High Desert Suicide: Was a Prison Guard Hazed to Death?


At one of the country’s most dangerous prisons, correctional officers face off against murderers, rapists, gangsters and each other

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In August 2006, in the enclosed Z Unit of High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California, Officer Scott Jones, a correctional peace officer assigned to Search and Escort, joined in a hazing ritual known as the “Usual High Desert.” Sergeant Ernie Rausch had just received a promotion. To celebrate, Jones and several officers put the 6’7″ 280-pound Rausch into a “cage” — one of the phone booth-sized stand-alone units used to contain unruly inmates — and doused him with trashcans full of water. Officer Steve Oschner was there and later described the scene as part of a workers’ compensation claim investigation: “You put up a little bit of a struggle, you know. Then obviously it is in good fun and put him in the cage, got him wet. Poured some water on him.”

According to the workers’ comp investigation, Rausch’s tormenters headed off for dinner, with Rausch in the cage and water pooling on the floor. After a few moments, while some guys were getting squeegees to clean up, Rausch got out and was soon face-to-face with Jones. Compared to Rausch’s massive size, Jones was a mere 6’1″ and 180 pounds. According to the workers’ comp investigation, Rausch extended a hand, as if to shake, but when Jones reached out to reciprocate, Rausch pulled him close and began dry-humping Jones’ leg. Rausch’s weight was too much for Jones, and they both tumbled to the ground in one tangled wet mess. A few yards away in the Z Unit’s law library where officers typically eat their meals, an officer claimed to hear Jones scream as he hit the wet concrete floor.

Jones tore two ligaments in his knee. His actual workers’ compensation claim from the incident states that he slipped and fell while mopping the floor. Rausch, who was later questioned as part of Jones’ claim, said that he and Jones were “hugging each other goodbye” some sixty feet away from the cage when both of them slipped and fell. “There wasn’t a mop in his hand,” Rausch said. “There wasn’t a mop in my hand. We had just got done with those activities.” But when pressed for details on the altercation, Rausch said, “It was wrestling. It is what we do for a living.”

It’s unclear from the workers’ comp investigation to what extent the highest-ranking officer present, Second Watch Sergeant (now Lieutenant) Ed Simmerson, was involved in Rausch’s hazing or responding to Jones’ injury. He failed to file a report on the incident. “You ain’t supposed to do it,” he later admitted to a workers’ comp investigator about hazing. “But it is kind of overlooked.” What Simmerson did do, according to a civil complaint, was instruct Jones to fill out the injury report with the claim that he hurt himself while mopping. Jones’ father-in-law, Robert Hartner, himself a former High Desert CO, testified that Simmerson told Jones, “You need to write it this way,” meaning fill out the workers’ comp form in a way that would not implicate any other officers. Jones wanted to get along. So he signed it. (Simmerson did not respond to requests for comment.)

For four years, Jones — “Jonesy” to his pals — had been happy at High Desert. He was an exemplary worker with no complaints. Handsome, with neatly close-cropped hair and a slightly goofy grin, he was known as a quiet guy who kept his head down and didn’t fuck around. But the encounter with Rausch and the falsified workers’ comp claim seems to have upended Jones’ work life. According to people who knew Jones well, over the next five years, some of his fellow officers, suspicious that Jones might turn on them, launched a series of cruel and anonymous attacks. To Jones and his family, it seemed like a unified effort aimed at his mental health as much as his physical wellbeing.
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