The family of a prison guard allegedly “hazed to death” say it was an openly racist, homophobic culture inside California’s prison system that killed him.
Valentino Rodriguez Jr worked as a guard at a high-security state prison in Sacramento, known as New Folsom. He officially died from fentanyl intoxication – but his family believe it was the job that pushed him past his breaking point.
They say he became the target of vicious bullying almost as soon as he joined the prison, and it didn’t stop until he died.
“Officers repeatedly called Rodriguez Jr a gay slur, made fun of his weight and taunted him, saying that his wife was cheating on him with Black men, according to text exchanges on his phone,” wrote Wes Venteicher of The Sacramento Bee, who spoke to Rodriguez’s relatives.
“Rodriguez Jr said in texts that the harassment came even as he worked harder than his co-workers and performed his work well.”
The paper said officers dubbed him “half-patch” in group texts, suggesting he wasn’t worthy of his position, and allegedly called him a gay slur when he discussed work or shared photos of his personal life.
“You fag!!! Send a picture of your girl’s ass!!!” one officer reportedly wrote after Rodriguez shared a photo of a buck his friend had killed. In another alleged exchange, Rodriguez shared a photo of a margarita and the officers joked that its contents were semen.
Rodriguez eventually raised allegations of open racism in the unit, reportedly telling prison officials that officers were using the N-word and calling Black inmates “monkeys”. He also spoke of how his colleagues played video games instead of working while assigning him menial labour.
An internal affairs investigator heard that Rodriguez’s boss, Sgt David Anderson, had warned him not to report the unit’s dysfunction to anyone.
“I was singled out and told ‘if you say anything or open your mouth I’ll f**king replace you like that,'” he said in a text to Internal Affairs Sgt Brandon Strohmaier.
With the stress of the job taking a toll on his mental health, Rodriguez began “throwing up all the time at work and hyperventilating” as he struggled with depression and PTSD.
This culminated in him having a breakdown at work, after which he took nine months of leave. It was during this period that he was called to a meeting with New Folsom’s warden and asked to put his concerns in writing.
“Tomorrow they want me to write a memo,” he told his wife, “And I don’t know what I’ma do.”
Days later some of his fellow officers began calling his phone, and it seemed they knew he was the one who’d made the complaints. “It’s out now that I told on the team,” he texted his wife in desperation.
Later that evening, she would find her husband dead on the bathroom floor. He was 30 years old.
His family has now filed a complaint with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Internal Affairs office, alleging harassment from the prison guards.
The CDCR says it has launched a full investigation into the claims. Spokesperson Dana Simas told The Sacramento Bee: “Immediately after CDCR was made aware of potential misconduct by some institution staff, the department opened a full investigation and, per policy, has redirected any subjects pending the outcome,” Simas was quoted as saying.
“CDCR takes its peace officer Code of Conduct very seriously and we will enforce our policies to the fullest extent.”
Rodriguez’s loves ones insist they must hold his tormentors accountable. “My son was hazed to death,” his father, Valentino Rodriguez Sr, told the Sacramento Bee. “I just want justice for my son.”
The CDCR has been contacted for comment.