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'On Our Watch' podcast investigates violence at California prison

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

There are a lot of infamous prisons in this country, and a lot of them are in California. The second season of KQED's podcast On Our Watch focuses on one prison, New Folsom. Their analysis shows it is the most violent in the state. The podcast follows the stories of two former correctional officers turned whistleblowers and the price they paid for telling the truth. They use interviews, prison interrogation tapes and hundreds of unsealed records to reveal a disproportionately high use of force by officers at New Folsom. Host Sukey Lewis takes it from here. And a warning - this story contains descriptions of violence and attempted suicide.

SUKEY LEWIS, BYLINE: Officer Valentino Rodriguez's first assignment was working in the prison's psychiatric unit, guarding one of the most vulnerable and difficult parts of the population, people with severe mental illnesses. I've talked to a number of people incarcerated in this unit, and it sounds like a really tough place to be. It can be very loud and chaotic. Sometimes the people in this unit are angry and confrontational, while others are simply terrified or heavily medicated. And officers like Valentino are required to get training in how to prevent incarcerated people from hurting each other and themselves.

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Valentino had been working at New Folsom and in this unit for just a few months when he got caught up in a really bad incident. An incarcerated man ended up in the hospital with broken bones and injuries to his face and head, so investigators started looking into how the man got those injuries. We were able to get the tapes and paperwork for that incident. Because of some sensitive details about his mental health, we decided not to use this man's name. I'm just going to call him by the initial of his last name, C. You'll also hear some places where the department has redacted the audio. So C tells the investigators that it all started because of the meds he was taking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

C: I was having a hard time on my medication. When I have a hard time with medication, I have side effects of committing suicide.

LEWIS: First, C says he put his head in the toilet in his cell to try and drown himself. And then C told a passing officer that he was feeling suicidal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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C: He put a sheet, like a suicide sheet.

LEWIS: He says the officer handed him a sheet with a noose already tied in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

C: He threw it in my cell. He said, hang yourself. So I tried to hang myself in front of him.

LEWIS: Officers have to follow really strict rules to prevent suicides. They have to check on people in their cells every 30 minutes. When someone says they're suicidal, officers are supposed to call mental health services right away. And that person might even get moved to a different unit or checked into a hospital. To be clear, handing someone a noose would totally violate what officers are meant to do in this situation. No officers admitted giving him a noose. A responding officer tells investigators he was doing his rounds and saw C with the sheet already tied around his neck.

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #1: At that time, I opened the food port, gave him multiple orders to stop.

LEWIS: When C doesn't respond, the officer says he sprays him with pepper spray.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #1: My intent was to have - to save his life from stopping him from actually choking himself and killing himself.

LEWIS: An officer gets C to come to the door to put handcuffs on him, and he's shackled by his feet and behind his back. And then they escort him to what's called a decontamination cell. It's basically a cage the size of a phone booth that they can spray a hose into to wash the pepper spray off him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

C: And they just, boom. They just pushed me in there. And I hit my face against the back of the cell. I went in like that - boom. I hit my face against the...

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #1: This injury that's right there across your nose?

C: (Inaudible) well, hit my head in the face like that, boom, and then my eye, and then my face, and then my neck.

LEWIS: But the officers who were escorting him tell it differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #1: He just kept trying to pull away, so I tighten my grip and counseled him to not pull away from myself.

LEWIS: The officer says C broke away from them and lunged toward the shower.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #1: And then he ended up tripping over the - there's a lip on the shower, you know, tripping over the bottom lip, smashing in the back of the shower. And then I immediately closed the shower and locked it.

LEWIS: Again, C denies this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #2: Were you resisting at all?

C: I wasn't resisting at all.

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #2: You were just walking calmly?

C: I was walking calmly, yes. I mean, I didn't get the injuries from trying to hang myself. I got the injuries from them pushing me.

LEWIS: So to recap, according to C, he was suicidal. An officer gave him a noose, pepper sprayed him, and he was forcibly thrown into a cage and injured really badly. The version officers tell is that C already had the noose. They pepper sprayed him to save his life. And he got hurt, first when he fell from his bunk and then again when he pulled away from them and tripped face-first into the shower cage.

The last account of events I'm going to walk you through is Valentino's because he was one of the officers who responded that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALENTINO RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #3: Can you give me your account of that incident?

RODRIGUEZ: I heard on the radio an announcement that there was a inmate hanging - inmate attempted hanging in 2 Block, in B section.

LEWIS: As the two officers took C to hose off, they walked him past Valentino, who says he saw a little bump on C's forehead. So C goes to the shower cage with really no major injuries that Valentino could see.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #3: At what point did you observe an injury on him?

RODRIGUEZ: When the water was turned off and I walked up to the cage to open it up, I some injuries on to the top of his head and across his face, I think - well, I believe it was across his face.

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #3: OK. Can you tell me about - describe those injuries?

RODRIGUEZ: They were gashes, like large gashes.

LEWIS: Valentino was asked to photograph C's injuries and then take him to get medical attention. We got those pictures that he took. The man's face is partially blacked out, but you can see a 5-inch gash across his forehead. And his cheek is split open from his nose to below his cheekbone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CORRECTIONAL OFFICER #3: Is there anything else you'd like to tell me what you have not already discussed during this interview? Before I turn off the recorder, I want to remind you...

LEWIS: A big deal any time an officer gets pulled into an investigation, even just as a witness, because lying is a fireable offense. We know Valentino told the people closest to him about this incident. He told his dad, Valentino Rodriguez Sr., that what happened during the incident was different from what those officers wrote on their reports and told investigators, but he said he felt like he had to go along with their story.

VALENTINO RODRIGUEZ SR: He told me, Dad, you have to tell the same story because you're on a team. Yeah. And if you don't, then you're the odd man out.

LEWIS: His wife, Mimi Rodriguez (ph), told us something similar.

MIMI RODRIGUEZ: And he told me how they never really specifically said you must do it this way. You must write it this, you must do it that. It was more of, like, this is what we are doing, and this is how we're going to do it. And this is what's important for our team, so we can all be on the same page. He felt a lot of pressure just because he didn't want to lose his job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEWIS: CDCR did not respond to specific questions about this incident. A spokesperson did write in an email that the agency takes all allegations of employee misconduct seriously, and there is a new process for making sure complaints are, quote, "properly, fairly and thoroughly reviewed." So we don't know exactly what the truth is about this incident. What we do know is that C was severely injured. Medical reports show he received 27 stitches. His nose was broken. And his spine was fractured in three places. Ultimately, those in charge believed the officer's story. And that's the story that Valentino chose to go along with, even though he told his father it wasn't true. This wouldn't be the last time Valentino felt compromised by his job.

DETROW: That was KQED's Sukey Lewis. You can hear the rest of KQED's series, On Our Watch, wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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