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Correctional Officer Health and Safety
Some State and County Correctional Facilities Could Better Protect Their Officers From the Health Risks of Certain Inmate Attacks

Report Number: 2018-106



Definition of a Gassing Attack

Intentionally placing or throwing or causing to be placed or thrown any human excrement or other bodily fluids or bodily substances or any mixture containing human excrement or other bodily fluids or bodily substances that results in actual contact with the skin or membranes of a correctional officer or employee of the institution, by a person confined in that institution.

Source: Penal Code sections 243.9 (b) and 4501.1 (b).

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) operates 35 prisons, and the State’s 58 counties operate local detention facilities. As of 2018, these state prisons and county jails (correctional facilities) were confining a total of nearly 200,000 individuals. Officers who work in correctional facilities face threats to their health and safety, including a type of assault known as a gassing attack during which an inmate throws bodily fluids at them. The text box identifies the elements of a gassing attack. Under state law, inmates in correctional facilities who commit gassing attacks on officers or employees of the facilities are guilty of an aggravated battery.

Correctional facilities have a number of responsibilities following these gassing attacks. For example, correctional facilities provide care to employees exposed to communicable diseases in the course of performing their job duties. This care includes health care, access to workers’ compensation benefits, and psychological counseling, as Figure 1 details. In addition, correctional facilities must conduct criminal investigations to potentially file charges against the inmates involved. Correctional facilities can also impose several types of internal discipline on inmates, including reducing their privileges; segregating them in disciplinary housing; and taking away their credit time, which inmates earn to reduce their sentences. If convicted of a gassing attack, the inmates can face increases of two to four years to their current sentences.

Figure 1
Procedures After a Gassing Attack

Figure 1, a chart describing the correctional facilities’ responsibilities and the victim’s rights following a gassing attack, including aftercare, which includes the medical and psychological aftercare for the victim; investigation and prosecution, which includes the correctional facility’s completion of the incident report, and the internal discipline and preventative measures that a correctional facility uses to prevent future gassing attacks.

Source: Review of policies and procedures for each of the three correctional facilities.
* Workers’ compensation provides victims with services such as medical care and temporary disability benefits..

To determine the degree to which correctional facilities are meeting these responsibilities, we reviewed the CDCR’s California Institute for Men (CIM), the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s (LASD) Men’s Central Jail (Men’s Central), and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office’s Santa Rita Jail (Santa Rita). In January 2018, these three correctional facilities were overseeing 9,900 inmates and they had identified 111 gassing attacks during 2017.

Victims’ Right to Aftercare

Gassing attacks can have serious potential health implications for victims, including the transmission of communicable diseases from the bodily fluids that the inmate used. Potential communicable diseases that a victim can contract from the bodily fluids include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and tuberculosis (TB). Each of these diseases can result in serious health consequences, as Figure 2 notes. Further, the transmission of communicable diseases can threaten not only the health of victims of gassing attacks but also the health of the victims’ family members, who may become unknowingly infected.

Figure 2
Effects of Communicable Diseases

Figure 2, a chart describing the effects of four communicable diseases that victims can contract from the bodily fluids used in a gassing attack—including, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Hepatitis B, Tuberculosis (TB) and Hepatitis C.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To address these risks, state law requires that correctional facilities provide information to employees who are exposed to communicable diseases in the course of performing their job duties. For example, when any employee has had direct contact with the bodily fluids of an inmate, state law requires that the correctional facilities’ supervisory and medical personnel notify the employee if the inmate has a communicable disease. Also under state law, victims of gassing attacks have the right to request that the inmates who attacked them be tested for a communicable disease. Test results can confirm in less than a week whether the inmate involved in the attack has an existing communicable disease, so testing the inmate can provide the victim with timely information about the risk of exposure.

At all correctional facilities in California, the chief medical officer, or the facility equivalent, is responsible for ensuring that victims of gassing attacks have access to counseling at the time they request inmate medical tests, and when medical staff provide the test results to them. Gassing victims may experience psychological trauma from the attack, and counseling may help them cope. Additionally, counseling may help victims if they have trouble handling the uncertainty over their exposure to a communicable disease.

State law also requires California employers—including CDCR prisons and county jails—to provide workers’ compensation insurance for their employees who are injured or disabled in the course of employment. These benefits can include covering the health care costs and providing temporary and permanent disability payments if the employee is unable to return to work.

Investigations and Discipline

State law further requires that correctional facilities use all means necessary to investigate possible gassing attacks and to refer cases for which there is probable cause to believe that a gassing attack occurred to the local county district attorney for prosecution. To prove that an inmate used bodily fluids in the attack, state law requires correctional facilities to preserve and test the substance that struck the victim in order to confirm the presence of bodily fluids. State law does not have a statute that specifically addresses attempted gassing attacks, that is, an incident in which there is insufficient evidence to prove a gassing attack occurred. Nonetheless, such an incident can be prosecuted under one of several other statutes, based on the circumstances of each case. For example, the district attorney can charge the inmate who attempted to commit a gassing attack with a nonaggravated battery. If convicted, the inmate can face up to a year of additional imprisonment for incidents occurring in a jail, and two to four years of additional imprisonment for incidents occurring in a prison. In other instances, the district attorney can prosecute the case as an assault with a penalty of a fine, an addition to the inmate’s sentence of up to six months in jail, or both.

To ensure order within correctional facilities, the facilities can pursue internal discipline for inmates who commit gassing attacks. For example, if an inmate violates the rules of the correctional facility by assaulting an officer, the correctional facility can restrict the inmate’s privileges, such as access to the phone or the commissary. The correctional facility also can move the inmate into disciplinary housing, which is generally isolated housing. Sentence reductions that inmates have earned can also be revoked as a disciplinary measure. In these instances, state regulations require correctional facilities to provide a written notification of a violation to the inmate and to conduct a disciplinary hearing. Correctional facilities also must keep a thorough record of disciplinary actions. The three correctional facilities we reviewed have adopted policies to evaluate the mental health and competency of an inmate when determining whether to impose internal discipline.

Prevention and Risk Reduction

As Table 1 shows, the three correctional facilities we visited vary in age, security levels, and other characteristics—and these all affect the risk of gassing attacks. Some infrastructure layouts can provide greater opportunities for gassing attacks than others. For example, an open-bar cell, unlike cells with solid walls, does not provide a complete barrier between the inmates and officers. In this type of cell, inmates can throw items, including bodily fluids, outside of their cells. Some correctional facilities have a linear layout that features a straight row of cells, which limits an officer’s ability to observe multiple cells at once and limits the officer’s ability to see into a particular cell until he or she is close enough to be struck by an inmate throwing a bodily fluid. Others may use dormitory‑style housing in which a large group of low‑security inmates are housed in one large room. In this layout, the risk associated with the dormitory setting may be mitigated partly by the fact that correctional facilities typically place only low‑security inmates, who are less prone to committing gassing attacks, in such housing.

Table 1
Characteristics of the Three Correctional Facilities
Facility Current Facility Constructed* Inmate Population (January 2018) Facility Capacity Security Level of Inmates Layout Features
CIM 1941 3,500 3,000 Largely low­‑level but temporarily houses all levels Both open‑bar and hard‑door (solid metal) cells
Men’s Central 1963 4,200 4,600 Largely medium‑level Open‑bar cells and dormitory‑style housing, with limited hard‑door cells
Santa Rita 1989 2,200 2,900 All levels Both open‑bar and hard‑door cells

Source: Administrative records for the three correctional facilities we reviewed
* CIM and Men’s Central have undergone renovations since their initial construction.
This number represents the operational capacity of the facility as of January 2018. The design capacity for CIM is from a report that CDCR must submit to comply with a federal court order on reducing the in‑state adult inmate population. The correctional facility capacity can change based on the security level of inmates housed. For example, a cell that can house four low‑security inmates may hold only one high-security inmate..

Even when facilities have infrastructure that better protects employees from gassing attacks, inmates can still commit them. For example, in cells with solid doors, inmates can strike officers by shoving bodily fluids through the gap between the cell wall and a closed door. Inmates also can commit gassing attacks when officers interact with them through the food or speaker port on the door, or when officers are removing them from their cell. We discuss further infrastructure concerns and potential gassing attack hazards in the Audit Results.

Men’s Central experienced significantly more gassings than CIM and Santa Rita from 2015 through 2017, both in total number of incidents and when controlling for the varied population sizes at the three facilities, as shown in Figure 3. We also compared the rate of gassing attacks at these three correctional facilities with the rate that occurred at other CDCR prison facilities. Specifically, we examined 10 CDCR prison facilities with similar populations and security levels as Men’s Central. Based on this analysis, Men’s Central and Santa Rita have far more gassing attacks than any of the CDCR facilities: 19 and six attacks per 1,000 inmates on average from 2015 through 2017, respectively. The CDCR prison facilities, including CIM, had zero to five gassing attacks per 1,000 inmates during this same period. As we discuss later, Men’s Central likely has experienced a higher rate of gassing incidents partly because of its outdated infrastructure.

Figure 3
Two Correctional Facilities Have Higher Rates of Gassing Attacks Than Selected State Prisons

Figure 3, a bar graph comparing the average number of gassing attacks per year per 1,000 inmates from 2015 to 2017 for the three correctional facilities we reviewed—CIM, Men’s Central and Santa Rita—and 10 additional California state prisons, which range from no gassing attacks at Avenal State Prison to 18.9 gassing attacks at Men’s Central.

Source: Analysis of gassing attack data from CDCR, Men’s Central, and Santa Rita.

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