by The People’s Minister of Information JR
For decades, prisoners in California have protested the torturous conditions they are subjected to. Now a nurse has come forward who worked in a California prison and can speak to personally witnessing some of these horrors perpetrated by some of his colleagues at the California Men’s Colony State Prison in San Luis Obispo. Paul Spector was fired from his job for speaking out.
Check him out in his own words …
M.O.I. JR: Paul, can you tell us how did you become a nurse at a prison?
Paul Spector: It’s kind of a long story. I used to volunteer on ambulances while I worked in industry. I became an EMT, became a paramedic, eventually became a nurse and had an approximately 30-year career. In particular I worked ER, I worked Pill Hill, I worked Summit, I worked Highland Hospital, I worked in San Francisco during the height of AIDS epidemic, I also worked for the U.S. Army and at some point near there, somewhere in 2006 or so, I became interested in psychiatric nursing.
A lot of my patients of course had mental disabilities and that was not specifically part of my training, so I went to ASH, Atascadero State Mental Hospital, which is a forensic facility, so it’s got razor wire, guards and prisoners of one sort or another in there, some of them the more deranged inmates in California and perhaps the world at the Atascadero State Mental Hospital.
I worked there for a year, and I learned that mental illness can be treated and it was a great experience for me. I transferred from there to California Men’s Colony just to see another side of it – of the mental health treatment – and that’s how I ended up there in 2007.
Now a nurse has come forward who worked in a California prison and can speak to personally witnessing some of these horrors perpetrated by some of his colleagues at the California Men’s Colony State Prison in San Luis Obispo. Paul Spector was fired from his job for speaking out.
M.O.I. JR: What did you expect to see at the Men’s Colony – and what did you see?
Paul Spector: I expected to see quality mental health care as well as other types of medical care and indeed in some cases I saw quality medical care. I thought we did a good job on patients that needed, say, a broken arm fixed or pneumonia treated.
Unfortunately the mental health treatment that I saw – well, I never really saw anything that would qualify as mental health treatment. I saw torture, and that was about it. There was no mental health treatment going on. I guess they had some psychiatrists involved, but just because a psychiatrist is involved or because a qualified nurse, such as myself, is involved, that doesn’t mean any real medical treatment is going on – and in that place it wasn’t.
M.O.I. JR: Well, can you be a little more specific. Can you describe to our audience, what is the difference between mental health care, psychiatric care and torture? What is the difference? You said you worked for the Army also. Please explain.
Paul Spector: OK. I guess my first initiation to torture was in the Army. I treated torture victims from Kuwait and other Saudi Arabian areas as well as people from Africa, and I got to understand some of what was done to these people and particularly the effects of isolation. It is horrible torture, by the way. Let me tell your audience right off the bat: that’s one of the worst.
When I started at California Men’s Colony – well, I’ll take you into it. You’re walking through several levels of security getting into this facility, where you’re searched for cameras and contraband such as that. You walk through several levels of guards’ gates – and you need special permission and special keys to get through – and finally you reach the mental health crisis desk.
In ‘07 that was what I did to get there. Once in this mental health crisis center, the first thing you notice is the stench. It really smelled bad, even as you were approaching the facility. You walk in and what you’ll see is two tiers, a left and a right. I think they were called East and West and each tier had approximately 42 cells.
Well, you can call them cells. They were cement boxes. They’re small, smaller than my bathroom. They’re completely made of cement. There’s a small window on one side that doesn’t let much light in at all. The doors are solid steel and I mean solid – they’re really solid and heavy – and they also have a small glass plate, very small in the top center of them that if you stand up and put your face close to it, you can look in and see the inmate.
Each cell was occupied by one person. Most of the captives were Black or Hispanic. There were a few White folks that went through. It was really hard to tell because they were kept so filthy that it was honestly hard to tell skin colors at that point.
There’s no human contact with these people or extremely minimal. They’re kept locked up there 24 hours a day. There’s no release for yard exercise or sunlight or anything else. I believe they are offered a shower twice a week, once or twice a week, as well as once or twice a week they’re offered the opportunity to talk to a psychiatrist I believe for about 10 minutes while they’re chained hand and foot.
Like I said, most of these inmates are kept – they’re patients – are kept naked, sometimes some minimal clothing, boxer shorts or there’s a funny kind of robe that looks more like a – it’s not really a diaper, I don’t know what you’d want to call it. It’s called a suicide vest. It doesn’t do much to cover them up.
The ones who are stripped are also not given blankets or mattresses, so they’re sleeping on concrete. There is no radio, no TV, just the sound of screams because the patients are in pain and there’s a lot of screaming and yelling going on.
Once or twice a week they’re offered the opportunity to talk to a psychiatrist I believe for about 10 minutes while they’re chained hand and foot.
Most of the nurses were professional but a few were totally unprofessional and would go up and down the tier degrading the patients, telling them they’re never going to see their children again and they were going to rape and video the rape of your visitors as they come to try and see you and then we won’t let them in. They would tell them the medications your doctor prescribed for you are poisonous, male nurses are stealing your drugs – all kinds of falsehoods like that that would create havoc on the inmate.
The ones who are stripped are also not given blankets or mattresses, so they’re sleeping on concrete. There is no radio, no TV, just the sound of screams because the patients are in pain.
M.O.I. JR: Tell me real quick, how is it justified at the California Men’s Colony as helping the patient? I mean we all know from what you’re describing that it looks like it’s doing more damage than help. How are they justifying these actions as helping the patient?
Paul Spector: Well, it’s very similar to stuff I saw in the recent CIA Torture Report. Of course my report came out years before that. One of the things I noticed is they called a rectal torture rectal feeding – you know, shoving someone’s ham sandwich up their butt is considered medical procedure for them. It’s not. OK.
And that’s what they’re doing at the California Men’s Colony. They’re hiding behind the mask of medical necessity. One of the things they would do is, in the weekly interview, they would ask these guys are you hallucinating, and they would say, “Oh my God, yeah. I’m seeing things; I’m hearing voices.”
And that would be one of the requirements for release from the place, to not hallucinate. Well, No. 1, isolation causes hallucinations. No. 2, there was a massive amount of drugs going through that place, absolutely incredible.
They might not be allowed a pencil or a piece of paper, a phone call, a picture, a family visitor, clothing, a mattress, a blanket, but they had an amazing supply of drugs. The drugs got in there like crazy as did sharp objects. Sharp objects used to show up a lot too. And the drugs would keep them hallucinating. I’m not sure how they even survived as long as they did and some did not survive, but the drugs were bad.
So one of the reasons they kept them there was by saying, “Well, these people are hallucinating and they’re a danger to themselves and they’re suicidal.” I know that after six days of such treatment, almost every one of them did indeed become suicidal – many became suicidal.
It’s something that I saw during the Gulf War. One example that I’ve written about is a very nice 21-year-old gal; she was really smart. She wanted to be a pediatrician, and one of the things they did to her is to encourage her to slit her wrist, to cut an artery, which she accomplished to escape her torture, right? Then a physician came in and sewed up the artery, and unspeakable torture continued. Her wounds generally healed, but she killed herself and that was the result of the isolation – not the physical torture, but the isolation.
So I guess to answer your question, one of the things that they tell us is these guys are suicidal and then they put them in isolation which is known – it’s been known since the 1800s – it creates suicidal ideation in people where they will kill themselves to escape that torture.
Amanda Knight – you know who Amanda Knight is? She’s one of the three kidnap victims in Ohio. You know about her. She was held with two other victims by a crazy person in a house and they were horribly abused for many, many years. One of the things she spoke of besides the forced abortions and the horrible torment – she spoke of the isolation as being the worst single torment, the worst.
One of the things that they tell us is these guys are suicidal and then they put them in isolation which is known – it’s been known since the 1800s – it creates suicidal ideation in people where they will kill themselves to escape that torture.
People don’t understand that. People in society do not understand that locking someone up and walking out the door was used by the North Koreans to break some of the best trained fighting forces in the world. I won’t say it was always successful, but it certainly got the U.S.’s attention by its success rate. It’s a horrible torture and one of the things that has been done in suicidal ideation, which was the reason given to me anyway initially why they were there.
M.O.I. JR: Well, let me ask you, you went from the U.S. Army, were schooled in torture and you went to the Men’s Colony. What made you have a change of heart? What made you want to speak out? What made you feel like it was wrong?
Paul Spector: I was never schooled in applying torture. I was schooled in recognizing, reporting and treating torture victims. So I was on the lookout for that in the military. And indeed we saw and treated a very sad number of people that were tortured – and not by the U.S. Army in this case, by the invading forces from other countries within Kuwait. In particular, Kuwait had torture centers that were set up.
I have never had a change of heart in torture. I have always protected my patients from anything resembling that, but in my 30-year career the only time I’ve seen intentional harm done to patients by a medical facility as a policy was at CMC.
I worked at Highland General Hospital. OK, it’s in a bad neighborhood and sometimes I would have a patient and find they’re being attacked by a gang member of a rival gang and I would step in and save that person. Whether I liked them or not, I would save that person – Black or White, it never mattered to me. And I’ve done that my entire career.
I helped women who were being beaten by their husbands. Those come to mind, but I would never tolerate torture or participate in it in any way until I began reporting what I saw at California Men’s Colony. That’s why they fired me.
The reasons they gave for firing me were supposedly I was sleeping on duty and a few other crazy reasons, but in reality I reported and objected to the numerous violations that were going on, not just to the patients but to other ethnic groups and minority groups within the custodian cleaning staff. The staff were not necessarily treated better just because they were staff. There was prejudice going on there too.
M.O.I. JR: You spoke to a racial dynamic of the people who were being tortured. Can you speak to the racial dynamic of the nurses who were administering torture and as well as who were supervising? Well, speak to the ethnic makeup of the nursing staff.
Paul Spector: Very good. The nursing staff had a somewhat diverse makeup. We had some Black nurses. We had mostly White nurses, mostly female nurses, and most of the nurses really tried to do a good job. The ones like myself – and there were several others that had a lot of experience with the state – were all fired for objecting to the torture.
And many nurses acquiesced to it because you knew pretty quick that if you started to object too loudly, you’d be fired. The main way of firing you wasn’t just to fire you officially. It would be to force you to resign. The primary way they would do that is to dump your information, social security number, information on your children, where your wife works, what car she drove, and they would give that to the worst inmates in the place right in front of your face so you can see it going off. And of course reporting it didn’t stop it; it would just continue.
You asked me to speak to the racial makeup of the nurses and the leaders: all White. In a word: all White. Yep, pretty much all White. I didn’t see any Blacks participating in the torture at all. I’m not great at recognizing racial makeups, but I can pretty much tell the Filipinos, and I saw a number of Filipinos. They provided wonderful care for the patients and had high ethical standards and indeed suffered abuse themselves. The people in charge of it and the people participating in it that I saw were all White.
M.O.I. JR: Were they male and female?
Paul Spector: Yes. The people participating in it – well, I’ll put it this way: There’s two levels of participation. One level of participation is the people that put them there and sign the orders, and these are at associate warden level, high-ranking personnel and the personnel who covered it up.
I know the people involved in the cover-up and wrongful termination of myself – they were male in general with one glaring exception: One of the leaders was female. All White, so there was a mix.
On the floor itself, the ones who really tormented the inmates – and I suspect they were doing far worse things than even I was able to document – they were female. I saw none of the male nurses participating in that at all and, as a group, male nurses were being harassed by these females. In particular, because we objected to this mistreatment of our patients, as did some of the guards.
The guards were not really happy when some female would come down the row and some female would say nasty things and they would all be screaming and banging their heads against the wall, kicking the doors. This makes their job harder too.
Guards applying the pepper gas, of course, were pretty much all male that I recall. And that’s a torture, and that should not have been happening either.
M.O.I. JR: Do you think that this is condoned from higher-ups outside of the prison?
Paul Spector: Yes, absolutely. It could not exist in a vacuum. One of the reasons I know that – I mean, it’s kept hidden within the prison walls. I don’t believe the majority of the guards know what’s going on in there. I believe they probably feel that it’s some sort of medical treatment. I mean we provide good medical treatment in the hospital ward; why not in the mental health ward, right?
So it’s kept a bit of a secret. But I wrote the attorney general. I wrote the governor of the state. I spoke with the FBI twice about this, and none of them were interested. The state of California Board of Nursing has something called the Nurse Practice Act, which requires that we report abuse and many other items that were violated by staff at this prison.
And the California Board of Nursing refused to act despite my sending them many, many documents more than proving that at least some of you could call my allegations are based on absolute fact, are based on documented testimony. Things like that. Also the State Personnel Board supported my firing despite the fact that, basically, I was fired for sleeping after I discovered a large group of 42 inmates that had been abandoned by their nurse.
Their nurse apparently was outside the building. She said she was somewhere for an hour and a half, in the bathroom. She said she was in the bathroom for an hour and a half. That’s some bathroom break. I suspect she was doing something else, but we’ll never know.
The California Board of Nursing refused to act despite my sending them many, many documents more than proving that at least some of what you could call my allegations are based on absolute fact.
In any case I can’t understand how this state Board of Nursing could have supported my firing for that. She wasn’t even in the building to see me sleep. She falsified numerous documents that night – false charting – and then writes a little letter that she shouldn’t be in trouble because I shouldn’t have seen her missing because I was sleeping.
And that got me fired, so I believe the State Personnel Board cooperated with CDCR, at least in this instance. I’m not sure they really understood that they were allowing torture, but they were certainly cooperating in preventing me from reporting the patient abuse and the severe retaliation that was going on against those of us who reported the facts.
I wrote Attorney General Holder. I wrote a letter to President Obama. I’ve contacted almost everybody I could find; but no, nobody was interested in saving these guys until the CIA Torture Report came out. I find most of the tortures described there pretty much identical in many, many respects – to the point where I wondered if they weren’t testing them out on prisoners.
M.O.I. JR: What year were you fired?
Paul Spector: I was fired in 2009. However, there were some extenuating circumstances to that, but let’s leave it to that. I was fired around the middle of 2009.
M.O.I. JR: Has you being a whistleblower affected your career after you left?
Paul Spector: Yes. Absolutely. My personal experience has been, with the amount of training I have in trauma nursing, I’d be able to get a job pretty easy when I want one. When I want a job I could get one and this is the first time when my letters and job applications went unanswered.
At local facilities where I knew some of the people there, I had been re-asked to work there. I’d been offered jobs – I mean called up without even applying – and they said, “Hey, if you ever want a job, come here.” These people weren’t talking to me anymore and it took me a few months to find another job but I indeed did.
I found a job at the nuclear plant. I was hired to manage the medical unit at the nuclear plant, which provides occupational health care as well as is involved in potential disaster response and planning for disaster responses, which is one of my specialties. It was a really good fit, and for the people of San Luis Obispo County, I provided a great benefit to them.
My clearance to approach the reactor was taken away by information – false information coming from California Men’s Colony. I don’t know who – they wouldn’t tell me who – but they described many false things, many of the false things I was accused of. So there were a lot of false things I was accused of, like they accused me of wanting to bring a shotgun to work and kill everybody based on absolutely nothing, and they later kind of dropped that one. And there were a lot of accusations, false accusations that I was able to prove were false.
And they transferred those things over to that particular job – my next job – and basically I got canned from that one too, because if you can’t approach the reactor, then you can’t … And a lot of things they were accusing me of were terrorist-type activities. And it’s absurd, but if you’re a nuclear power plant operator and you have officers calling you up and saying, “Hey, this guy’s a terrorist,” well, there you go. You can’t let that guy come near the reactor. I understand that, but it was very wrong.
M.O.I. JR: What can people do to help the prisoners?
Paul Spector: I’m thinking about that. I wish I had a great answer. I wish I had something to mix with water and make it go away. I tried to start a petition – and I’m still working on it – to somebody called Care2, I believe.
But I think these guys need rescue. These guys really need rescue. They need the FBI to go in there and rescue them.
Now at California Men’s Colony – so you understand it – I continue to speak up on the conditions there. And they actually built a $30 million shiny, new, clean facility. The old facility – I mean where I worked, which I described to your listeners – it was just filthy. I mean the stench was overwhelming. If you walked into one of the cells, such as ones where the inmate hadn’t left it for six months, because very often they refuse the showers, the stench was overpowering. And it was dark; it was very dismal.
And they built a $30 million shiny, new facility run by the same people. The same people! So I can’t imagine how the same people are suddenly also providing quality care, but I haven’t been to that facility. What I have done is done my research and found that thousands of inmates, tens of thousands of inmates statewide here in California, are complaining of similar conditions in many other facilities.
In particular, isolation is rampant, not just among mental health patients, which is what I dealt with where my training lies, but also in just routine incarcerated patients. Locking someone away in a room alone, even if that room has a television or a radio or gets a newspaper, if they’re alone without human contact, that is torture. And it will have serious and permanent mental effects on them.
In the military, one of the reasons these tortures are used is to evade the Geneva Convention. They leave no marks. A prisoner has trouble telling the Red Cross, “Hey, they violated my Geneva rights. They broke my fingers, broken bones.” Um-um. “They beat me up. I have bruises.” Unh-unh.
The damages are often seen on autopsy though. Isolation actually causes internal changes to the brain – brain damage – that can be seen on autopsy.
Your question as to what to do about it – one thing that comes to mind is that anybody who has a relative who was killed or who died for some reason like they say, “Oh, your relative committed suicide in a California detention center.” Those people need to stand up and get an autopsy.
Those people need to find out the conditions under which this person was held, because even in case it was in reality someone who intentionally took their own life, if it was done to escape torture, that is not suicide as I believe most people understand it.
It’s the only avenue of escape out and isolation will do that to a human being. I think if they were to hold animals in such conditions, the Humane Society would immediately rise up in absolute disgust and with great energy and save those victims.
Locking someone away in a room alone, if they’re alone without human contact, that is torture. And it will have serious and permanent mental effects on them.
In this case I really can’t understand why it’s been allowed to continue for so long, and my research indicates it’s been continuing for at least 50 years and been getting worse recently. If you have any suggestions to me on how I can help save my patients, I’m all ears. I guess I’m just not smart enough – I haven’t figured out a way to save them besides asking how you save inmates at Abu Ghraib Prison, who are suffering mainly the same torment – you know, concrete walls, stripped naked and ridiculed by females. I mean these are well known North Korean techniques.
And how do you save people suffering from this, especially when it’s done behind closed doors by an organization taking 15 percent of California gross national income. They’re taking billions of dollars from the state. And I know in my case they spent millions of dollars in the cover-up. Millions! That’s crazy.
I don’t know exactly how to fight it. I can only do my best and risk my life – put my life out there and do it. Maybe your listeners and readers would have some suggestions.
The one thing we really didn’t mention is the fact that I believe some of these inmates are innocent.
M.O.I. JR: Let’s talk about it.
Paul Spector: One of my questions to myself was, why are these guys really here. Some I know came because they were told they were going to be moved out of state. They weren’t suicidal, nothing.
But they were told they were going to be moved out of the state. That was a small percentage of them, but that’s one of the reasons they were there because once you’re in – if you’re that suicidal, then you can’t be put on a bus, right? So you can’t go out of the state. And they were being threatened to go to another state prison that has gang members. But it was a small percentage.
What about the rest of them? Well, when I talked to them, I was surprised to find that a higher percentage of them claimed that they were completely innocent. Now I’d worked with prisoners before and there were always a couple that claimed they were innocent and I just never believed them. I mean, you’ve been to court, you’ve been tried and convicted, this is a legal system and of course you say you’re innocent.
I found a lot of them in this facility claiming they were innocent and when I reported the abuse, one of the first persons I reported it to early on was an associate warden who presented herself to be the EEO officer, Equal Employment Opportunity officer, to deal with racial issues, I thought, but in fact she wasn’t. She was pretending to be the EEO officer.
In reality she was the records officer with 30 years’ experience in records. And she told me of allowing severe racial discrimination, hate letters against Filipinos, destruction of Filipino cars – just stuff she told me about. And in listening, I realized that she would be in a good position to adversely affect thousands of inmates and perhaps, as a consequence of her involvement as a records expert, get them imprisoned for crimes they didn’t do and perhaps even extend the amount of time that they remain prisoners.
I don’t really know the full extent of her involvement, but the potential is there. And I, after seeing this and looking over her work, I believe it’s quite possible that she and some of her cohorts may have falsely imprisoned a number of my patients. I think that really needs to be torn apart. Her work needs to be 100 percent reviewed to make sure that what she did was in reality what she was supposed to be doing and not some sort of racial profiling or worse.
M.O.I. JR: Well, thank you again, Paul Spector.
Paul Spector: Thanks for calling me. You can call me anytime. I can only tell you the stuff that I saw. Unfortunately video cameras aren’t allowed or I could give you hundreds of hours of disgusting video. There’s videos out there, by the way, if you look at some of the documents I sent you. I sent you a link to some video that shows some of the tortures that my patients underwent. It was actually worse at my facility but it was bad enough – it doesn’t matter.
M.O.I. JR: Let’s leave it right there. Thank you, Paul Spector, for speaking out. Thank you for the interview. And we are pushing our listeners to be creative in approaching how we deal with this subject, because the conventional, traditional ways of protesting have not worked. Thank you, Paul. We will bring you back as an expert in prison torture.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Spector recommended we post this video with his interview.