Chino inmates allege mistreatment long before August riot

Prisoners at the California Institution for Men in Chino line up, waiting for medical appointments.
Prisoners at the California Institution for Men in Chino line up, waiting for medical appointments. Mike Roe/KPCC

Last August, a riot at the California Institution for Men in Chino demolished barracks and injured about 200 prisoners.

Some prisoners claim they had to live outdoors for nearly a week after the riot. Others say the practice began months before the riot and hasn’t stopped.

Some say they were severely sunburned. Others claim they were denied blankets, showers and medical care.

Chino Prison Inmate Letters

Read letters from inmates who were involved in or witnessed the Aug. 8, 2009 riot at the California Institute for Men in Chino.

"Now, once an inmate went through a riot and they were stripped down to their boxers to make sure that they had no weapons or contraband, they may have been outside in their boxers," said Lieutenant Mark Hargrove, a prison spokesman. "But as soon as we had availability to get them clothing, they were provided clothing and bedding."

Inmates held outside for 'night or two'

Hargrove said some inmates were held outside, but only for a night or two.

"The riot was the only occasion when we had to house inmates outside for an extended period of time, including the evening hours," said Hargrove.

Steven Morrissette said that as soon as he arrived at the California Institution for Men in Chino, officials put him outside.

Morrissette ended up at the prison in Chino last March on a parole violation. The 24-year-old from Hesperia says for one week from sunrise to sunset, he shared a small outdoor enclosure with about 10 other inmates.

"They said because there was no housing for inmates," he said. "But if they have units to put us in at night, why would they keep us outside all day? It don’t make no sense. They didn’t have no housing at all for any of us."

Morrissette said that at night, he and fellow inmates slept indoors in “tanks," small cells usually intended for inmates waiting to see a doctor.

The “tanks” have no bunks, toilets or running water.

"For the whole week, they didn’t let us shower," said Morrissette. "They let you out once every three hours for five minutes to use the bathroom, and they lock you back up."

Morrissette said he had only the pair of clothes that he had on and, for a blanket, he had "a towel looking thing. That’s it."

Years ago, guards go public about indoor 'tanks'

Five years ago, three guards at the Chino prison went public with complaints about inmates held for long periods in those indoor “tanks.” They warned that inmate frustration could boil over into violence.

Morrissette says some guards at the overcrowded prison didn’t like rotating overflow prisoners between indoor and outdoor holding areas either.

"One of the COs told us, 'We need Sacramento to come down here,'" Morrissette said. "'Sacramento comes down and sees this, everybody in these cages will get kicked out.' He didn’t like it, but there was one sergeant. He didn’t care. He would sit there try to get in our faces: 'Do something. I dare you to do something! Oh, I’m begging you! Hit me!' He’s all, 'Let me break your freakin’™ neck. I’ll do it in a heartbeat.'"

Letters complain of being held outside

In the small living room of her mother’s home, Kristina Avent of Apple Valley thumbs through letters from her boyfriend Jason. He arrived at the California Institution for Men last October.

In the first letter he wrote to Avent, he complained of being held outside in what he described as a cage. Avent asked that KPCC not use Jason’s last name.

"I’m in Chino. You will never guess what they f-ing did," said Avent, reading from the letter. "I am outside in an f-ing cage. I guess I will be out here for like seven days. It’s bullcrap. I can’t believe they got us in this cage. This can’t be f-ing legal."

Questions raised

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says it’s not legal.

Spokeswoman Terry Thornton says prisons need an OK from officials in Sacramento to hold inmates outside for more than four hours a day. She says there aren’t guidelines for housing inmates outside for extended periods because it’s not an accepted practice.

But Kristina Avent says her boyfriend was held outside for about a week.

"Then they finally housed him and heat’s in one of the beds now," she said. "Everybody needs to be housed because the taxpayer does not pay the taxes for inmates to sleep outside. It’s cruelty. They treated him like a dog out there."

The law firm of San Francisco attorney Michael Bien, who helped win an inmate lawsuit that forced California to reduce its prison population, is investigating health and safety issues at the California Institution for Men.

"Should we really tolerate people sleeping outside?" Bein said. "Someone made a choice about that. And if you tolerate that, it happens. We also understand from people that they have been told they must spend time on the yard.

"There are not enough cells at all. There’s a constant flow of people coming to CIM from various counties. And if you reduce CIM’s size but don’t change the flow, then they’re going to have these problems."

Next month, state investigators will release the results of an investigation into the riot at the Chino prison. Last week, the state's Office of the Inspector General launched a separate probe in response to information KPCC uncovered in this series.

The Inspector General wants to know if the California Institution for Men in Chino or other state prisons routinely hold inmates in unorthodox and maybe unsafe conditions to deal with severe overcrowding.

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