California Department of Corrections praises Chino staff in August riot report

Building damaged Aug. 8, 2009 during prisoner riot at the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif.
Building damaged Aug. 8, 2009 during prisoner riot at the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif.

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Last summer, inmates at the California Institution for Men in Chino sparked the biggest and bloodiest riot in the prison's history. Seven months later, state prison officials have issued their report on how prison staff handled the violence.

The Corrections report praises corrections officers for showing “extreme bravery” during the riot – some former inmates don’t see it that way.

The riot was sparked by tensions between black and Latino street gangs. It began in a single housing unit - and quickly spread to half a dozen others. Dozens of inmates were injured. It took nearly 12 hours to contain the violence. Sterling Werner was housed in the Joshua Hall unit.

“The officers were basically looking out for themselves. And they already knew if they tried to stop it, they would be involved themselves.”

Werner is one of several former inmates who say the prison was ill-equipped to deal with such a large scale riot. He says when the trouble began, the corrections officer in charge of his 200-man unit retreated.
Prison officials ordered officers to create “scrimmage” line, or patrol line around the units. Werner says inmates were forced to break out of Joshua Hall after an inmate set it on fire.

“We had to try and break into the cleaning room ‘cause that was the only access to water, while other inmates are sittin’ there trying to knock down these fire extinguisher boxes and see if we can use ‘em!,” says Werner. “When you have like two or three inmates beating on a box trying to get it off the wall for 5, 10 minutes because we don’t have access to even save our own butts, it’s kind of a scary situation.”

The damaged units are being repaired and upgraded. The 50-year-old dorms will be fitted with ceiling sprinklers and other safety upgrades.

Many current and former inmates also say they were crowded into two-man recreation cells for nearly a week after the riot. They say they were stripped to their boxer shorts and denied blankets and showers.

The Corrections riot report says some inmates were held in the uncovered outdoor holding cells - but for only three days until they could be placed elsewhere. It says inmates were given food, water and other essentials.

A KPCC investigation into these and other allegations sparked a statewide probe of prisons by the California Office of the Inspector General earlier this year. The investigation is ongoing. The Inspector General soon will issue a separate report on the August riot at Chino prison.