Chino prison warden replies to allegations of inmate mistreatment

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Photo by Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) tours the California Institution for Men prison with Warden Aref Fakhoury (L) on August 19, 2009 in Chino, California.

Lt. Mark Hargrove slowly steers an SUV across Reception Center West at the California Institution for Men. Reception Center West features an open field lined with eight wooden barracks.

Those barracks were built about 50 years ago to house minimum security inmate workers. Four months after the August riot, civilian workers are still fixing broken windows and mending crumbled walls and cratered roofs.

Chino warden responds

Warden Fakhoury and California Governor Schwarzenegger discuss their immediate response to the August 2009 Chino Prison riots and the long-term issues that contributed to the disturbance 10 days after the violence erupted.

"We’re in a construction phase right now to rebuild these units," says Hargrove, a spokesman for the Chino prison. "What we see right before us, you know, is they’ve removed all the siding. They’re going with a fire retardant siding made out of a composite that’s less flammable."

On Aug. 8, fires were lit in two of the dorms. None of the buildings have ceiling sprinklers. Inmates kicked out barred windows and a security door to get out of one burning dorm. More than 200 inmates housed at Reception Center West were hurt.

Governor: Prisons 'collapsing under own weight'

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visited a week later.

"California’s entire prison system is collapsing under its own weight," he said. "Our prisons are overcrowded and endangering the staff and the inmates. California is quite literally losing control of our prisons."

Those conditions may have spurred what happened in the days after the riot. Several former and current inmates say the prison kept dozens of men in outdoor enclosures all day and all night for several days as authorities tried to regain control of West yard.

"You know at night, sleepin’ under the stars," says Sterling Werner, who was one of those inmates. "Temperature drops, wind starts blowin’ and it’s cold. And you’re sleeping out on hard concrete. I’ve just been scorched by the sun and now I’m freezing myself off at night! Sleeping on hard concrete my lower back is hurtin’, my hips are hurtin’, my shoulders are hurtin'."

In October, a prison spokesman told KPCC that the prison did hold some inmates outside, but only on the night of the riot. But a guard said dozens of inmates stayed outdoors in small recreation cages for a couple of days and nights.

Held outside for more than 24 hours?

Acting Warden Aref Fakhoury admitted that inmates were held outside in an exercise recreation area, possibly for over 24 hours.

“There’s a big possibility that, yes, that they were,” said Fakhoury during an interview in his office at CIM.

“Well, after the riot we did have inmates out in open area. It’s an exercise recreation area at the Center facility. So inmates were being held in that area until they were placed somewhere else.”

Many inmates held outside say they were stripped to their underwear and not given food for a day after the riot. Others claim they’re skin blistered in the August heat. A prison doctor confirmed that his staff treated several inmates for sunburn. But Warden Fakhoury says inmates were protected from the elements.

"I saw it with my own eyes that they had bedrolls and they had blankets," Fakhoury said. "And they were clothed with the jumpsuits or boxers and T-shirts."

High risks of outdoor detention

Holding prisoners outdoors for several days or even just a few hours poses risks. Last May, a female inmate at Perryville Prison in Arizona died after she was forced to spend four hours in an outdoor holding cell without shade. Arizona has stopped using most outdoor cells. Several states ban them outright.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says keeping inmates outside for more than four hours at a time requires prior approval from department higher-ups.

"There should never have been an inmate living in that environment for longer than eight hours," said Charles Carbone, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in prison law. He says what allegedly occurred in Chino after the riot amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

"They may be there in prison for a variety of reasons, some may be minor some may be serious," Carbone said. "But surely none of them signed up to be placed in a cage for days on end. And the social cost of violating a prisoner’s constitutional rights is great."

Lengthy outdoor detention is 'emergency measure'

A California Institution for Men spokesman says inmates were held outdoors for long stretches as an emergency measure after rioters wiped out roughly one-quarter of the prison’s bunk space. But some inmates say not only does the practice of holding prisoners outdoors for extended periods continue, it started months before the riot.

"When I first got there they put us out on the yard and we set out on the yard all day," said Steven Morrissette.

The 24 year old ex-inmate from Hesperia was sent to CIM in March on a parole violation. He got out in August. Morrissette says prison staff had no bunk space for him and many other inmates when they arrived. He says the first week of his incarceration was spent alternating between indoor temporary holding cells and outdoor exercise cages. Neither is designed for long term inmate housing.

"They fed us out there. The only time we went indoors is if you had a medical slip to go see the doctor or nurse."

And, says Morrissette, to sleep on the floor of indoor holding tanks with nine or ten other inmates.

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