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Behind the Prison RIot in California

The skills the inmates develop to survive violent prisons make them dangerous when they are released. You can't cage men like animals and then expect them to be model citizens when they return home.
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The bloody riot at California's prison at Chino raged for for long hours, injuring 175 inmates, with 55 with such serious wounds that they were rushed to local hospitals. 16 inmates were still hospitalized on Monday. Inmates suffered vicious stab and head wounds as prisoners attacked each other with makeshift weapons including shards of glass and broken water pipes. 16 inmates remained hospitalized Monday.

This violence was predicted in 2007 by the former director of the Texas Prisons, Wayne Scott, based on his evaluation of the prison at Chino. "If the prisoners wanted to take over the dorm they could do so in a second and no one would know," Scott reported after he visited Cleveland Hall located in Chino's West Facility, where Saturday's riot occurred. The dorms were built in the '40s during World War II. They house 198 inmates, guarded by only two officers, one of them separated from the living area in an office. The bunks are so close together that there is no way that the officers can observe the entire dorm at once.

Inmates arrive at Chino to be assessed as to the danger they pose to staff. After they are classified, they are bused to one of the 33 prisons in California sprawling corrections system. Inside the prison at Chino the inmates range from low level offenders doing time for check kiting or technical parole violations to murderers and rapists returning to prison after multiple prior stays. Violent prisoners are mixed with vulnerable offenders in dorms where there are no cells and no place to hide. The prison, originally designed to hold 3,000 prisoners is now bulging at almost double that number - 5,900.

Imagine the conditions in which these prisoners are held. The prison is in a hot, desert with the sun baking the compound and its inhabitants. Packed inside are twice as many inmates as it was designed for. A constant flow of bodies jostle through the narrow aisles between the sea of bunk beds. The inmates hassle over toilets and wash basins because there are only half as many as are needed. With the men stacked like cords of wood, the noise, heat and smell of sweat is overwhelming.

In this roiling cauldron of tension add the twin curses of loneliness and boredom: the inmates spend hour after hour like rats in a cage with nothing productive to occupy their time. The budget cuts have eliminated the educational and addiction treatment programs that used to fill their hours and give them hope. Then add in the racial tensions that permeate our inner cities and our prisons and you have an extremely volatile mixture.

This was the atmosphere in Chino's Cleveland Dorm when it exploded in violence last weekend. When the officers finally took back control, many inmates had been permanently maimed.
Don't blame the corrections officers for these conditions. They are merely carrying out the policies adopted by the legislature and the governor. Unfortunately, meting out long sentences gets more adoring headlines than appropriating the money to pay for them. Corrections leaders have warned of the dangers of crowded prisons for years, but the legislature and the governor haven't responded with enough money to solve the problem.

Comments on several news sites suggest that we shouldn't care about these inmates. Some writers said that the guards should have held back and let the inmates fight until they had all killed each other. My hunch is these attitudes would be very different if one of their sons or brothers were housed in Chino.

When the government incarcerates an inmate it strips him of all control over his life, even the ability to defend himself. The inmate has no choice over where he sleeps, whom he lives next to, when he gets up, where he goes, where and what he eats. If the lights are out in the shower room -- a very dangerous situation -- he can't shower somewhere else and can't fix the light. He is prohibited from arming himself. He is vulnerable. When the government takes away all ability of an inmate to defend himself, it assumes responsibility to keep him safe. In many cases, the government has failed in this responsibility. It certainly failed at Chino last weekend.
And some in government don't seem to care. The local Assemblyman for the Chino area, Curt Hagman, commented, "By nature, prisons are violent". With a shrug he accepted the stabbings and broken bones, the eyes gouged out and the heads cracked open that occurred over the weekend. Assemblyman Hagman's remark reminds me of a similar callous remark by a Massachusetts Corrections Official who, when asked about prison rape, said, "What can I say? It's prison."

Actually there are prisons where violence is not a problem and where beatings and rapes do not occur. Rather than shrugging off the violence, leaders like Assemblyman Hagman should be supporting corrections leaders who are trying to make prisons safe and restore the programs that allow prisoners to prepare to live contributing and law-abiding lives after they are released.
Prisons can be safe. In Louisiana, Angola State Prison is the largest maximum security prison in the US. Until a few years ago it was also America's most violent prison. The inmates slept with metal plates or phone books on their chests to prevent stabbings to their chests.

Under the leadership of Warden Burl Cain, all that has changed. Angola is now the safest prison in the US. Cain shows the men respect. Although 98% of the inmates will die in that prison, he promises them good food, good medicine, good fun and good praying. I have visited Angola and have seen the difference in the prisoners. They look you in the eye. Most inmates in maximum security avoid your eyes out of fear. At Angola, the inmates are taught how to prepare delicious food for their fellow prisoners by New Orleans chefs. There is a seminary in the prison, training men to become pastors for their fellow prisoners. The inmates have a great time at the annual rodeo, which draws thousands of local residents who get a chance to see that the inmates are human just like them.

As a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission and also a member of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's prisons, I had the chance to learn from corrections professionals what steps can be taken to make prisons safe rather than descending into violence. Leadership is a critical element in establishing a safe environment for staff, inmates and volunteers. But good leaders have a harder time if the inmates are packed liked sardines in a can. Both commissions identified prison crowding as one of the key factors leading to physical assaults and rapes in prisons.

All of us should care what happens to inmates while they are incarcerated because 95% will serve their time and be released back to our communities. When they are released, what kind of neighbors will they be? The skills the inmates develop to survive violent prisons like Chino make them dangerous when they are released. You can't cage men like animals and then expect them to be model citizens when they return home.

The next time a politician promises to lengthen sentences, ask him if he is willing to support more money to house the increase in inmates caused by the longer sentences. Hold your representatives' feet to the fire. If they aren't willing to spend the dime, they should not be voting for more time.

Here are more resources on the impact of violence in our prisons and ways to stop it:
Prison Violence
Prison Rape
Warden Burl Cain

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