What happens when you take 2,600 of the most violent people in the state and cram them in housing meant for 1,800?
That question is surfacing in the wake of a riot among more than 50 prisoners at California State Prison, Sacramento on Wednesday that sent 13 prisoners to the hospital, one of them shot by a guard.
The prison is at 145 percent of capacity. While the state has been reducing its prison population by sending some inmates to local jails, overcrowding persists. The Department of Corrections has not said whether this problem played a role in Wednesday’s melée at the institution known as “New Folsom.” But it fits a pattern of incidents over the past year:
- On September 15, 2012, a prisoner died after being stabbed at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.
- On March 6, 2012, guards at the older Folsom State Prison suppressed a riot of about 70 suspected gang members using pepper spray and nonlethal rounds, according to the Sacramento Bee.
- On December 7, 2011, about 150 prisoners rioted at New Folsom, and 11 went to the hospital, also including one shot by officers.
- On May 20, 2011, another riot at New Folsom sent six inmates to the hospital, two with serious injuries.
To get an idea of what’s behind this violence, The California Report’s Rachael Myrow interviewed Michael Montgomery, who covers the state’s prison system for KQED and California Watch. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:
Michael Montgomery: This is a high-security prison. It’s where the most dangerous inmates are held, many of whom are convicted of violent offenses. These types of incidents are not uncommon. The department is nervous, and I am hearing at least anecdotally about a possible spike in violence. The fact that an officer used a firearm means it was very serious. They only do that when a life is threatened. Sources I talked to last night say there may have been gang involvement, but the Department of Corrections says they are still investigating.
Rachael Myrow: Now I thought the prison population was dropping overall because of realignment sending low-level offenders to county jails.
Michael Montgomery: That’s right. Under Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan the counties are taking on more low-level offenders. But interestingly what that means is that there has been a demographic shift in the state prison population. According to one estimate, the percentage of offenders in state prisons who were convicted of violent offenses went from 30 percent pre-alignment to 50 percent.
Rachael Myrow: Is this part of a trend?
Michael Montgomery: It’s difficult to say until we get more facts. But you know an inmate was killed in a different prison last week. There is a little bit of nervousness right now in the system, and it’s one reason that the Department of Corrections is overhauling these security housing units, these sort of isolation units, where they house offenders who are considered the most violent or gang members. They are implementing the plan, in the department’s words, largely to cut down on violence. We will see whether that’s effective or not. But I don’t think anyone is expecting that these kinds of incidents won’t happen in the future. The question is how common they will be.
Rachael Myrow: You mentioned gangs and gang violence. How big a problem is that?
Michael Montgomery: It varies by institution. Some of the gangs don’t want violence because they want to carry on business which is making money: extortion, drugs, what have you. But the gangs are defined largely by ethnic and racial groups with Latinos being divided between those who identify with Northern California and Southern California, Norteños and Sureños. So it’s infused with racial politics as well, and sometimes it’s hard to differentiate the gangs from the racial and ethnic groups. But California is considered a hotbed for prison gangs and in many ways they do control the prison yards.
For more background on the changes and controversies in the state’s prison system, see KQED’s multimedia feature Prison Break.