Spate of prison riots raises concerns about safety for staff and inmates

The California Institution for Men prison in Chino, California.
The California Institution for Men prison in Chino, California.
Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images

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California corrections officials are investigating an unusual spike in prison riots during the last week.

The first riot broke out over a little more than a week ago, at 11 o'clock Saturday morning at Salinas Valley State Prison. Two inmates at the Central Valley facility stabbed another inmate to death with hand-made weapons. On the maximum-security yard, 30 inmates began to attack each other and a riot ensued.

A few days later on Wednesday, at California State Prison-Sacramento - or “New Folsom” - inmates began attacking each other with makeshift knives. The fighting sent 13 inmates to outside hospitals for treatment. Guards also discharged rounds from a mini 14 rifle. One inmate took a bullet but survived.

On Thursday, violence broke out at a third prison in Vacaville. Several disturbances erupted on one yard of California State Prison Solano. Officers there fired warning shots with a mini 14 rifle. That didn’t keep four other fights among 60 inmates from breaking out in other areas of the prison.

“Sometimes these kind of fights are planned, sometimes they’re spontaneous," said Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton. Thornton said the department is investigating the cause of each of the riots. She added that while prison riots are not uncommon, the timing of these is unusual.

“When you have those things happen in a short period of time, it does make you wonder, is there a rise in violence? Is this just a blip? Are these connected?”

Thornton said the Department's found no indication yet that any of these instances are connected, but it's too early to say for certain.

People may wonder why this is happening now, she said, as the prison system has begun to ease chronic crowding. California’s prisons hold 24,000 fewer inmates than a year ago, when a new realignment law started to divert low-level felons who that would have gone to state lockups into county custody. But Thornton noted that realignment mostly eased crowding at low-security prisons in California. Two of the recent riots happened in maximum- security prisons. The are also less crowded than a year ago, but Rebekah
Evenson with the nonprofit Prison Law Office said they still hold more people than they should.

“Even though they are getting down in numbers--like both Salinas Valley and New Folsom are at or around 145 percent of capacity--that’s still a thousand more prisoners than the facilities were meant to house.” Evenson said.

The Prison Law Office successfully sued to reduce overcrowding in California prisons that prevented inmates from getting adequate medical care. Evenson said crowded conditions also contribute to violence in prison. But as she sees it, that’s just one system-wide problem that makes prisons unsafe. In April, 2011, Evenson filed a complaint that asked corrections officials to stop relying on race-based lockdowns.

She said California’s reliance on that method of control tells her, “The prison staff aren’t keeping control over violence and their resorting to lockdowns is a last ditch approach.”

In the complaint on the lockdowns last year, The Prison Law Office found that the three prisons where the violence erupted last week had frequently used lockdowns to control their populations in recent years. At
New Folsom, officials kept one group of inmates locked down for 2500 days.

Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate has promised to review department policies on lockdowns as part of a major initiative to improve conditions and cut costs. That plan also includes
reclassifying some maximum security inmates it determines could safely reside in less crowded, lower security prisons, and reducing the guard staff.

Ryan Sherman with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association called that too much upheaval all at once.

“We’re understaffed, we’re overcrowded the inmates are more dangerous and violent on a percentage basis and we’re getting maximum security inmates being housed in medium security facilities.” Sherman said.

The prison guards’ union has urged Corrections to let the dust settle before the department eliminates any more guards. Sherman said the peace officers feel that their members are at risk. “We were already understaffed - and yeah, we’ve been losing some inmates but not proportionate to the cuts you guys want to implement.”

The riots happened a week after inmates at the state’s super max prison at Pelican Bay declared an end to
racial violence in the prisons. Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said Corrections has received that letter, and holds out hope that those inmates are sincere. Ultimately, she said, it’s up to prisoners to increase the peace on the inside - and to learn to control the kind of behavior that cost them their freedom.

Updated number injured***