SACRAMENTO — For 20 months, scores of Latino gang members at Folsom State Prison were locked in their cells around the clock and deprived of regular exercise, visitors, religious services, hot meals, telephone calls and frequent showers, internal documents show.
At least one top Department of Corrections official has concluded that the extended harsh restrictions -- known in prison parlance as a lockdown -- amounted to violations of state policy and the inmates' constitutional rights.
Imposed as an emergency measure after a gang riot in April 2002, the lockdown continued month after month, even though inmates filed more than 100 grievances. Restrictions on exercise, visits and hot meals were eased in December, but even now some limitations remain in effect.
Newly appointed Corrections Director Jeanne Woodford confirmed that an internal department inquiry was underway. She would not discuss it, but called the length of the lockdown excessive.
"Should it have gone on for two years? In my opinion, it should not have gone on for two years," Woodford said in an interview.
National prison expert Craig Haney said, "a lockdown for two years is just about unheard of." Haney, a UC Santa Cruz psychology professor, added that "to confine inmates under those conditions for that long really presses against the psychological bounds of people's survival."
Haney -- and some state corrections administrators -- say the lockdown underscores the department's struggle to manage an ominous problem: the expanding power of gangs within the sprawling prison system. The department estimates that more than 100,000 inmates -- about two-thirds of the population -- belong to gangs or splinter groups.
Although officials have tried to limit violence by isolating leaders at a few maximum-security housing units, gangs -- and scores of splinter groups -- have continued to flourish, battling each other in a constant war for turf and control.
When riots occur, officials routinely impose a lockdown while they search cells for weapons and identify instigators.
Such was the case at Folsom, where all 3,500 inmates were locked down after the 2002 melee. Gradually, groups of convicts were released from lockdown after agreeing not to initiate further violence, officials said.
But one group -- members of assorted Northern California Latino gangs -- would not make such a pledge, a department spokeswoman said. Those were the inmates who ended up on lockdown for 20 months.
"When they refuse to agree not to attack someone, then, for obvious security reasons, we can't put them back on the yard," said department spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
That explanation rankled some inmate advocates. They said lockdowns often drag on -- as at Folsom -- in part because prison officials lack an effective strategy for preventing more violence when inmates are released to mingle again outdoors.
"Using a lockdown as a quick response to a security breach is a common corrections practice," said Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington. "But something like this is astonishing. It sounds like there are major problems in California and that corrections administrators are letting the gangs run the prisons."
In December, then-Corrections Director Edward Alameida fired Folsom's warden, Diana Butler, citing the need for "new leadership" but making no mention of the lockdown. In January, 10 other top managers at the prison were reassigned, but again nothing was said about the lockdown.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration has asked the U.S. attorney in Sacramento to investigate the April 2002 riot and its aftermath. Prison sources say the FBI is collecting documents and asking questions about the lockdown.
Folsom marks the latest episode in what some describe as a crisis engulfing California corrections. Over the last four months, disclosures have revealed problems ranging from extreme violence in juvenile lockups to a "revolving door" parole system that funnels two-thirds of all ex-convicts back to prison.
Legislators are holding oversight hearings on the troubles, and a commission appointed by Schwarzenegger has been asked to suggest reforms.
State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) is among those pushing for change. She called the lockdown "indefensible" and a violation of federal standards.
"It's very disturbing," said Speier, who vowed to pursue an audit of lockdowns throughout the prison system. "It's like grounding a child for five years and forgetting all about him."
According to documents and interviews, the lockdown rose out of a period of escalating tensions between rival Latino gangs that prison officials label northern Hispanics and southern Hispanics.
Those tensions peaked April 8, 2002, when members of the southern group attacked their enemies on the exercise yard, resulting in a melee that left 24 injured and one officer permanently disabled.