By Charles Piller
First of two parts

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.

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
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Sacremento County jail. "Like I just stepped off an
auction block."

Brannigan 33, said the incident occurred in the
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">behaviour modification unit at 
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">High Desert State Prison in Susanville, 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.

lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Bee
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

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
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Bee.
An inmate of the 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 
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">High Dessert to assess the program reported
allegations of abuse – including denial of medical care, racial slurs,
gratuitous violence and destruction of protest appeals.

lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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 Austion a researcher who served on a 2007 panel formed by Gov. Arnold Swarzenegger to evaluate
lingo_link lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow"> state prisons said such allegations would automatically trigger an
investigation in most correctional facilities.

"You don't really
have an option,"
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Austin said. "It's like reporting a crime to the

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 correstions dept. 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.

lingo_link lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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.

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.

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.


lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Bee
tested that conclusion by tracking down more than a dozen men who
served time in the High Desert unit. Now scattered across the 
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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

"It was a strip-search, buck-naked in the snow,"
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Bee
about such checks.

lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Laura Magnani, with the American Friends Service Committee, an 
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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.

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.

lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Bee
requested a response from 
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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

But prisoners said the strip-searches were emblematic of
everyday life in the 
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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.

lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Edward who served time in the unit, said in a
phone interview from his current setting, California prisons,
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Sacramento,that
lingo_link lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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 camps."

Thomas, 46, is partly disabled. His repeated requests
for mobility assistance were denied, according to affidavits from 10

Guards said Thomas was faking, although medical records
show that prison doctors had diagnosed a permanently disabling back

Thomas and former 
lingo_link lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">high desert
inmate Lawerence 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

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.' "

lingo_link lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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 Jeffery 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, Lawerence Lasrry,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
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">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

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 
lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow"> 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.
lingo_link lingo_link_hidden" href="" rel="nofollow">Brannigan and Larry said that they saw no such
checks occur and no guard seemed to notice the pounding.

wouldn't have died," Larry wrote in a letter to The Bee, if
"officers and sargents (sic) were doing their hourly checks."

Charles 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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

feels like your lungs are on fire," he said, describing the incident.

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

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.

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

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.