FOLSOM, Calif. — A young convict jogging around the track inside the granite walls of Folsom Prison on a recent sunny morning suddenly pitched forward, flopped on his back and began kicking as though stricken by a seizure.
Two guards rushed to the fallen inmate, while other officers looked warily around the vast prison yard where hundreds of convicts milled. As stretcher bearers carried the inmate from the track, other officers broke toward Graystone Chapel on the other side of the yard.
"They got one! They got one!" a guard yelled.
"Goddamn diversion," veteran officer Jim Blanchard muttered, referring to the inmate who had suffered the "seizure" on the track.
Soon officers carried a second stretcher from the yard. On it lay a convict with blood smeared over the front of his T-shirt and down one arm. He was taken to the hospital in serious condition with a knife wound in his lower back.
Back to 'Normal'
As the stretcher disappeared inside a cellblock, inmates once more jogged around the track. Others resumed a handball game. A convict strummed a guitar. The yard had returned to what passes for normal, and the blood had not dried on the sidewalk in front of Graystone Chapel.
This was not, after all, an unusual occurrence. The victim was the 184th convict at Folsom to be stabbed this year; the total reached 208 by mid-December.
After this incident, word quickly spread through Folsom that victim No. 184 was a white child molester. Officers, and certainly a good number of inmates, were relieved to hear that. It meant that the stabbing did not signal the end of a recently declared truce between warring black and Latino prisoners.
Stabbings sparked by racial tension and gang rivalry have reached such epidemic numbers at Folsom and some other California state prisons that officials admit that they do not know how to cope with the problem. They are actually relieved when an assault is based on some other motive, one that might involve fewer antagonists.
But there seem to be plenty of motives for more and more violence in California's outmoded and overcrowded prisons. Assaults against inmates and staff members have reached crisis proportions.
No sooner had the blacks and Latinos declared a truce in their yearlong knifing war at Folsom, for example, than the white, racist Aryan Brotherhood gang began stabbing their own group members and then went after convicted child molesters, prison officials said.
Keepers Are Victims Too
Nor is it only inmates who are the victims of violence in California prisons. The convicts are increasingly turning their rage on their keepers. Stabbing attacks on guards were almost unheard of until the last year or so, when inmates began assaulting corrections officers with spears made of sharpened metal objects attached to shafts of tightly rolled newspaper.
At San Quentin, Correctional Sgt. Howell D. Burchfield was stabbed to death with such a spear last June. There have been more than 70 spear attacks on San Quentin staff members this year, according to D. D. Taylor, a prison officer and San Quentin chapter president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
Statistics on prison violence must be viewed with some caution because reporting methods and definitions of terms may vary from one prison to another, from one incident to the next and from year to year.
Even so, the pattern of increasing violence in California prisons is alarmingly clear. It is especially apparent at Folsom and San Quentin, the state's two maximum-security institutions, and at Tracy, a heavy- to medium-security prison. For the prison system as a whole, the number of assaults on inmates and staff members jumped from 698 in 1979 to 1,882 in 1984. About half of the assaults in 1984 involved the use of weapons. More important, over the same period, the rate of assaults on convicts and staff members for each 100 inmates doubled at Tracy, tripled at Folsom and quadrupled at San Quentin.
'Lockdown' the Response
The main response by officials to the increasing violence has been the "lockdown," in which all or selected numbers of prisoners are locked into their cells, 24 hours a day, for extended periods.
In addition, at Tracy, officials are installing gun turrets and enclosed gun walks inside the corridors, cellblocks and the gymnasium. Previously, there was only one special, ultrasecure cellblock at Tracy equipped with what is called "inside gun coverage."
At Folsom, guards have fired so many warning shots to break up assaults that "it got to be just like a regular noontime whistle," Officer Gary Jerue said. "That was when the Mexicans and blacks were going at it. Every chance they got they tried to stick one another."
At least half a dozen convicts were stabbed in one day alone at Folsom earlier this year, for instance, Jerue said.