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California Prison Officials Put Hold on Policy That Led to “Gladiator Fights”

In September 2019, California prison administrators and officials agreed to put a hold on a policy known as “incremental release” after complaints from prisoners and their relatives that it had been used to promote a “divide-and-conquer” strategy at state prisons by orchestrating “gladiator fights” among prisoners, with guards even betting on contestants like a spectator sport in the Roman empire. This has been an ongoing issue at prisons in general and CDCR in particular for the past 30 years and PLN has reported on it repeatedly in that time period.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), “incremental release” is a method for desegregating prisoners by mandating the simultaneous release of rival gang members onto the prison recreational yard – even though staff members are fully aware that the consequences could be a violent confrontation. The resulting “gladiator prisons” allegedly include the California State Prison in Corcoran, the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad and the Pleasant Valley State Prison, among others throughout the state.

The idea is not new, having first made an appearance in 1990 in the Corcoran Secure Housing Unit, where guards staged fights between black and Latino gangs, taking voyeuristic pleasure in watching from the sidelines and betting on the victor. To end the fighting, guards used pepper spray, block guns (air-powered non-lethal rifles that shoot rectangular immobilizing wooden blocks), lethal mini-14 rifles and 9-millimeter handguns loaded with deadly rounds.

From 1989 to 1994, seven prisoners were shot dead and 43 more were injured. When several guards turned whistleblower, the story became national news and charges ensued. Eight guards were tried but subsequently acquitted because a jury accepted their alibi: They had simply followed policy. “Policy” in that case allowed guards to use deadly force to stop fights and riots. What did not emerge clearly from the trial was the role guards and staff played in fueling the deadly conflict in the first place.

Tensions grew so high within many of the California prisons that the gang members themselves agreed to condemn CDCR’s “divide-and-conquer” mentality, driving the prisoners to negotiate truces. In 2012, leaders of various ethnic gangs in the Pelican Bay Segregated Housing Unit drafted an “Agreement to End Hostilities.”

But the prison system seemed to ignore the code and continued to increase tension by ratcheting up an environment that encouraged “survival of the fittest.” In accordance with “policy,” prison officials implemented a “modified program” – institutional-speak for a lockdown affecting only some prisoners in a facility. Privileges such as commissary and visitation were rescinded following any incident deemed worthy of punishment.

“Modified program” allowed the prison to vacillate between open recreation access and long dehumanizing lockdowns, during which prisoners would face inhospitable conditions, including freezing concrete cells or cells so hot the walls would sweat. Prisoners would be deprived of access to commissary items, including toothpaste and even toilet paper, and therefore become totally dependent upon their jailers.

After a September 2018 brawl at Corcoran, some 350 prisoners in rival gangs were placed on lockdown – 23 hours a day isolation - for five months. In January 2019, some 270 of them went on a hunger strike in protest of their treatment. Protest outside the prison followed in February 2019, staged by family members and loved ones.

Also in February 2019, a pair of smuggled cellphone videos captured rival gangs clashing on two consecutive days at Soledad prison in gladiator-style combat, while prison guards stood by. According to Brooke Terpstra, a prisoner advocate with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), similar fights were staged at Corcoran and Pleasant Valley. The goal, Terpstra said, is to provide guards an excuse to keep prisoners in lockdown, where they are easier to manage in CDCR facilities plagued by mold, leaking roofs and faulty electrical systems. An April 2019 lawsuit filed by Corcoran prisoners details widespread problems, including maggots in food and rodent droppings on top of dining tables during meal times.

“Prisoners are smuggling out the video for the public even though it guarantees retaliation, like lockdowns, being thrown into a yard for fights, solitary, and possible increased time, in the hope that the outside knows what’s going on and helps them put a stop to these escalations of violence,” Terpstra said, adding that prisoners “have little to lose at this point.”

In August 2019, CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz visited Soledad, where he was confronted by prisoners pleading for him to discontinue the practice of “incremental release.” Diaz refused. His spokesperson, Terry Thornton, insisted that “CDCR is charged with providing a safe and secure environment for everyone who lives, works and visits its institutions.”

“Furthermore, the rehabilitation of individuals entrusted in the department’s care is also a priority,” he added.

The very day after Diaz’s visit, a riot exploded at Soledad involving two hundred prisoners in rival Latino gangs – only one of which is a party to the 2012 Agreement to End Hostilities – leaving eight hospitalized and fifty injured. Prison officials held the combatants in lockdown for the next twelve days, moving 50 of them into solitary confinement.

Some family members began to band together in protest outside of various California prisons following visitation restrictions in which many had been kept, sometimes months at a time, from seeing their brothers, husbands, and loved-ones.

“To keep putting them out in the yard to kill each other, essentially, is irresponsible of CDCR,” said Alice, the wife of a prisoner serving a life sentence at Soledad, who declined to give her last name for fear of retaliation against her husband.

A ballot initiative known as Proposition 57 was introduced in 2016 to permit prisoners to earn credits for good behavior, including a reduction in sentence. But this privilege is revoked if a prisoner is involved in any form of violent act, regardless of the circumstance. Isolation from family members, and extinguished hope of ever seeing a reduced sentence, have served only to foster and heighten more hostility and violence, prisoner advocates say, further strengthening bonds between same-gang members who are forced to rely upon each other for protection.

According to media accounts, outbreaks of “gladiator activity” had been spurred by a gang calling itself the “Bulldogs.” This group intentionally ignored all previously executed convict-to-convict peace agreements. The Bulldogs reportedly arrived on a compound and proceeded to instigate fights.

The practice of “gladiator prison” is premised on a culture where prison officials take pleasure in fighting prisoners like dogs and only intervening after the damage is done, often with deadly force. It seems that that these socially engineered gladiator fights may be intended to ultimately “justify the very existence of prison itself,” according to Truthout.org. Of course, prisoners could refuse to fight each other and focus on their collective conditions and try to improve them.