Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Pelican Bay's Bloody Wednesday

By W. Wisely

On Wednesday, February 23, 2000, one of the bloodiest riots in California prison history broke out among some 200 Black and Latino prisoners. The violence erupted at the state's infamous Pelican Bay prison. Guards sprayed rioting prisoners on the B Facility yard with more than 24 rounds from assault rifles, wounding 15 and killing one, according to a report by California Prison Focus.

The fighting began around 9:30 a.m. on that rainy, overcast day. "We don't know how this riot began or what precipitated the incident," Margot Bach, a Department of Corrections spokesperson, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Guards lobbed tear gas, squirted pepper gas, fired rubber and wooden bullets, and then let loose with .223-caliber rounds from their Ruger Mini-14 assault rifles.

It took 120 guards thirty minutes to quell the violence. "They did a great job," Cal Terhune, Department Director, told the Chronicle. Steve Fama, an attorney with the San Rafael Prison Law Office, said overcrowded conditions at the prison "probably had a lot to do with [the] riot." But, interviews with 50 prisoners by California Prison Focus indicates the violence may have been instigated by guards.

One prisoner confided that a guard told him, "Do whatever you're going to do today, because tomorrow the prison is going on lockdown." Before yard release February 23rd, another guard told a prisoner, "It's your lucky day." Since the August 31st incident, Black and White prisoners have been let out, a few at a time, to the yard. On each occasion, fighting broke out between the groups.

Some 89 prison-made weapons were recovered after the riot ended. Yet, guards searched all prisoners before releasing them to the yard that morning. Prisoners told California Prison Focus that the searches were much less thorough than usual. Lt. Ben Grundy told the Chronicle that the animosity between the groups was so heated that "even at the end, part of the [prisoners] still wanted to fight each other. Even after they were in cuffs."

Sixteen ambulances arrived at the prison to rush the wounded to local area hospitals. Sixteen prisoners were shot, and at least another 19 had stab wounds. Sutter Coast Hospital CEO John Menaugh said, "I've been here 14 years, and we've seen nothing close to it. The staff's pretty drained right now." The prisoners caused no problems for hospital staff. "They were very calm, and very thankful for their care," Menaugh told the Chronicle.

The shooting death was the first since the California Department of Corrections issued a new shooting policy April 1, 1999. A Department spokesman said the last fatal shooting in a California prison was May 7, 1998, at Pleasant Valley Prison in Coalinga.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login