The wardens for both of California's female-only prisons “retired” on Friday. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is calling it a coincidence. But prisoner advocates say it's a housecleaning.

“They appear to be forced retirements,” says Colby Lenz, a legal advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

The two prisons — Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) and California Institution for Women (CIW) — have been the subjects of a lengthy investigation by the Department of Corrections, and inspectors had been camped out at both facilities for the last few weeks, according to sources with access to the prisons.

“There have been very serious problems recently,” says Don Spector, executive director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm based in Northern California. “We were not surprised the state would take this action.” 

LA Weekly's cover story two weeks ago laid out some of the problems at CIW, including a suicide rate five times the state average and federal average for female inmates, as well as a very high rate of methamphetamine use.

But advocates say both prisons suffer from a much simpler problem: guards treating inmates with insensitivity, or even disdain. 

“[CCWF] is overcrowded,” Spector says.  “There’s a lack of supervision. Many of the prisoners don’t feel safe. There’s a culture of fear and retaliation that prisoners experience, and a general lack of respect on the part of the guards toward the women.”

In June, CCWF associate warden Travis Wright was arrested on several sex-related offenses, including the alleged sexual abuse of a minor. The allegations had nothing to do with Wright's behavior on the job, but the arrest may have led to Wright cooperating with investigators, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the prison system. 

On Friday, the corrections department sent out a memo to employees announcing the retirement of CCWF warden Deborah “DK” Johnson. She was praised for “30-plus years of dedication” to the prison system, and was wished “good health and happiness as she begins her retirement.”

That same day, a separate memo announced the retirement of CIW warden Kimberly Hughes. She was thanked “for her exemplary service to the Department for more than 27 years” and was given the same well wishes as Johnson.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Krissi Khokhobashvili says the timing of the dual retirements is merely a coincidence.

“They both put in for retirement, as far as I know,” Khokhobashvili says.

But according to Khokhobashvili, a number of other top officials at CCWF have been reassigned, including its chief deputy warden, chief executive officer and chief medical executive. 

Observers of the prison system see the personnel changes as a move by Department of Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan, who was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Dec. 28, to clean house. 

“I’m relieved that there’s any response at all that indicates they see a problem,” Lenz says. “But I don’t feel optimistic, given their track record of investigating themselves.”

Spector agrees. 

“We’re grateful that the department has made some changes to the leadership of both of those institutions,” he says. “But that’s only the first step. There needs to be intensive work to change the culture and practices at both prisons.”

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