Rumors of violence swirled for days before the riot exploded inside the Chino prison’s Reception Center West.
Guards had taken to serving meals to small groups of inmates, rather than entire dorms.
“The tension, you can feel,” said former inmate Sterling Werner, who talked about the riot while he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes on the balcony of his Anaheim apartment recently. “And when officers are doing controlled feeding one building at a time two days prior to the riot, you know. Something is wrong."
Letters from Chino prison
Watch and listen to a montage of voices reading letters from inmates alleging mistreatment by Chino prison guards after the Aug. 8, 2009 riot.
"You know, total chaos. We’re talking about window panes coming off and being thrown. Pieces of glass being used like Ninja stars. Kicking, fighting, punching. So much blood. So many people just trying to get out of the way."
It took authorities until sunrise to contain the violence. More than 200 inmates at the California Institution for Men were injured. Two housing blocks were demolished, making the prison’s bad overcrowding problem even worse. Each dormitory was at double capacity. About 1,300 inmates were left without bunk space. Hundreds of prisoners were immediately moved to other institutions across the state.
In an interview in his office at the California Institution for Men, Acting Warden Aref Farkhoury defended his staff’s response to the riot.
"Both custodial and medically, response at CIM level was outstanding," he said. "If it wasn’t for the training that we have provided our staff and all the tools we have available to them, this would have taken longer and we would have had a lot more seriously hurt people, and possibly death."
'They housed 10 of us per cage'
But dozens more inmates claim they were handcuffed with plastic zip-ties, separated by race and marched into outdoor recreation cages. The inmates say they remained in these cages all day and night, for up to four full days. Werner says most inmates were stripped to underwear, socks and shoes.
"They housed 10 of us per cage," he said. "We tried to cooperate. OK, we know it’s probably going to be maybe a few hours. Well, it extended to days and nights. Freezing cold. The only warmth I was able to get was from leaning my body against another inmate. They are only supposed to be used about two hours at most while the ad-seg people have rec time. They’re animal cages."
Each enclosure is about 20-feet long and 10-feet wide, with a toilet and a sink. Werner says nobody fed the inmates for a day after the riot. They were given no soap, no blankets – and no complaint forms.
Guards non-commital about inmate treatment
When KPCC asked about the allegations over a month ago, a prison official denied them.
But on a visit to the prison, two guards in the Chino prison’s administration segregation unit said that inmates were held outdoors for hours after the riot.
"As far as what I remember being in here, we would bring them out here during the day so we can do our daily process to try and get some of these guys out and try and give them medical," said Lt. Eddie Hernandez. "And then at night, probably be around 9 at night when we would bring them inside."
Lt. Gerard de los Santos said that initially, the inmates might have been held outside for up to two days in order to "let the dust settle and find out where we were gonna house inmates."
"They were out here initially because we had no place else to put ‘em at," De Los Santos said. "But we gave them blankets and everything else, jumpsuits so they can stay warm. They were not here with just boxers on and nothing else."
Letters tell of post-riot treatment
After the riot, Chino’s daytime temperature soared into the upper 90s. The holding cages provided little shade. Some inmates were sunburned after hours in the outdoor rec cages.
Werner says the skin on his back blistered and peeled. The prison’s chief physician confirmed his staff treated sunburned inmates after the riot.
"They stripped us down to our boxers and had us there for about three days," said Charlie Padilla, reading a letter from a relative incarcerated at Chino at the time of the riot.
Sitting in her Los Angeles County home, Padilla reads the letter - one of dozens of letters sent to her by inmates at the Chino prison. Last month, she launched a Web site: www.intheriot.com. Padilla began corresponding with inmates after hearing her relative’s story.
"The sun burnt us during the day, at night it was real cold," Padilla read. "I remember watching that movie 'March of the Penguins.' We all stood real close together like the penguins did. We looked dumb. But it worked.
"I have no idea what they’re going to do with us but I don’t see freedom getting any closer."
Padilla said many prisoners talked about the riot as a "nightmare."
That’s all anybody talked about," she said. "He didn’t give me a lot of detail about blood and what he saw. I’ve gotten that from other people.
Five years ago, a group of Chino guards complained that some inmates were held in small holding tanks for days at a time. They called it “cruel and dangerous.”
Inmate complaints after the riot reflect a similar practice.