Riot Latest In A String Of Problems For Calif. Prisons

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A riot consumed a Southern California prison this weekend, injuring more than 175 people. It's just the latest in a myriad of problems facing the state's prison system. Soaring costs, prison populations, crumbling facilities and a $10 billion dollar price tag, to name a few. Madeleine Brand talks to NPR's Laura Sullivan.


Here in California, a riot tore apart a prison over the weekend. More than 175 people were injured and it's just the latest in the series of problems facing California's prison system. For more, I'm joined now by NPR's police and prison correspondent Laura Sullivan. And Laura, this riot took place in the state prison in Chino, which is about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Tell us what happened.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Well, officials say inmates started the riot in one of the prison's dorm-style housing units and it soon engulfed hundreds of inmates and led to the burning down of one of the older wooden dorms. But, you know, this wasn't some kind of protest or sort of an inmate organized event. This was something that started as a fight between inmates, which goes to show how difficult living in these dorm settings can be. There was a time when California never used these kind of dorms. Inmates all had cells, but the population has exploded and that hasn't been true now for about 10 years. And this - in this case as one fight spread through out all eight dorms and - you know, a couple - officials believes inmates were actually barricading themselves from other inmates in some of the dorms. And it all broke down by race. Officials believe the unrest began between the black inmates and Latino inmates, but in the end all of the races were injured in the riot and consumed by it.

BRAND: Right and they're under a court order to desegregate the California prisons. They're also, as you say, notoriously overcrowded. Was that a factor in the riot?

SULLIVAN: Definitely. I mean anytime you pack a 120 inmates into eight dorms, put their bunks within shoulder-width of each other, post one officer at the front - I mean, there's going to be problems. In some of the dorms I've been spent time in, I mean, you can feel the tension the moment that you walk in. Nobody speaks to anyone outside their own race. There's this hierarchy of inmates, there's a code of behavior where you have to show respect and even something that seems just ridiculous, like an inmate who leaves a sock on the floor or the water running, it can turn into a race fight.

Chino itself was built to house 3,000 men, and now holds 6,000. It's one of the state's reception centers, which means all the inmates from Southern California jails, like Los Angeles, are funneling into Chino where they are then classified and sent out to other prisons. But this process in California has been taking months at these reception centers, even sometimes a year. So thousands of inmates of all kinds of security classifications are waiting out this time together packed into these dorms.

BRAND: And now one of those dorms has burned down, the rest not in such great shape. And so what will happen to this prison and those inmates?

SULLIVAN: Six of the eight dorms are now out of service, which means the state is scrambling to find bed space for 1,200 inmates. That is not an easy task in a state that is already at double-capacity statewide. They're looking at one juvenile facility trying to figure out if they can turn an empty building there into a proper prison. But the bigger crisis is that Chino can no longer accept new inmates from Southern California jails. And we're talking about hundreds of inmates each day that are now backed up into county jails. And officials say they're trying to divert some of these to other reception facilities but the burden is definitely falling on the jails right now. And it's just one more thing in a long list of problems for the state of California right now.

BRAND: Right, a federal judge last week ordering 40,000 inmates to - or the prison to shed 40,000 inmates, right, over two years?

SULLIVAN: Exactly, to reduce the population.

BRAND: Right. Thank you. That was our police and prison correspondent Laura Sullivan.

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