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1 Inmate Killed, 13 Hurt in Prison Fight

Melees: Blacks and Latinos battle with makeshift weapons at New Folsom. Dead prisoner is among 6 shot by guards.

September 28, 1996|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

REPRESA, Calif. — A fight between 100 black and Latino inmates in an exercise yard at Folsom state prison Friday led to the death of one prisoner and injuries to 13 others, including six shot by prison guards.

Prisoners battled one another with hand-fashioned knives and other weapons. Eight of them were treated for stab wounds, and four officers sustained minor injuries.

Guards needed 30 to 40 minutes to quell the riot, and fired numerous warning shots with rubber bullet, followed by at least 15 rounds from semiautomatic rifles. The melee broke out at 9 a.m., shortly after inmates were released onto the exercise yard.

It was the worst violence at the prison outside Sacramento since at least 1989, but also is part of a general rise in interracial fights in California state prisons.

Once the fighting ended Friday, inmates were ordered back to their cells, and the prison was put on a "lock-down" status, with all visiting canceled, and inmates confined to their cells. They were expected to remain locked down at least through the weekend.

"The prison is secure. Things are under control," Department of Corrections spokesman Tip Kindel said Friday.

In all, officers wounded six inmates, including the dead prisoner, identified only as a Latino. The dead prisoner was shot in the buttocks, but prison officials said they did not know whether the wound was the cause of death.

"If you're hit in any portion of the body with that type of ammunition, it's going leave a big hole," said attorney Steve Fama, of the Prison Law Office, a private legal aid group that represents inmates in suits over prison conditions.

If the dead inmate was killed by the gunshot, he would be the second California state prisoner to have died in an officer-involved shooting this year, and the 40th shot and killed by an officer in the last 11 years. That is more than all other state prison systems combined.

"There wasn't anything that would have made us uneasy," said Linda Howell, spokeswoman for the 10-year-old maximum security prison known as New Folsom, next to the more famous but lower security Folsom State Prison. "This was totally unexpected."

The fight took place in the exercise yard of B Facility, one of three self-contained sections at New Folsom. One of the institution's newest inmates, Eric Menendez, who is serving a life sentence for murdering his parents, is housed in the separate A Facility, and was not near the fight, Howell said.

Although Howell said the fight came as a surprise to prison officials, interracial tensions have been high at the 3,100-inmate New Folsom, and at other prisons around the state.

"Basically, it's a war between the Crips and Southern [California] Mexicans," said the wife of an inmate who was visiting her husband when the fight broke out. "It wasn't a big secret [that a fight was coming.]"

The woman, who asked that she not be identified, said an announcement came over the public address system about 9 a.m. that visits were being terminated. Shortly afterward, eight or 10 guards in riot gear ran through the visiting room, and she heard the popping sounds of gunfire.

"Prison gangs have become younger and more violent," said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the prison guard's union. "We continually see higher inmate to staff ratios. As overcrowding continues, it's only going to get worse."

The fight broke out as California's 142,000-inmate prison system faces problems ranging from crowding to a federal investigation into officer-involved shootings and other problems at the state prison at Corcoran.

The state Department of Corrections has attempted to limit shootings by instituting a new policy, and fired an officer who shot and killed a prisoner last March at the Calipatria state prison in Imperial County.

"What we feel from the Department of Corrections, when there is legitimate use of force, is that it's turning its back on correctional officers for fear of litigation," Corcoran said. "That sends a clear signal to inmates that correctional officers are there to baby sit, not to enforce laws of California."

In recent months, there have been interracial fights at Pelican Bay State Prison in far Northern California, at Calipatria and at Corcoran state prison in the Central Valley, attorney Fama said.

Inmates have warned repeatedly about the potential for more prison violence as sentences grow longer and prisons become more crowded, and prison authorities and legislators revoke many of their privileges.

Among the privileges being curtailed or revoked is overnight visiting from spouses for some inmates, and limits on pornography, access to weights, and hairstyles.

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