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California Prison Erupts, Hundreds Hurt in Riot, Multiple Causes Cited

On August 8, 2009, just days after a three-judge federal panel ruled that California’s prison system was dangerously overcrowded, a major riot erupted at the California Institution for Men at Chino, a prison about 40 miles east of Los Angeles.

The riot began in a 200-bed dorm and eventually engulfed seven of eight housing units in an area at Chino known as Reception Center West. More than 1,000 prisoners were involved in the melee, some using improvised weapons; 240 were injured, with 55 requiring hospitalization for such serious injuries as stab wounds and head trauma.

One of the units was completely destroyed by fire while the others were so badly damaged that they were left uninhabitable. The riot began on a Saturday evening at about 8:20 p.m. and raged for four hours, but California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials, aided by local law enforcement agencies, did not regain control until approximately 7:00 a.m. the next morning. Batons, tear gas and pepper spray were used. In an effort to prevent the unrest from spreading, ten of the state’s 33 prisons (all located in Southern California) were placed on lockdown in the wake of the disturbance. Afterwards, almost 1,300 prisoners were transferred from Chino to different facilities; others were temporarily held in tents. The damaged housing units will cost an estimated $5.2 million to rebuild.

Built in 1941, Chino was designed to hold 3,000 prisoners. At the time of the riot it housed about 5,900. The facility had been the site of previous violent incidents – including a major fight in May 2009, another in April 2008 [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.50], and one in December 2006. Further, prison guard Manuel A. Gonzalez, Jr. was murdered at Chino on January 10, 2005. [See: PLN, Nov. 2006, p.18].

The facility’s well-documented history of problems was specifically cited by the three-judge federal panel which, on August 4, 2009, ordered California officials to come up with a plan to reduce the state’s prison population – currently standing at 167,000 – by more than 40,000 prisoners within two years. The panel, which based its decision on unconstitutional medical and mental health care in California’s prison system, found that overcrowding was the primary cause of those deficiencies. [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.36].

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger used the Chino riot as an opportunity to promote his proposal to cut the prison population by 27,000 in the current fiscal year and 10,000 during the next fiscal year. While falling short of compliance with the three-judge panel’s order, Schwarzenegger’s plan was designed, ostensibly, to address a different problem – the state’s $26 billion budget deficit. To save money, Schwarzenegger had suggested slashing the prison system’s budget by $1.2 billion. The state legislature approved his proposed budget but ultimately watered down the plan to cut CDCR’s population, instead endorsing a proposal to reduce it by only 16,000.

Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth disagreed that the Chino riot was evidence of a need to decrease the state’s prison population. “The message I get,” he said, “is that these are dangerous people who should not be roaming the streets.” Echoing those sentiments, CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton stated, “I kind of chuckle when I hear people say, ‘Well, overcrowding caused this.’ No, misbehaving caused it and they didn’t get into prison for behaving in the first place.”

Chino had been on modified lockdown for several days prior to the August 8 riot, as rumors had circulated that trouble was brewing between Hispanic and black prisoners. The New York Times reported that the riot “broke down along racial lines, with black prison gangs fighting Latino gangs in hand-to-hand combat.” CDCR officials eventually confirmed that assessment, saying the incident was caused by an “ongoing racial street war” that extended into the prison system. “When they come to prison, they bring their animosity with them,” said Thornton.

California’s efforts to implement a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting racial segregation in housing units also may have increased racial tensions in the prison system and contributed to the riot at Chino. [See: PLN, April 2006, p.20]. The CDCR has continued to racially integrate facilities; as of February 1, 2010, race is no longer a factor in how prisoners are celled at Folsom State Prison.

“We never had a policy on segregating inmates,” said Thornton, but “as a mechanism to keep people from killing each other, sometimes those [racial segregation] decisions were made.” Other CDCR facilities that have been integrated include the Sierra Conservation Center, Mule Creek State Prison and the California Medical Center in Vacaville.

Prison staff at Chino further claimed that a failure by CDCR administrators to follow proper procedures for classifying dangerous prisoners may have contributed to the riot. Current and former employees said they complained about classification mistakes and had filed union grievances prior to the uprising. A report by the Office of the Inspector General, released in November 2008, cited problems with the placement of high-risk prisoners at Chino. “Staff members improperly placed some unsuitable inmates in crowded dormitories that are supervised by only two correctional officers,” the report stated, noting that this caused security problems.

Other issues mentioned by the Inspector General included no fire protection systems in the housing units, guards al-lowed to work in armed posts even though they had failed to attend mandatory firearms training, and insufficient fire and emergency drills.

No prisoners escaped during the August 8 riot at Chino and no staff injuries were reported as a result of that incident. The facility was taken off lockdown in December 2009. More than 220 prisoners have been charged with disciplinary of-fenses; 25 may face criminal charges ranging from battery to attempted murder.

Sources: Associated Press, CNN, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Folsom Telegraph,

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