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California Private Prison Uprisings Kill 2, Injure 66

Interracial prison riots occurred on October 27 and December 3, 2003 in two southern California privately-contracted minimum security prisons. Because California private prison contractors have no weapons not even pepper spray the riots continued for up to 90 minutes until armed peace officers could arrive to restore order. In one prison, two prisoners were killed and 50 injured; in the other, 16 were injured.

At the desert Eagle Mountain Community Correctional Facility (CCF), Rodman Wallace, 39, serving two years for burglary, and Master Hampton, 34, doing 16 months for a drug offense, were stabbed and bludgeoned to death by other prisoners on the evening of October 27, 2003 in a recreation room while watching the World Series. What began as an altercation between whites and Hispanics erupted into an attack on black prisoners involving about 150 prisoners. Injuries to four prisoners required helicopter transfer to regional hospitals. Response teams of Riverside County Sheriff's deputies and California Department of Corrections (CDC) prison guards from two state prisons in Blythe (60 miles away) were called in to restore order.

Lt. Warren Montgomery of Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe said prisoners used knives and meat cleavers from the kitchen, along with table legs, chair legs and mop handles. Murder investigations are in progress. Property damage was estimated at $15,000.

Eagle Mountain, one of 15 prisons run by Utah-based Management and Training Corp. (MTC), is a 458 bed facility operated under contract to CDC. MTC spokesman Carl Stuart attributed the riots to CDC's recent transfer of 200 new prisoners, and the resulting instability from the 50% turnover rate.

Eagle Mountain was itself already on the chopping block funding was to be cut on December 31, 2003 as part of former Governor Davis' alleged cost cutting. But the $17,000 per year cost of CCF prisoners would then revert to $28,000 per year CDC costs due to state prison guards working at far higher wages. The guards' union had given former Governor Davis 3.4 million in political donations and lobbied hard to close all private prisons in CDC.

The citizens of Eagle Mountain are also big losers. Closure of the CCF will put the community back into its former ghost-town status as an old, tapped out company-owned iron ore mining town (still owned by Kaiser, Corp.). The last hope was the townsfolk's appeal to newly elected Governor Schwarzenegger, who filmed Terminator 2 there a decade ago.

Next, on the night of December 3, 2003, in a 228 bed minimum security prison operated by Cornell Corrections in Baker, California (160 miles northeast of Los Angeles), an estimated forty prisoners rioted, injuring sixteen.

Two prisoners got into an argument and fight that escalated into a riot between whites and Latinos. Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for CDC which contracted with Cornell said the prisoners refused orders to get down. Because private prison staff are not allowed to use force to subdue prisoners, San Bernadino County Sheriff's deputies, California Highway Patrol officers and guards from CDC's nearest prison (California Institution for Men, in Chino) were called in. They arrived thirty minutes later and broke up the fight.

Prisoner injuries included stab wounds, cuts and head injuries from broomsticks and rocks. Four prisoners were flown to University Medical Center in nearby Las Vegas, Nevada. County firefighters provided emergency first aid. When released from area hospitals, the prisoners were re-housed at the state prison in Chino. No guards were injured, but a guard shack was set on fire, burning paperwork.

Interracial prison riots, a byproduct of prison overcrowding, are likely to continue to be a way of life in CDC. In the past year, 42% of CDC admissions were Latino making them the largest identified ethnic population group. Latinos, whites, blacks and Asians are, in turn, subdivided into many tightly knit prison gangs. Prison culture requires those identified in each group to "back" their brethren in any dispute only furthering prison tensions. In Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum-security prison, guards got into the act by playing one group against the other; two CDC guards were sentenced to federal prison time because of this in 2003. Many prisoners and their advocates say such deliberate fomenting of racial strife by guards is widespread. A prison guards' union official called this allegation "utterly ridiculous."

Sources: San Diego Union Tribune, Riverside Desert Sun, Los Angeles Times, San Bernadino County Sun, Press Enterprise, free lance writer Vince Beiser.

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