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California and the West

Possible Link Between Prison Fights at Opposite Ends of State Probed

Corrections: Like earlier melee at Pelican Bay, disturbance at Adelanto pits blacks against Latinos. Cause is undetermined.


SACRAMENTO — California corrections officials Thursday sought to determine whether a dormitory fight Wednesday night among dozens of African American and Latino inmates at a minimum security prison in San Bernardino County is tied to a recent racial disturbance at Pelican Bay State Prison.

In the wake of the flare-up at the privately run prison in Adelanto, six inmates were treated at a local hospital and 59 were immediately sent to the state prison at Lancaster and locked in their cells without privileges.

About 200 inmates altogether were removed from the unit and shipped to other prisons, at least temporarily, in an effort to defuse the tension, officials said.

"We felt, for security reasons, we needed to separate the people who were there and find out who the leaders are and make sure they are not again placed in a minimum security facility," said Stephen Green, spokesman for the state Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

The incident at Pelican Bay--primarily between black and Latino inmates--put the spotlight on long-simmering rivalries among racial and ethnic groups or gangs behind the walls of California's prisons.

Some corrections officials had privately suggested that the melee at the prison, which is near the Oregon border, would lead to racial warfare in other parts of the nation's largest prison system.

In the aftermath of the Pelican Bay disturbance, in which one inmate was fatally shot by a guard and 15 others were wounded by gunshots, the 33 state-run prisons remain on heightened alert.

It was unclear what touched off Wednesday's fighting in the 500-bed Victor Valley Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto, 35 miles north of San Bernardino. The prison, which houses mostly nonviolent inmates, is operated by Maranatha Private Corrections, a "faith-based" corporation headquartered in Bakersfield.

A Maranatha official said there was no link to the Pelican Bay fight, but others left the door open. "I can't say whether it is or isn't" related to the earlier melee, said Green of the correctional agency.

The Adelanto incident began about 7 p.m. and involved up to 50 blacks fighting 50 to 75 Latinos, authorities said. It was unclear who started the fight.

"They used homemade weapons, like a lock [in] a sock," said Angela Valles, assistant facility director. "One inmate was hit over the head with a lock a couple of times." That person was reportedly the most seriously hurt. Pepper spray was used to subdue the inmates and the fight was halted after about 15 minutes, officials said.

On Thursday morning, 44 inmates refused to leave the dining hall. Prison negotiators were unable to persuade them to leave so they were escorted out and bused to other facilities, Green said.

Authorities said the trouble did not spread to the other side of the prison, where a special "New Start" program is run. Inmates there are fed a special vegetarian diet as part of a program that includes Bible studies and church services.

"We believe that a person needs to make a spiritual change before they can make a change in lifestyle," said Claude Bradford, a senior vice president with Maranatha. The firm has an $8-million-a-year contract with the state, a Corrections Department spokesman said.

Pelican Bay Warden Robert L. Ayers on Thursday said he will retire in July. "Wednesday's disturbance had nothing to do with it," he said, adding that he told his superiors of his plans before the incident.

Ayers said he is taking advantage of a new retirement policy that allows veteran corrections officers to receive as much as 90% of their annual pay. The confirmation of Ayers, a Pete Wilson appointee, was challenged by state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), a critic of the way Pelican Bay is administered. The prison is the highest security lockup in California.

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