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2 Lancaster Prison Guards Are Attacked

One officer is injured in the assault by two cellmates. Officials believe the motive was the suspension of some inmate privileges.

November 05, 2002|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

For the second time in three months, guards at the state prison in Lancaster were attacked by inmates in what appears to be an orchestrated protest against the rollback of their privileges, officials said Monday.

Correctional officers Nicole Hawthorne and Henry Romo were attacked by two cellmates early Saturday while escorting prisoners to breakfast, prison spokesman Lt. Ron Nipper said. Other guards quickly broke up the fight, with one firing wooden bullets at the inmates.

Hawthorne was sent to Antelope Valley Hospital with blurred vision, a hematoma to the right eye and lacerations to the head. The three-year veteran was treated and released, and was expected to fully recover. Romo was not injured.

The suspects, Aaron Washington, 47, and Sharifu Washington, 30, suffered minor injuries. They were transferred to a state prison in Tehachapi.

Prison officials were unsure if the two are related. Both are serving life sentences for first-degree murder. Officials said they could face prosecution for the assaults.

Investigators suspect the cellmates may have been lashing out over the loss of inmate privileges and a tightening of the rules at Los Angeles County's only maximum-security lockup. In recent years, state officials have removed weights from prison yards, set strict new grooming and dress policies and banned overnight visits for some convicts. This year, they introduced a ban on pornographic magazines and other publications that depict nudity.

Nipper said Lancaster officials angered some prisoners with stricter enforcement of these and other rules after a riot in December involving 300 inmates. The crackdown is now believed to be what motivated Crips gang members to attack three Lancaster prison guards Aug. 12, Nipper said.

One officer was stabbed in the head and another suffered a fractured jaw. Prison officials responded to the August attack with a sweeping investigation that led to the confiscation of 70 weapons and charges against more than 15 inmates for planning or taking part in the attack.

Nipper said the suspects in Saturday's attack may have "slipped through the cracks" in that investigation.

Sharifu Washington, he said, is a member of the Crips. Aaron Washington, Nipper said, is a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, an African American prison gang that advocates the overthrow of the government, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The Lancaster facility is home to some of California's most violent felons. And like many California state prisons, it is severely overcrowded. Built in 1993 for 2,200 inmates, it now houses about 4,000.

Adding to the tension is a lockdown that has been in effect since the December riot. Prisoners lose many privileges in a lockdown, and are rarely allowed to leave their cells.

The most recent attack, Nipper said, "is going to be a big setback for the institution. We're trying to work our way back to a normal program."

Statewide, inmate assaults on prison guards and staffers have nearly tripled in the last decade. There were 933 assaults in 1991, compared with 2,768 last year.

Assaults at Lancaster have risen as well. The prison had 116 assaults in 2001, state prison officials said, but that is still considerably less than the 334 assaults that year at the maximum-security lockup at Pelican Bay, which has about 1,000 fewer inmates than Lancaster.

Assaults are on the rise because the three-strikes law and other get-tough measures have put away many violent offenders with little chance of release, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the Corrections Department. Often, he said, prisoners feel they have little to lose.

"If you're in for life without parole, what can they do to you except tack on another life sentence?" Heimerich said.

Because inmates have so little to look forward to, advocates believe the state is wrong to curtail their privileges and impose more restrictions.

Bob Driscoll, a Woodland Hills salesman whose son has been an inmate at Lancaster for three years, thinks this fosters a more dangerous atmosphere for guards.

"How could it not?" Driscoll said. "They've had everything taken away from them. It's ridiculous."

Lance Corcoran, a spokesman for the prison guards' union, said many of the new regulations were a response to the concerns of prison employees.

They complained that prison weight rooms were allowing inmates to bulk up to intimidating sizes, and pornography was being waved in the faces of female officers.

"It was because some people couldn't control themselves that they had to implement these regulations in the first place," he said.

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