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tv   America Tonight  Al Jazeera  February 16, 2016 12:30am-1:01am EST

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murals. an artist leaving her mark on a blake landscape check out the website. it's there for you aljazeera.com. you can talk to everyone on the programme team. here on the website or click on the link. twitter and facebook as well. >> thanks for joining us on "america tonight." i'm joie chen. tonight we look behind bars and beyond them. as you would expect, there is often enormous stress for the convicts inside but consider the pressure on corrections officers those charged with keeping things under control and in a prison town where so many residents work in the industry, it's hard to make a get-away even after work. "america tonight's" michael okwu brings us a look into
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california's high desert state prison, what happens when prisoners come to rural america. >> reporter: it's 10:00 a.m. in northeast california, a near winter white out in the middle of nowhere. we're entering one of the most troubled prisons in america. calling a prison troubled usually means the inmates are abused, the situation here is so bad some of the guards are even killing themselves. cameras are rarely allowed in california's prisons but officials here at high desert state prison gave "america tonight" access because they want to plead their case. a recent inspector-general special report called the situation here an entrenched culture of racism and violence made worse by coverups and abuse. >> we're going to go here and head over here to delta 8. >> the people that run this institution say that's not true,
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that high desert prison is open and transparent. >> these are all inmates? >> they are inmates, not on the yards, part of the yard crews who come out and make the pathways clear. >> lieutenant greg crow is our escort. it now house he 3500. the ground rules for our visit allow us to talk to any inmate who's willing. this is jeremiah chapman incarcerated here since 2004. >> what's your experience been here? some say this is the worst prison out there. there is a report that says some prisoners get tripp searched in the snow -- strip searched in the snow. do you know that's happened? >> i've seen that happen before. >> chapman is not the only one that claims prisoners get strip
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searched in the snow. >> the inspector general of the state of california that essentially says that there's all kinds of things going on this this prison including sometimes where officers will see inmates fighting each other, even stabbing each other and will stand by and watch for an extended period of time. >> yes. >> have you seen anything like that? >> i've seen them do that, they did that the other day. somebody was getting shot and they drew the guns but didn't shoot. >> as you know there are guards not 20 feet away from us now. they know you're talking to me. if that really happens, how sit you're able to talk to me so -- how is it that you are able to talk to me about it without fear of retribution? >> i've been here for so long, so many years you get to the point you get numb. they going to do what they going to do. >> some are thinking you're prisoner you're a criminal, why should i believe what you're saying?
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>> that's why they do what they do, get away with it. people are biased towards inmates. even though we're in here we're still humans you know? >> jerry hawkins has done time in two other prisons before being sent here. >> to me it's the worst prison. >> how so? >> it is a 180 prison, highest security level, far up north, most of the inmates are from southern california. you are far away from your family, you see it snowing, it's got the lowest number of visits, it's far. >> the nearest city is nearly 100 miles away. and high desert is a 12-hour drive from los angeles. inmates say when nobody from the yowrts comes to visit -- outside comes to visit, it's hard to get
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out the abuse that is an every day fact of life. >> it's nothing new, all type of stuff, i just feel like this is the worst prison. some people might be scared to speak out. i'm not, i'm telling the truth. >> you feel they're needlessly picking on you? >> i feel like a lot of us are being picked on. >> have you filed a formal complaint? >> i have various 602s in my file. >> what have you layered about those complaints? >> i haven't heard nothing, i've just been denied. >> hawkins also complains, the paperwork he filed never made to it the courts, he lost the chance of a reduced citizens. inmates files have been destroyed by staff, and inmates say who file them get retaliated against. make it to an outside investigative unit. as we leave the yard we hear
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hawkins yell. >> go back up follow up to see if i'm still alive. >> the report says, inmates constantly outing sex offenders, a move that will surely get them roughed up. one of the areas is the sensitive needs yard, supposed to provide protection from inmates who are in jeopardy, homosexuals former gang members, but the inspector general says there's as much violence here than in other places in the prison. with gang voyages meetin meting out abuse. green wall of violence that seems impenetrable. >> has there ever been a culture of abuse at this prison? >> no, sir. >> no? you can say this emphatically with us absolutely no
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hesitation? especially given all the allegations put forth in that report. >> agreed. the answer is no. the culture is no different than any other prison or any other agency that is here in the united states. it doesn't make any sense to me. >> let's talk specifically about some of the allegation that are in that report. we hear that sometimes there have been strip searches in the though of some of the inmates here. >> i don't have any information on that. i don't know anything, i've never seen that, i have no idea on that at all. >> state prison officials told "america tonight," staff misconduct is not tolerated and an audit is underway here at high desert. but you can't help but wonder what drove five staff mates to kill themselves. >> we go back to prison town next, with a look at the consequences of work life on the inside and out. and hot on "america tonight's" website now, the zika virus, the
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rush to get a vaccine where it's needed. can it come in time? that's at aljazeera.com/americatonight.
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now we continue our look behind bars and beyond. before the break "america tonight's" michael okwu took us to a prison town in northern california, where we saw the pressure cooker on the inside. and for corrections workers, that continues even when they leave the prison yard. so what happens when there's no way to escape? here again, michael okwu.
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>> reporter: in the past seven years, there have been five staff suicides here at high desert prison. scott jones was number 3. his widow, janel. >> why did scott take his own life? >> his job. his job. >> in 2002, jones left a job at a grocery store and became a cessions officer or co. by 2012, janel said, the excessive violence overwhelmed him. he dropped his son off at school drove to a secluded area and shot himself in the head. >> janel, love you, the job made me do it. there he used a rock to make the message. what did the guards do that really upset him?
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>> i know, the strip searches in the snow, really disturbed him. two inmates that shouldn't be together this the same cell to provoke them to fight and the other one was destroying inmates property. i remember one instance of scott telling me about a cell search that him and another officer were doing and the other officer tore the inmate's bible up and scott was like what are you doing? that's property. ah he's an inmate who cares. >> he was ostraight arrow. >> he was. >> when he did something nice for an inmate or basically showed a little bit of humanity -- >> any time you did something that was construed as helping an inmate or being nice to an inmate you were called an inmate lover. >> an inmate lover? >> an inmate lover yes. >> a year before his suicide, scott and a few co-workers tried to get the word out, accepting a
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message to a whistle blower tip line, and never heard back. his foal guards found out and retaliated. >> you felt that the other guards were telling things to the inmates to target scott. was he looking over his shoulder? >> constantly yes. >> what did he say to you? >> i remember one of the things he said is that janel, i thought going to do this job was the best thing for our family and i think this is the biggest mistake i ever made. he was tired of looking over his shoulder. he was tired of trying to understand what the heck they're wanting him to do. he hated it. he hated life. >> their car was keyed. tires were flattened. the family was threatened. janel claims prison officials did nothing. so scott felt he had to quit. the next day he got a call from
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a former boss, which upset him. hours later, he was dead. six months later, another guard killed himself. >> there are 32 other prisons in california and yet they didn't have all these suicides. i mean it seems like there's something definitely going on with high desert. >> i think there's definitely something to do with high desert. it has to do with the town. >> susanville is tiny, where the prison i located, this is called co row because so many correctional officers live here. but it wasn't always this way. the main employer in town used to be a steel mill but when the prison was built, mill workers found that becoming a prison guard was better work. now, nearly everyone is connected to the prison.
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if you don't work there, you know someone who does. >> i'll see a lot of the correctional officers or cos as we refer to them, a lot of the cos come in and have a couple of drinks or wine, we become friends. we get to know them. they will be at the walmart getting a shovel, i'll be there too, they'll be at the burg he king getting a burger, we're small enough we almost step on each other. >> reporter: so what happens when you know the guy next to you at the bar just made an inmate stand naked in the snow for two hours? in a town this small, speaking up is a tall order. >> you may say something at work and get someone in trouble you might be able to get past it at work, but you come home and they're right next door or you know their situation at home where they have like six kids and they're struggling to keep
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their bills and if you say something that co is going to lose their job, you may not say anything just because you know that situation and things get worse from there. >> jeral fraser teachers a correspondence course to inmates. she knows what happens if you say something wrong in high desert. unreadable a a waste of time. >> i was so frustrated, i put it on facebook, i had two cos that were friends of mine on facebook block me, their wives called me and how can i take the side even on scoourl of an inmate and they were very angry with me, i still have strained relations with them that i took the side of the inmate. >> you are saying the tension is so deep here between the inmates and the guards that you can't really say anything that could be interpreted even remotely as
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negative against guards. >> no, i don't put anything on facebook anymore. i had half a dozen people tell me not to do this interview and here i am. >> even as you're talking to me are you a little bit nervous what you might say to me? >> i'm very nervous. >> are you afraid there might be retribution? >> absolutely. >> really? >> i'm sorry, i live here. >> residents say susanville changed, once the prison came here. >> i moved here in fourth grade. i graduated high school. i came back ten years later and this town's completely changed. not only just landscape but the mentality of everybody around has been completely different. when i was a kid all my friends that were from here, all of us said we wanted to move back here to raise our children and now we don't want to. we want to leave.
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>> reporter: locals tell us domestic violence has kicked up. violence between kids of inmates and guards have picked up at school and there have been changes in main street. >> how has this place changed over the years? >> well, a lot of places have closed. we have new places, but places like rose's great italian place, that closed, the owner became a prison guard. >> joelle is planning to move out of state this month but many don't have that option. the prison is the biggest employer in the county. in one way they're just as trapped as the inmates. aaron berry thinks the guards are mostly good people but he says the job does something to them. he can tell by the way they drink. >> every so often you hear somebody come in and say you
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know it was just a bad day in the yard and after a couple more drinks they're telling you a horror story about somebody killing somebody in prison and they had to go in and separate guys or they had to haul a body out or you know there was a gang riot of some sort you know. it's a job nobody wants to do. nobody wants to have to go and deal with the hard criminals in this place. nobody wants to do it so they have to do it. >> high desert has had eight acting or permanent wardens in as many years. the latest was appointed last month. janel jones isn't waiting to see it, she's moving too. >> "america tonight's" michael okwu joins us. michael, these reports, as disturbing as they were, can you give us a feeling of what that was like do you feel the tension, the pressure? >> joie i can tell you the prison is definitely palpable,
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this is a prison on one level you would expect that. our tour came to an abrupt end where we came to an area where men had been involved in some sort of a fight, each housed separately in best way to put it were housed in a area that looked like a cage. they didn't want this on camera so that was the end of that. auditors were doing a tour at the same time. that's a symptom that they are taking this seriously. this is one of a dozen reports that have come out over the last several years about this prison yet, very little has changed. >> januaryel jones whose husband committed suicide, what does she do now? is there any legal action she is taking? >> oh absolutely. in fact there was a court ruling that just allowed her to
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continue on with her suit. and her argument is pretty simple: she says her husband was harassed and abused at least emotionally and had it not been for this job then he would still be alive today. >> just so shocking. "america tonight's" michael okwu, thank you. next hear the final words of addiction and the survivors giving them voice.
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>> our american story is written everyday. it's not always pretty, but it's real... and we show you like no-one else can. this is our american story. this is america tonight. ali "on target" is next. >> i'm ali velshi. "on target" tonight, a firsthand look at the harsh reality of the american dream. presidential candidates are making lots of promises designed to appeal to middle class voters. that's no surprise. one obvious reason is that more than half of americans still, still identify themselves as middle class.