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California Latino Gang Members Locked Down Over 20 Months; Narrow U.S. Attorney Criminal Review Finds "No Abuses"

California Latino Gang Members Locked Down Over 20 Months; Narrow U.S. Attorney Criminal Review Finds "No Abuses"

Latino gang members at California's 124 year-old Folsom State Prison (FSP) were locked down for over 20 months following a riot where "Southern" Hispanic gang members attacked their rival "Northern" Hispanics on April 8, 2002 - injuring 24 prisoners and permanently disabling one guard. Despite over 100 grievance appeals filed, scores of "Northern" affiliates who refused to agree not to initiate retaliation were still being denied two hot meals per day, daily showers, outdoor exercise, telephone calls, canteen, visiting and religious services.

Moreover, a U.S. Attorney review requested on February 6, 2004 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was closed on June 15, 2004 - reporting "no human rights abuses" in the aftermath of the riots. A skeptical California State Senator Jackie Speier called the limited paper review inadequate: "A lot of fireworks but no powder."

After the 2002 melee and total lockdown of FSP's 3,500 prisoners, groups of prisoners were unlocked after signing non-aggression agreements. But handling of the situation has remained contentious. In December, 2003, then California Department of Corrections (CDC) Director Edward Alameida fired FSP Warden Diana Butler over the riot while all other top FSP managers down to the Captain level were transferred to other prisons, pending investigation. Alameida, himself the subject of perjury allegations regarding supermax Pelican Bay State Prison's federal investigation, was forced to resign shortly thereafter. Following that, Governor Schwarzenegger asked the U.S. Attorney to investigate.

CDC estimates that over two-thirds of its 162,000 prisoners belong to gangs or splinter groups that constantly battle for turf and control. While lockdowns are standard procedure following major outbreaks of violence, this one - in the view of recently appointed CDC Director Jeanne Woodford _ "should not have gone on for two years." Craig Haney, a University of California (Santa Cruz) psychology professor, opined that "to confine inmates under those conditions for that long really presses against the psychological bounds of people's survival." Senator Speier called the lockdown "indefensible" and a violation of federal standards. "It's like grounding a child for five years and forgetting all about him," she said.

In addition to the severe restrictions, the grievances focused on food. One filed in December, 2002 complained of having peanut butter and bread as the main course three times per day, contrary to long-established CDC rules requiring balanced nutrition and at least two hot meals per day. One of former Director Alameida's last acts was to deny this grievance.

An unidentified high-level CDC administrator called the lockdown "insane," saying "you lockdown long enough to do cell searches and investigation - then scatter the troublemakers to other prisons."

U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott was tasked with the federal criminal review, but parsed the assignment to look only into the aftermath of the riot - not the riot itself. He thus excluded looking into allegations that the riot was literally permitted to occur because of connections between Associate Warden Michael D. Bunnell and Northern Hispanics. As to his analysis of the 23 hour-per-day lockdown of Northern Hispanic gang members, Scott declined to open a criminal investigation because there was "no evidence" that prison officials acted with "deliberate indifference" to the prisoners' basic needs. The next step will be a routine review by the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to determine if civil penalties should be sought.

The riot allegations call to memory Bunnell's history of prisoner over-familiarity. In 1992, he was fired from his Chief Deputy Warden position at Deuel Vocational Institution when his personal telephone conversations with shot caller prisoners in white and Hispanic gangs were used in a state probe to implicate him in prison heroin rings. He approved one such prisoner getting $1,835 worth of CDC-paid outside gold-crown dental work, deleted a drug dealer from a dog sniffing cell-search list, removed a memorandum from a lifer's file [that had implicated him in a 1985 in-prison murder] prior to his parole hearing, and provided others with attractive job assignments and coveted single cells. Carl Larson, a former CDC regional administrator, called what was on the tapes "some of the worst cases of undue familiarity and preferential treatment I have observed."

Bunnell's criminal charges were squashed, however, when a state appellate court held that the six tapes , were improperly recorded. Later, the State Personnel Board ordered him reinstated [now at FSP] with $270,000 back pay - which Bunnell mocks on his customized 1998 Chevy pickup's vanity plates: "THNX CDC." He still faces a lawsuit brought in Sacramento Superior Court by guard Patrick O'Dea, who blames Bunnell for the herniated disc O'Dea suffered in the 2002 FSP riot. In the suit, O'Dea alleges deletion of portions of the audio tape of Bunnell's questionable orders during the riot.

But all is not quiet at FSP. On June 19,2004, forty Southern Hispanic and white prisoners rioted in the dining hall when a Southern Hispanic being escorted to administrative segregation shouted out an instruction in Spanish, setting off the dinner-time melee. Four prisoners were seriously injured; FSP went back on lockdown.

As of the end of June, 2004, only six Northern Hispanics remained at FSP, pending transfer. Reversing a 20 year-old policy to integrate all factions, CDC now appears to be leaning towards segregating gangs by prison. Many observers, both staff and prisoner, have commented that the likely result at FSP will be the consolidation of power by the Southern Hispanics, in the absence of their principal rivals, leading eventually to intimidation of other ethnic groups and even staff. This concern is heightened by CDC's current reshuffling of its population to house higher security risk prisoners at FSP.

Sources: Los Angeles Times; Sacramento Bee.

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