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Racial Violence in California Lockups

On Friday, September 27, 1996, rioting broke out among more than 200 black and Latino prisoners in New Folsom's B Facility. The violence lasted some 31 minutes with fighting on the yard, in the medical clinic, and in prison industries. Guards fired over 30 rounds from assault rifles and gas guns. Victor Flores, 22, was shot in the back and killed by a guard as fifty others were injured. Four guards had to be hospitalized and eleven more were injured in the disturbance.

Prison officials tried to minimize the incident. "There wasn't anything that would have made us uneasy," said Linda Howell, speaking for New Folsom. "This was totally unexpected." However, longtime visitors paint a different picture.

"Basically, it's a war between the Crips and Southern California Mexicans," said the wife of a prisoner who was visiting at the time the riot started. "It wasn't a big secret (that a fight was coming)." She said an announcement came over the public address system about 9:00 a.m. that visits were terminated. Immediately, several guards dressed in riot gear stormed through the visiting room and she heard the sound of gunfire coming from the yard.

"Prison gangs have become younger and more violent," said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the guards union. "We continually see higher inmate to staff ratios. As overcrowding continues, it's only going to get worse." This echoes the Department's party line used successfully over the past few years to blackmail lawmakers into increasing the prison budget and building more prisons. The prisoner killed was the 40th shot dead by guards in the last eleven years, more than the total in all other state prison systems combined.

The Department's policy of forcing rival gang members and known enemies to share the same yard apparently led to the violence. "They knew that this was going to happen," said Kathleen, a prison visitor. "They have been putting rival members in the same facility." Prison officials would not comment on that allegation.

On November 6, 1996, over 100 prisoners allegedly involved in the riot were scheduled to be transferred to other prisons throughout the state. California prison officials routinely transfer prisoners from one facility to another after disturbances. Howell claimed the prisoners were being transferred for "fomenting racial violence." The majority of the prisoners were sent to New Soledad and the rest were spread among Pelican Bay, High Desert, Corcoran, Tehachapi, Solano, and Centinela. In addition, another 57 prisoners were given time in the hole, and the prison is seeking criminal prosecution against ten for assault on staff and possession of a weapon. Some 60 prison made knives were allegedly found after the melee. And the violence wasn't isolated to New Folsom.

The first outbreak occurred August 20, 1996, when a group of Latinos attacked blacks on Pelican Bay's A yard. Blacks and Latinos were again involved in brawls at Tehachapi forcing a total lockdown September 23, 1996. And the September 27th riot at New Folsom was followed in less than one week by violence at Mule Creek on October 3, 1996, between the same groups.

While prisoncrats blame the violence on overcrowding and loudly proclaim the need for more and more money to build additional prisons, prison experts have a different explanation. "In the last year, legislators and prison officials have stripped California prisoners of almost all civil rights and rehabilitation programs," said Martha Stewart, a prison activist. "They've lost family visits, personal visits as a right, the right to be interviewed by the news media, and the right to own or operate a business. They are very close to the point of having nothing left to lose and this breeds violence. Prison officials know this and are exploiting it for their own agenda."

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