A riot among predominately Latino and black inmates Saturday night at a medium security prison in Chino, Calif., injured 250 in which 17 remained in hospitals this morning. All were inmates in the 11-hour melee which razed one dormitory in flames and seriously damaged another six.
The riot turns the spotlight on the California penal system which the Los Angeles Times contends is the most overcrowded in the nation. Chino’s California Institution for Men is desegregated in compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court order.
I’m in favor of desegregation but forcing it upon a penal colony made up of members of black, Latino and Aryan Nation gangs is akin to throwing a match on gasoline.
All the news about the prison riot is controlled by Lt. Mark Hargrove, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. In no way am I impugning Hargrove’s honesty and integrity. But it is my experience in covering prison riots that spokesmen are hampered by their own bias against those they are guarding and political agendas.
The recent budget signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger cut $1.2 billion to run the state’s prisons which houses 158,000 prisoners. A correction officers association said 20,000 prisoners would need to be released to maintain security at the prisons. Chino was designed for 3,000 medium security prisoners in 1941 and now houses 5,900.
A panel of three federal judges just last week called conditions “appalling” and ruled the state must release 43,000 inmates over the next two years to meet constitutional standards. This follows a Supreme Court decision in 2005 that the practice of segregating prisoners by ethnic groups was illegal.
Hargrove said some inmates were being transferred to other prisons and the remainder will sleep under hastily-erected tents until the damaged dormitories are refurbished. All prisons in Southern California were put on lockdown as a result of the riot. Visitation was suspended until further notice.
“All races had injuries,” Hargrove said of the weekend riot. “But there are a greater number of injuries among Hispanic and black inmates. And we did have another incident that occurred in May, a riot between blacks and Hispanics, and this may be associated with that incident.”
Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, told the New York Times the riot illustrated growing cost overruns and pending cuts.
“There are proposals to eliminate all programs including reducing visiting days for inmates participating in programs,” Krisberg said. “But if you isolate these men from their families and cut down even the most basic educational and counseling programs, you’re going to create more idleness, and this is what happens.”
I would not underplay the role of racial conflict among the warring gangs. It smacks at the heart of the recent Senate confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomajor in which she had said her ethnic roots might play a role in her judicial decisions. Judges most sensitive to racial dynamics might be more aware of the pitfalls of forcibly confining black and Latino and Aryan Nation zealots in the same cell.
Jerry Remmers worked 26 years in the newspaper business. His last 23 years was with the Evening Tribune in San Diego where assignments included reporter, assistant city editor, county and politics editor.