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California and the West

State Puts All Prisons on Security Alert

Violence: Authorities are on the lookout for signs of racial tension at other facilities after riot ended in shooting death of an inmate at Pelican Bay.

February 25, 2000|JULIE TAMAKI and MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — Fearing outbreaks of similar racial conflicts in other prisons, authorities put California's 33 adult prisons on security alert in the wake of the bloody Pelican Bay melee that ended with guards shooting prisoners to quell the disturbance, officials said Thursday.

"It's a tense situation statewide," said Corrections Department spokesman Bob Martinez after the lockup near here was hit Wednesday by what began as a race riot among inmates and became one of the worst incidents at a California prison in the past 30 years.

Guards killed one inmate and wounded 15, including one who authorities said was in grave condition with a gunshot wound in the chest at UC Medical Center in San Francisco.

An additional 32 inmates were cut or stabbed as they brawled in an exercise yard at the maximum security prison.

The slain inmate was identified as Miguel Sanchez, 38, who was serving a sentence of 25 years to life for first-degree murder in Los Angeles. He was sent to prison in 1997. No other details about Sanchez were immediately available.

Prison officials said they had found 89 makeshift weapons after the frenzied 30-minute riot was quelled in the B yard. The weapons, shown to reporters, included long, spear-like objects that inmates have been known to shoot at people by using elastic from their underwear.

There were also pens with knife-like points and "bone crushers," a nickname given to sharp metal weapons strong enough to cut through human organs and damage bones.

Officials also provided a guided tour of the bloodied battleground that is now the scene of intense scrutiny by state investigators. The incident broke out in a grassy area about two acres long surrounded by living units and administration buildings .

On Thursday, two dozen yellow rain slickers, prison-issue blue jeans and light blue shirts remained scattered about in the wake of the fracas, in which Latino and some white inmates allegedly charged African American prisoners.

Authorities were reviewing videotapes of the incident to determine exactly what happened, how it rapidly escalated and whether two guards, who fired 24 rounds, reacted within policy by employing lethal firepower. In the wake of a series of fatal shootings, the department in 1998 tightened its procedures on lethal force.

"It appears that the use of force [at Pelican Bay] was appropriate given the violent nature of the riot, but there is a thorough investigation going on," said Stephen Green, assistant secretary in the correctional agency that oversees the prison system.

Green said the videotapes of the Sanchez shooting were "very graphic." The guards who used the lethal rounds were put on administrative leave, as is standard prison policy.

Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., said the guards acted correctly. "It's my belief that if officers had not used lethal force to stop the incident, the death toll would have been higher, both inmates and staff," Corcoran said.

Thursday evening, 11 inmates remained hospitalized.

As investigators piece together what happened, they in effect will be forced to examine the very nature of Pelican Bay. The high-tech prison, which opened in 1989, is where hundreds of inmates are locked up 23 hours a day. It has 3,340 prisoners--more inmates than the facility was designed to hold.

The population there contains some of the state's most violent prisoners serving lengthy sentences, including life. Many of them are unruly and had caused problems at other prisons before being shipped to Pelican Bay.

Correctional officers say the population includes notorious "shot-callers," prison gang leaders who send out orders through the prison grapevine. "It's a classic recipe for a race war," said one veteran correctional officer.

Authorities voiced some surprise that Latino and black inmates were Wednesday's primary combatants. They were aware of tensions between blacks and whites, but not between Latinos and African Americans, they said

"We haven't had one at Pelican Bay since the early '90s," said Green, referring to a large-scale altercation between blacks and Latinos. Tensions between black and white inmates have been mounting for months at Pelican Bay, especially since a brawl erupted during a media tour of the prison in August. And some prison employees privately said they were not surprised that the racial tension turned so ugly.

In November, an attorney representing an inmate wrote corrections officials that his client had raised serious concerns. The letter said Pelican Bay is stressful "because this place is a war zone right now between African American and white prisoners."

In a response last month, Richard Kirkland, Pelican Bay associate warden, confirmed that white and black inmates "have been on intermittent lock-down status due to a series of assaults on inmates.

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