated for psychosis, and delusional and bipolar disorders.
Court-appointed mental health monitors said Salinas Valley placed an inmate in its behavior unit for refusing to share a cell after he had been sexually assaulted repeatedly. The man suffered from panic attacks. "His risk of self-injury and suicide should be assessed thoroughly and often," the monitor wrote.
At High Desert, a behavior-modification inmate was moved to a special care unit "during the monitor's visit after attempting suicide."
In 2006, the prison system's own experts advised against placing any inmates, particularly those who are mentally ill, in behavior units, said a senior official who helped review the High Desert program.
"Mental health officials said the programs going into High Desert didn't meet behavior modification clinical standards, and research did not support the program as effective in modifying criminal behavior," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals. "They worried that some mentally unstable inmates could be harmed by the program."
During The Bee's March 30 visit to Calipatria, stress seemed to rattle behavior-unit inmate Vu Ha. He wiped his toilet with a towel, wiped his floor, then placed the towel on the floor, carefully lining it up with the cell door. He paced, picked up the towel and repeated the process, over and over.
In an interview, Ha, 30, complained of boredom and isolation. Asked what he does all day, the Vietnamese immigrant replied: "Try not go crazy. Sometimes this (unit) make you want to take some psych med."
Kernan, who oversees all state prison operations, expressed surprise that such inmates were in the behavior units, known in prison lingo by their acronym, "BMU."
"Where somebody had been sexually assaulted or was on a heavy level of meds or was suicidal," Kernan said, "it's hard for me to understand how a warden would say, 'no, you're going to double cell (or) I'm going to throw you in the BMU.' "
"Black monkey unit"
Six months after Brannigan claims he was pepper-sprayed, correctional officer David R. Vincent falsely and openly called him and another inmate "PC" – prison shorthand for someone in protective custody – according to a formal complaint filed by Brannigan, provided by his grandmother.
Spoken within earshot of other prisoners, it was like putting a target on their backs, even though "PC" inmates are never housed in the behavior units, according to Kernan.
Protective-custody inmates, often child molesters, informants or gang defectors, are magnets for prison violence. Brannigan said angry inmates confronted him in the law library, but he convinced them that he had been set up.
Other prisoners backed his account in signed statements. Brannigan later withdrew his complaint, according to an official memo. But the prison still examined the case and, in January 2008, Vincent was exonerated without explanation.
Numerous inmates linked such treatment to skin color.
More than half of the 164 inmates who had passed through the High Desert behavior unit by fall 2007 were black, while African Americans made up about a third of the prison's total population. Inmates said blacks routinely are targeted.
"Several inmates described an incident when staff left one inmate on the floor with rectal bleeding and refused to take him to get medical attention," according to the state researchers' report. When guards arrived, "they said 'It's the f---ing n----- again, let him die.' And they left him there."
Guards labeled the behavior modification unit the "black monkey unit," inmates said. Officers joked, Brannigan said, about how "monkeys" are "always hanging around in there" – a macabre reference to suicide attempts by prisoners of color.
Brannigan's pepper-spray nightmare took place against this backdrop of alleged discrimination.
"It feels like your lungs are on fire," he said, describing the incident.
Brannigan, who is from Sacramento's Fruitridge neighborhood, honors his great-grandmother with a forearm tattoo that quotes from the Bible, "Then the Angel said to them do not be afraid " From the jailhouse visiting booth, he outlined the offense that he said triggered the pepper-spray episode: not returning his meal tray after two or three minutes – the time he and other inmates said typically was allotted for meals in the behavior unit.
When "extracted" from his cell, guards slammed him to the ground and savagely kicked his legs, Brannigan said, and "made me strip naked to try to degrade me." They led him to one shower room, and then another, to wash off the burning spray – but found no more than a trickle of water.
An officer later threatened to post online a recording of the incident, which he dubbed "the S&M video," Brannigan claimed.
As he was led by a chain through the cell block, nearby inmates, including his cellmate Larry, gazed in stunned silence through gaps in barriers that guards had placed over cell windows.
A centuries-old icon of inhumanity, Larry said, seemed to have been transported into today's world.
"You will not be informed"
The prisoners knew this sort of abuse was illegal, and they complained via the prison's appeal process. Their complaints usually were discarded, rejected or ignored, they claimed in interviews and formal filings obtained by The Bee.
Nor did prisoners receive responses to letters they said they sent to the FBI or the state inspector general, an independent agency that investigates corrections.
When they requested confirmation that their mail had been delivered, as required by law, officials said mail logs had been lost in a computer crash, according to a memo from the mailroom supervisor obtained by The Bee from Brannigan's grandmother.
When an inmate persisted in pressing claims of excessive force, they claimed, guards sometimes fabricated a charge of "disobeying a direct order," which can add time to a sentence. Or guards implied they would retaliate.
Brannigan quoted officer Leo F. Betti in a written complaint: "You and I better come to an understanding real soon," Betti purportedly said, "or it's going to get a lot worse for you up here."
In 2007, Brandy Frye, a Sacramento resident and Brannigan's then-girlfriend, provided complaints from several inmates to internal affairs and asked for an examination of High Desert. Frye received a response from High Desert Chief Deputy Warden M.D. McDonald.
"Many of the allegations you speak of," McDonald wrote on July 17, 2007, "have been investigated via the appeals process. It has been determined that (High Desert) staff is following the policies of (the state corrections department). If staff misconduct is discovered during the inquiry, the appropriate corrective action will be taken. However, you will not be informed of the results of the inquiry or the nature of the corrective action taken."
Corrections undersecretary Kernan said that no formal department probe of the allegations had taken place and he was not aware of any investigation by the inspector general.
'Hide the findings'
The state researchers left High Desert shaken by their July 2007 visit, said Skonovd, a sociologist and member of the group. Skonovd, who also lectures at UC Davis and has more than 25 years of corrections research experience, said he had never seen a similar case.
Beyond prisoners' alarming claims, guards seemed to view behavior modification as a license to make inmates as miserable as possible to compel obedience.
The researchers immediately alerted the correction department's research director, Assistant Secretary Steven Chapman, expecting him to warn higher-ups and prepare for a formal investigation.
Instead, they said, Chapman chastised them and insisted that prisoner complaints be toned down and buried.
"Chapman became visibly angry at the staff and manager (and) directed the staff and managers to take no further actions to inform administrators of their findings," research manager Nikki Baumrind wrote after the meeting, in notes obtained by The Bee.
The Bee requested interviews with Chapman and Baumrind, but neither was made available by the corrections department, nor did either respond to direct requests for an interview.
Baumrind's description of Chapman's response was confirmed in notes recorded after the meeting by Skonovd and the other field researchers.
"We did not say that we believed the allegations – just that they were serious and we thought they needed to be reported to the Administration at Headquarters – these involved allegations of constitutional rights violations!" Skonovd wrote. "(Chapman) told us all to not take this information any further – that he would handle it. He was very emphatic about that."
The Bee asked Kernan if Chapman had informed prison or headquarters authorities about the claims. Kernan said Chapman insists that before leaving the prison, the researchers themselves had duly alerted the deputy warden. Yet those researchers and Baumrind all indicated in their notes that they had not – adding that Chapman actually had rebuked them for failing to do so.
Abuse claims were prominently featured in an initial draft of the researchers' report, obtained by The Bee. In the final version, managers directed that the allegations be relegated to an appendix "to hide the (abuse) findings," Baumrind wrote.
In the spring of 2008, Skonovd said he reported the allegations to the state inspector general. The agency would not confirm whether an investigation ever was conducted.
By then, Skonovd maintains, Chapman had begun to retaliate against him, denying him deserved promotions.
Skonovd did not give up. In April 2009, he said he met confidentially with Elizabeth Siggins, chief deputy corrections secretary for adult programs, about the abuse allegations and his retaliation concerns. Siggins declined to be interviewed for this story.
"It is not my custom to go outside the 'chain of command,' " Skonovd wrote in an e-mail to Siggins obtained by The Bee. "However, these issues involve matters of conscience and professional research standards."
Last week he filed a formal retaliation complaint.
"This wasn't really a behavior modification program in any positive sense," said Skonovd, explaining why he continued to push for a formal investigation of the allegations. "In the end it was mostly about punishment and controlling behavior through fear."
MONDAY: The Bee looks inside behavior units at two California prisons and finds them marked by isolation, deprivation and despair.