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Dispatches from the Inside: Anatomy of a prison riot

California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at the California Men's Colony (CMC).

October 18, 2012

Rarely can social observers witness the forces and influences at work that lead to cataclysmic events, as they occur. But here at CMC, it's possible to view the forces and machinations that result in prison violence, before the final upheaval occurs. Specifically, I am referring to policy implementation and official attitudes at CMC's West facility.

Of course, the reasons and pressures that result in prison riots do not happen overnight. They manifest themselves over time, and are due (in the prison setting) to inept administration and a disregard for the realities of the prison milieu and real concerns for the needs of prisoners. In the instinct case, since disturbances do not occur in a vacuum, a little history is in order.

Animosities have existed between some groups within the prison system for decades, throughout the state prison system. 

This is mainly due to a competition for control of illicit drug profits, and the casualties that have resulted from those hostilities over the years. But even when there is little competition the animosity remains and results in frequent skirmishes. It was due to repeated confrontations between Northern and Southern Hispanic gang members that, in March of 2011, CMC officials decided to remove all Northern Hispanic inmates from the general population on the West facility's three yards. This decision resulted in an immediate decrease in program disruptions and inmate injuries due to fights. 

The current problem began when corrections officials decided to reintegrate Northern Hispanics at CMC West in March of 2012. Almost immediately, the West facility experienced program disruptions due to repeated fights and melees. Every time officials allowed members of these two groups to interact, fights resulting in injuries occurred. 

One of the problems that arise after an altercation is Program Disruption for all inmates, not just those primarily involved. In order to regain control, corrections officers invoke a Response Plan, which entails an initial facility-wide lockdown of all prisoners and then a gradual lifting of restrictions until a normal program can be restored. All lockdowns invariably entail a severe restriction on prisoner movement, resulting in a loss of privileges, such as telephone access, a loss of education access, access to work (except for those classified as "Critical Workers" such as kitchen and dining room workers), loss of yard and entertainment activities; such as television viewing privileges (because CMC West does not permit inmates to possess their own televisions, staff controls this privilege). At the inception of most lock-downs even visiting privileges are suspended, sometimes for weeks.

So now we arrive at the present situation. Since August 10, 2012; the latest outbreak of violence between Northern and Southern Hispanics at CMC West, ALL inmates housed on its three Level II yards have been placed on a severely restricted program. It began with no yard, no telephones, no television; every inmate had to remain on his bed except to use the restroom and to go to chow under escort. These restrictions have been relaxed a little for non-involved inmates; who are now allowed to go to work and school and given a couple of hours of yard each day. But telephone access is still restricted to daytime only, and even though many prisoners have pointed out repeatedly that only members of the two identified groups were involved in the recent spate of incidents, all prisoners have been subject to (what are universally regarded as) unjust penalization. The administration's response to these claims has been a sustained disregard for prisoner input. Resulting in frustration and anxiety, which will eventually manifest itself in a spontaneous eruption of violence if attitudes and circumstances do not change soon. Calls for a work stoppage have failed to materialize, but this only illustrates the growing frustration with the current state of affairs.

Crosscurrents Richard Gilliamprison