The California Men’s Colony on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo serves inmates moldy bread and does not allow them Internet access to complete general equivalency diploma programs.
Those and several religious freedom concerns are among notable findings made by the San Luis Obispo County civil grand jury in a report on the prison released Tuesday.
Still, the jury found “much to praise” about the facility in terms of safety, addiction treatment, medical and mental health services, and those same educational programs.
While the state mandates the grand jury inspect the prison, CMC is not required to answer the nonbinding report. But the grand jury said it has appealed to the warden to respond to its recommendations.
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The report was based on two tours by members of the 2014-15 grand jury in September 2014, as well as a review of prison policy documents. At that time, there were 1,602 staff members responsible for 4,184 inmates serving an average sentence of 8.5 years, the report reads.
The most critical problem at the prison, the report says, is the state of religious life and services.
“While inmates are required to give up many of their rights when entering the prison, religious expression may only be restricted when a compelling government interest has been established,” the report reads, citing federal law. Nevertheless, chaplains told jurors that attendance at religious services has been limited by correctional staff.
The report cites poor maintenance and unhealthy conditions at three chapels in the medium-security Eastern facility, including asbestos in the walls, mold and other visible biological growth, leaky doors and windows during rain and significant structural work that has long been deferred.
“If you are of a religious bent, the three CMC chapel structures are not a fitting place for God to make his home,” the report says. “If you are of a secular bent, the CMC chapels do not represent a fitting place for humans to congregate.”
The report notes that in the past each of the five chaplains was allotted a small expense allowance to the tune of about $2,000 per chaplain per year for religious services — about 0.00004 percent of CMC’s total budget, the report says. Those allowances have been eliminated, requiring chaplains to ask inmates and outside contributors for money. Jurors recommended restoring those allowances.
Furthermore, when chaplains need to bring issues to the attention of administration, they are required to report concerns to mid-level management, which is not sensitive to religious concerns and has little power to make changes, according to the jury.
Among the “minor” issues reported, jurors talked to an instructor at a high school-level education class who reported that the GED program may no longer be available to prison students. The testing is going electronic even though inmates are not allowed to use computers with Internet access.
The report states that the inmate population on average has an eighth-grade education.
During their tour, jurors on a lunch break were given a prison lunch that included peanut butter and jelly packets and sliced bread with which to make sandwiches, prepared by Corcoran State Prison. Two jurors received moldy bread with no labeled expiration date, the report said, and jurors since learned that it was a common occurrence for inmates.
The jury reported it was impressed with the various industrial activities within the prison, such as the print shop, license tag printing, boot making, and knitting and fabric businesses, which is said were well-organized, vibrant and profitable.
It suggested, however, offering more programs teaching real-life skills.
“(In) the civilian world, at least in America, employment requiring the skills of boot making, knitting and fabric work barely exists,” the report reads.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has already taken exception to the report.
Lt. Monica Ayon, spokeswoman for CMC, told The Tribune on Tuesday that prison administration received a draft of the report about two months ago.
“We sent (the jury) the follow-up information to counter what we thought was not complete or inaccurate information in the report,” Ayon said. “When reviewing the final report, it appears that none of that information we provided them was considered or utilized.”
Specifically, Ayon said that the instructor the jury spoke with regarding the GED program gave jurors wrong information, and though inmates do not have access to the Internet, the programs and GED test will continue to be offered via Internet-less computers.
Regarding the alleged religious deficiencies, Ayon said the facility’s chapels are in a process of general repairs and that staff has conducted a recent audit of work orders after receiving the draft report.
She defended the reporting structure for chaplains, saying it’s dictated by the state and that budget constraints in recent years have caused a temporary discontinuance of the allowances that were historically funded only in years of surplus.
“(The reporting structure) is the protocol statewide, not just at CMC, at every state institution. We can’t just up and change that,” Ayon said. She added: “Chaplains never had an annual budget. When there was a surplus the policy was to share. When there’s no surplus, there’s nothing to share.”
Grand jury foreman Larry Herbst responded Tuesday, saying that the jury’s findings were black and white and based on their observations. He said it is up to the state and regulatory agencies to determine the appropriate course of action.
Though an answer is not required, the grand jury said in a news release that it asked Warden Elvin Valenzuela to formally respond to its recommendations.