SACRAMENTO — More than 130 inmates have been transferred out of a privately run state prison in eastern Riverside County after a weekend riot there left two convicts dead and tensions at the low-security lockup unusually high.
State corrections officials said a melee Saturday night at the prison in Eagle Mountain involved about 150 inmates and raged for 90 minutes before a warning shot fired into the ground by an off-duty correctional officer quelled the fighting.
The deaths were the first violence-related fatalities at any of the nine California prisons run by private corporations under contract with the state, a corrections official said.
The victims, both from Los Angeles County, died after being stabbed and bludgeoned by other inmates, according to early reports. They were identified as Rodman Wallace, 39, serving two years for burglary, and Master Hampton, 34, serving a 16-month term for a drug offense.
Four other inmates wounded in the riot were taken by helicopter to hospitals for treatment, and 50 prisoners had less serious injuries and were cared for on site. No staff members were hurt.
Dozens of Riverside County sheriff's deputies and officers from the two state prisons in Blythe were called in to help end the melee, which broke out in a recreation room while inmates were watching the World Series -- and spread quickly.
Because guards at private prisons do not carry any weapons -- not even pepper spray -- they were forced, according to protocol, to retreat from the fighting until additional officers arrived. After the brawling stopped, witnesses described a scene of widespread destruction, from broken windows to torn fencing and smashed furniture.
"I walked onto the yard when it was over, and it looked like Beirut," said Lt. Warren Montgomery, one of those who traveled 60 miles from Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe to assist.
Montgomery said inmates attacked one another with knives and meat cleavers seized from the kitchen, as well as table and chair legs and mop handles -- "anything they could get their hands on."
He said the fight was predominantly between African American and Latino inmates, and that prisoners of both ethnic groups, as well as some Asian and white inmates involved in the fighting, were moved to other prisons to prevent a recurrence.
The brawling caused about $15,000 in property damage, but nothing severe enough to force the closure of the prison, its operators said.
Nevertheless, the riot is likely to rekindle debate over the use of private institutions to incarcerate some of the state's low-risk prisoners. Eagle Mountain and the eight other privately run community correctional facilities house about 3,600 inmates in all, mostly drug offenders, burglars, parole violators and other nonviolent criminals.
The powerful state prison guards union has long opposed private lockups, over which it has no jurisdiction. Union leaders have argued that "prisons for profit" are less secure and that their staffs are not adequately trained.
In a move described as a money-saving step, the state plans to close three of the private prisons in the coming year. Eagle Mountain is one of them, scheduled for closure Dec. 31.
A spokesman for the Utah-based company that operates Eagle Mountain and 15 prisons in other states defended the 438-bed facility, noting that these were the first deaths since it began operating in 1988.
Management & Training Corp. spokesman Carl Stuart said that although the cause of the melee was not yet known, tensions at the normally quiet facility had been surging in the last six weeks. During that period, he said, the Department of Corrections transferred out about 200 inmates with longer sentences and brought in a group scheduled to be paroled before the end of the year.
"So we've had about a 50% turnover rate, and it has definitely increased friction," Stuart said. "When you have a whole bunch of new people coming in who haven't learned how inmates do things at this facility, there are issues of turf and you get a more volatile environment."
Stuart said that Eagle Mountain was at full staffing at the time of the riot and that there was never a breach of the perimeter fence.
"We did not lose control of the facility; we followed standard procedure and backed our staff off while waiting for backup to come," Stuart said. "These things don't normally happen at a minimum-security unit. And we think the unprecedented way the department brought in a new population had a lot to do with it."
Margot Bach, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, did not dispute that the inmate population at Eagle Mountain had changed recently. But she could not confirm whether that contributed to the riot.
"It may have been one factor," Bach said, "but it's still too early to tell."
Because it involved homicides, the incident at Eagle Mountain is under investigation by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.
No one had been arrested in connection with the deaths by late Tuesday.
The fatalities came two weeks after an inmate was shot and killed by a correctional officer during a much smaller brawl at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga.
That shooting is under investigation by the Fresno County Sheriff's Department.
Operators of Eagle Mountain, about 60 miles east of Palm Springs, are just about the only employers in the remote company town of the same name, which once was the site of a mining camp.
As a result, townspeople have joined prison officials in opposing the state's closure of the facility.
So far, their efforts have been unsuccessful.
But when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor, prison officials quickly contacted his staff and asked him to consider renewing the Eagle Mountain contract.
There has been no response, but officials remain hopeful. Schwarzenegger worked in Eagle Mountain a decade ago during the filming of a "Terminator" movie.