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Prison officials had warning that a disturbance was likely in Chino

An '07 report on overcrowding foreshadowed this weekend's riots, which left 175 inmates hurt. The state is under pressure to cut the inmate population by 43,000 over the next two years.

August 11, 2009|Carol J. Williams and Nicole Santa Cruz

LOS ANGELES AND CHINO — Corrections experts warned two years ago that overcrowding at the California Institution for Men at Chino created "a serious disturbance waiting to happen," foreshadowing the weekend riot that injured 175 prisoners, destroyed or damaged six dormitories and forced relocation of at least 1,000 men.

The Chino prison housing 5,900 inmates, nearly twice its designed capacity, remained on lockdown Monday, as did nine other state prisons from which officers were called to help quell the violence Saturday night and begin sorting through the wreckage.

Rampaging inmates set fire to one dormitory of the Reception Center-West and smashed bunks and lavatories in five others in a four-hour melee that corrections officials said was linked to racial tensions between Latinos and blacks.

Most of the 1,000-plus prisoners being moved out of the uninhabitable dormitories were being sent to a nearby youth facility, along with the officers to guard them, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The massive relocation will add to an already strained corrections budget and intensify overcrowding throughout the 33-prison network that a court last week deemed "appalling" and in violation of prisoners' constitutional rights.

California has 158,000 prisoners in facilities designed for 84,000.

A special three-judge federal panel last week ordered the state to reduce its prison population by nearly 43,000 over the next two years. Lawmakers will meet next week to take up how to cut at least $1.2 billion from the prisons' $10.6-billion budget for the next fiscal year.

Doyle Wayne Scott, former head of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who is now consulting on prison management and security, warned in 2007 that overcrowding threatened violence, in particular at Chino. His report on overcrowding in California prisons and risks to inmates and staff was cited by the three judges in their population reduction order last week -- a warning validated by the weekend riot.

In his report to the judges, Scott said he saw nearly 200 prisoners being watched over by only two guards, one of whom was in an office.

"It is impossible to provide any type of security or proper services under these circumstances. The housing unit was a serious disturbance waiting to happen," he warned the court.

A veteran of more than three decades of corrections administration, Scott said he had "never seen anybody as overcrowded as California."

Scott also noted that maximum-security inmates mingled with minimum-security prisoners in the recreation yards, which he viewed as a potential catalyst for violence.

"All of the ingredients were there for a disturbance to occur. It just needed a spark," Scott said Monday of his impressions of Chino during an October 2007 inspection. "The barracks are very poorly configured. It's very crowded. There are very few toilets and sinks and wash basins, and any time people are fighting over those kinds of services, it builds tensions."

In another report to the judges, a preeminent prison medical expert, Ronald Shansky, criticized the Chino Reception Center-West clinic for its lack of privacy or protection of sick inmates from each other's contagions. The cramped exam rooms, in which four prisoners were questioned within earshot of one another, likely dissuaded some from disclosing ailments that could endanger the health of others, Shansky said.

The weekend unrest also appeared likely to set back already stalled efforts by corrections officials to desegregate the teeming reception centers that house incoming prisoners and probation violators.

A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision rejected California's practice of segregating the reception centers by race as a means of combating violence among gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia and the Black Guerrilla Family. The integration program has been completed at only two of the state's prisons, and budgetary constraints have also slowed progress, Thornton said.

The high court's decision in a case brought by convicted murderer Garrison Johnson led to a negotiated settlement in which the corrections officials agreed to cease using race as the sole criterion for assigning bunks. The reception centers are supposed to house inmates for no more than 60 days but are often where a probation violator serves his entire term for lack of cell space.

Johnson also challenged the state's policy of locking down inmates according to race after enduring two lockdowns of black inmates after two attacks by fellow blacks.

He was not involved in the attacks. Johnson agreed in May to drop the suit on the advice of a federal mediator, said his lawyer, Michael Deniro, of Santa Barbara.

Lockdowns were ordered at 10 state prisons to free officers to assist with relocations and extra security needs at Chino, Thornton said. She said race was clearly a factor in the riot, but that the cause remained under investigation.

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