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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.