‘On Our Watch’ investigates misconduct in California’s New Folsom prison

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Valentino Rodriguez Sr. holds a photo of his son, Valentino Rodriquez Jr., who worked at California State Prison in Sacramento known as "New Folsom" prior to his death in October 2020.

The latest season of the KQED’s investigative podcast On Our Watch looks at abuse and corruption in the California prison system through the story of whistleblowers at the prison known as “New Folsom.” 

Julie Small, a criminal justice reporter with extensive investigative experience, reported the episodes with host Sukey Lewis, pouring through recently unsealed documents and recordings from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

The narrative focuses on two former officers in the investigations unit of New Folsom, the state prison in Sacramento. Both of the whistleblowers, Valentino Rodriguez Jr. and Sergeant Kevin Steele, died under different circumstances after leaving their jobs at New Folsom. Their stories are told through interviews with family members and other sources, including lawyers who had direct knowledge of the misconduct reported by the former officers. 

From its debut in 2021, On Our Watch has relied on documents and recordings released under a 2019 public records law aimed at transparency and accountability in California’s criminal justice system. Documents and recordings that provided source material for the new season became available only after KQED successfully sued to speed up the release of prison records, according to Lewis and Small. 

With the help of journalism students from the University of California at Berkeley, the investigative team noticed how many incidents had occurred at New Folsom. They spent over two years reviewing documents, conducting interviews and piecing stories together.


“What is different for me in this reporting process is that you had two whistleblowers, which is very unique at the same prison, reporting misconduct within a year of each other,” Small said. “It speaks to how bad the problems are at the prison, that correctional officers are willing to go against … the code of silence to say, ‘This is really bad here.”

KQED in San Francisco is a founding member of the California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 newsrooms that collaboratively report on cases of abuse or misuse of power revealed in documents unsealed under the new law, dubbed the “Right to Know Act.” KQED and the First Amendment Coalition successfully appealed to the courts to block efforts by the California Attorney General to withhold documents on internal investigations from the public record.  

‘This was a huge wound’  

In eight episodes, the second season of On Our Watch focuses on Valentino Rodriguez Jr.’s experiences working at the prison, as recounted during interviews with his father, wife and other members of his family. 

Rodriguez Jr. died of an overdose in 2020, shortly after quitting his job at New Folsom. His family members describe the mistreatment of inmates that he witnessed and the repercussions he faced after reporting misconduct. 

Steele, a senior officer who worked in the investigative unit’s prosecutions division, was a colleague and mentor to Rodriguez Jr. He developed a relationship with Jr.’s father, Valentino Rodriguez Sr., to gather evidence of the misconduct Rodriguez Jr. had reported prior to his death. As Steele dealt with resistance from law enforcement and prison officials, he also worked to investigate the causes of Valentino Jr.’s death. 


The traumatic ordeal that the Rodriguez family endured informed how the reporters approached their reporting, Lewis said. 

They took time to build trust with Valentino Rodriguez Sr. “It means moving at a pace that he is comfortable with,” Small said. 

Sometimes reporters forget that asking people to talk openly about their lives and their losses is a big ask, Small added. “They might want to know a thing or two about us before they start talking to us.”

Lewis and Small were transparent with family members throughout the reporting process, fact-checking details and allowing them to listen to podcasts prior to release. 

“We let them hear some of the episodes before they went to air — not with the idea that they would have editorial control over the project, but with the idea that there wouldn’t be any surprises for them,” said Lewis. 

I also think there’s this evolving conversation about how we treat sources,” she continued. In an investigative project of this nature, the reporting process becomes a respectful partnership with sources. “This was this huge wound in these people’s lives. And we had to be really careful about harm reduction.”

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