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Wards tighten two drums over a fire in preparation for a Sweat Lodge Ceremony held each Thursday at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, CA.

In 2005, Berkeley-based photographer and videographer Jan Sturmann documented the young prisoners of the Heman G. Stark Correctional Facility in Chino, California during their Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony.

For over 20 years Jimi Castillo, the prison contracted Native American Spiritual Leader, has presided over ceremonies that serve to awaken more fundamental truths about prayer and consciousness. The space created by Jimi doubles to as an arena to ease tensions, practice equality and resolved gang differences.

“I don’t differentiate between the races,” said Jimi Castillo, . “Anyone from the two-legged tribe is welcome to sweat with us.”

Jimi’s is a mentorship Sturmann admires.

For Sturmann, the issue of incarceration is not about punishment but about how institutions provide opportunities for personal and spiritual growth. Jimi provides a space devoid of the daily stresses of imprisonment. Jan hopes his photographs “can help build empathy” and understanding between populations either side of prison walls.

Sturmann was not just an outside observer. He was invited into the lodge to join the proceedings. He put his cameras down and crawled into the dark. The “transformation” he shared with Jimi and the young prisoners was profound – you can hear his emotion at 16m20secs in the interview.


All Images © Jan Sturmann

An assistant to the Fire Tender brushes coal and ash off the glowing rock before it is placed into the Sweat Lodge. 56 rocks were heated for this ceremony, which Native American Spiritual Leader Jimi Castillo conducts each Thursday.

Wards offer each other comfort and support before entering the Sweat Lodge. No blood has ever been spilt in the Sweat Lodge area, and gang rivalries and personal disputes are often resolved during this time.

Fire Tender and ward, Jessy, distributes sacred tobacco to fellow participants, which they will toss onto the fire with a prayer, before entering the Sweat Lodge.

Since 1991, Native American Spiritual Leader Jimi Castillo has conducted this ceremony, which is open to all wards, irrespective of race.

Native American Spiritual Leader Jimi Castillo welcomes a ward who prays before entering the Sweat Lodge.

At the end of the ceremony wards pull tarps and blankets off the Sweat Lodge, which is made from bent willow saplings.

A beaded medicine bag hangs on a fence as wards shower after the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Each bead is a sewn to the bag with a prayer.

Jimi Castillo in his office in the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility.

All Images © Jan Sturmann

The San Jose Mercury News which, for as long as I can remember, has been the standard bearer for Bay Area reporting on prison issues produced a short multimedia piece on Monday.


The presentation is mainly a prison official’s description of the conditions, needs and startling figures at California Institute for Men, Chino. This facility was the scene of riots in August. It is also the CDCr Reception Center for Southern California, which means all new men processed into the system will first go here, before given security classification and shipped elsewhere. Of course, the mix of over-population, diverse and historically antagonistic groups, and non-permanence leads to a tense institution.

My main problem with the piece however is that I – unlike the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) – cannot ignore recent history, lobbying, political action committee millions and the resultant harsh sentencing.

Since the 1980s, the CCPOA – the prison guards union – bolstered its membership from 2,600 to over 45,000, drew in union fees to swell its coffers and began hurling them at victims rights groups, tough on crime politicians and public fear campaigns.

The CCPOA grew year-on-year as well as any corporation. It’s shareholders however were not a disparate public, but a 30,000 strong (comparatively) homogeneous group within a burgeoning prison industry and a Napoleon-complex.

Prior to the mid 80s the CCPOA had virtually no political capital. They were a small union in a small state sector … and they were largely ignored. By 1992 the CCPOA operated the state’s second largest PAC. By the year 2000 the CCPOA was the pariah of the union community in California. The CCPOA bankrolled and won ballot initiatives that meant increased prison funding and construction. Other unions, particularly the teachers, were not blind to this boom in incarceration … all the while public education funds dwindled.

All of this is very difficult for me to forget.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to legislate to put a cap on union spending during his first year in office, he was in fact only interested in controlling the rampant CCPOA. It wasn’t a classic anti-labour Republican maneuver but rather the absolute necessary move if California was to reign in prison spending. In some respects it was the politics of a progressive! Schwarzenegger failed doubly. The initiative was heavily defeated and he forced the CCPOA and other unions closer together by virtue of a shared enemy.

The CCPOA took advantage of the situation and stepped back into line with the agendas of other unions. For years it had unilaterally forced its agenda through. But the CCPOA could see the ‘good times’ were coming to an end. No new prisons have been built in California since 1998. That figure explains the overcrowding, but also reflects recent political and public rejection of yet more warehousing without rehabilitation (as has been the norm).

So while we can all share in a dismay, even disgust in the failure of government to provide adequate housing or programs for those it takes into custody, we should all be sharing in the knowledge of how this situation came about. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; the CCPOA are guilty as hell – the rank and file change, the leadership less so, but the organisation remains the same.

This is what I think of when I see correctional officers under stress and duress … I think that their union sold them out a long time ago.

The CCPOA made it’s bed.

UC Berkeley’s Dept. of Governmental Studies provides this brief but comprehensive history of the CCPOA.

The San Jose Mercury News has its own Photoblog.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR


The California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCr) filled the visual hole left by the absence of press photography. I discovered via the CDCr Twitter stream that it had a Flickr profile and more than 72 hours after the event published these images. I use them throughout this post.


I was also contacted by a friend who also happens to have worked in CDCr facilities, is a PP guest blogger and now qualified fact-checker!

He was able to offer some clarification, correction and background on the physical environment at Chino and the CDCR desegregation policy that news sources and I referred to as a factor in the heightened racial tensions. Read on.

Spatial Orientation

The CDCR picture used in the original post shows only the minimum [security] facility at California Institution for Men (CIM). From the picture’s POV, the entire Reception Center infrastructure is behind you. That’s where the riot happened. Nothing happened anywhere in the area pictured.

The large building in the foreground is the administration building for the entire prison. The large building directly behind it is the prison hospital – yes, this is one of the rare prisons that actually has its own hospital. To the right of the hospital is the main walkway toward the back end of the minimum facility and in that upper left corner is a Substance Abuse Program yard with its own dorms and programming facilities. The large baseball field is considered the main yard.

California Institute for Men, Chino, CA. Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. Credit: CDCR

Implementing CDCR Integration Policy

The integration/desegregation issue has not been raised or put into effect in any prison except two – Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) in Ione and Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) in Jamestown. These were the so called pilot programs for housing integration.

Like all things in CDCR, the reality is not what you think. These two prisons were chosen because they would seem to cause the least possible problems. MCSP is entirely SNY (Sensitive Needs Yard) with only a few hundred general population inmates in a separate minimum facility, and that’s designed for support of the prison itself. Inmates from that population work in administrative areas as clerks, porters, landscapers, etc. Some are sent out to work in local parks, on roads, etc. And some are bussed each day to the training academy for officers in Galt. Almost all of them are within a year or two of release and aren’t interested in getting into any trouble. Anyway, the three SNY yards house about 3600 inmates (1200 on each yard), and they are all in cells and already fully integrated because they are SNY. (Those not in cells are in badly overcrowded gyms and dayrooms.)

Many on the Mule Creek SNY yards, about 1500, are rated EOP mental health inmates (enhanced outpatient program – the most serious level of mental health programming). Virtually all of those are on psychotropic drugs of one sort or another and are essentially in la la land most of the time. Another several hundred are considered CCCMS (correctional clinical case management system) inmates. Some of those are on drugs, and all are doing some sort of mental health programming (support groups, etc.). There is a mental health staff there of about 150 people. Anyway, inmates in this prison are already quite docile and have been de facto integrated for a long time (since it was made SNY three or four years ago). They have had no discord around the housing integration issue that I’m aware of.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

Now, Sierra Conservation Camp (SCC) is a different situation. Half of that prison is a [lower security] 3-level SNY facility, and integration in that half is no issue. [But] the general population side of the prison is a different story.

There is a 1-level yard with about 1200 inmates in dorms. An identical 2-level yard is next to it. The mission of these yards is to train inmates to be firefighters and to staff the small fire camps around the state. It’s hard and dangerous work, but the rewards are substantial. The food in the camps is excellent, and there’s as much of it as you want. The pay is very good (by inmate standards) and some have been able to accumulate a parole nest egg of several thousand dollars. Finally, good time credits mean your in-prison time is as little as 35% of your sentence so you can get out a lot earlier. These inmates are typically not the most violent offenders, although some will have violence in their past. Some are affiliated and active gang members. (On SNY yards there are no active gang members, in theory anyway, because you can’t get to an SNY until you renounce your gang.) The housing integration flies in the face of the gang conventions so it has caused some problems at SCC on those two general population yards.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

The CDCR started the integration effort last summer, and it quickly backed off when inmates put up resistance. Summer is not a good time in prison; heat makes violence flare more easily. Also, it’s fire season and the camps must be staffed. So they waited until the fall and tried again. Many dorms had mini-riots as gangs instructed incoming inmates not to comply. There were a couple of yard-level disturbances. The inmates tried refusing to come out of their dorms for a couple of days. They believed the officers would bring food to them as they would in a lockdown situation. When they did not, the stomachs settled it temporarily. Eventually, the administration settled on dealing with the situation by depriving any inmate who refused a bunk assignment of privileges. He would be given a disciplinary writeup and not be allowed phone calls, programming, visits, etc. It is currently this kind of a stalemate.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

Existing Racial Enmity

One thing that has not been mentioned is the ongoing Black/Hispanic rivalry in the southern half of the state. You may recall in early 2006 there were major riots in the Los Angeles County jails between Blacks and Hispanics. Over 2000 inmates participated, one died and at least 100 were injured. Many men involved in that could be the same people who were at Chino this weekend. Since that part of the Chino prison is a reception center, many inmates were probably local parolees who’d violated. These, and others, would have been through the LA county jail system, probably over the last few years. So this could all be no more than a continuation of the ongoing violence with many of the same people. Who knows!?

I’ve been in those Chino dorms many times and always felt uneasy. Only two officers are assigned, and at any given time one is on the phone or at the door doing an unlock or in the restroom or off on some administrative quest. There is no “gun coverage” as they call it when an armed officer is placed in an elevated position to provide less-than-lethal and lethal force to quell disturbances. As the administrative representative made plain in the interviews, the inmates are really in control. Two officers armed with pepper spray, batons and alarms can be overpowered in seconds. One officer had to be airlifted to medical care from that facility a year or so ago. His partner was doing something and he got hit from behind and they just beat him unconscious. He is extremely lucky he didn’t die; I’m sure the inmates left him for dead. Those dorms are classic World War II era barracks style housing. They would not meet the current standards of prison housing. Actually, they probably would not get any kind of occupancy permit in any municipality in the state.


Finally, a note of purely personal opinion. I believe the CDCR went about integration all wrong. In effect, they asked inmates to integrate. For a year or so prior to the start date, they had meetings with inmates to tell them what it was about and why it was being done. Worst of all, they created a video to sell them on the idea and played it incessantly on the prison TV system. It reminded me of parents who had decided to ask their children to go to school rather than simply telling them to go to school. Inmates are like children, and psychologically, they respond like children. If the administration had simply told them the courts were ordering integration and on a certain date it was happening, I think they would have had less trouble.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

Here’s the official CDCr press release update (11th August)


Editor’s note: ‘Sensitive Needs Yards’ (SNY) can be understood, essentially,  as protective custody areas. They were conceived seven years ago to accommodate the following populations;
1. Guys who had dropped out of gangs. And you have to go through a six-month to one-year deprogramming that includes telling everything you know about the gang and its activities.
2. High notoriety inmates – ex-cops, celebrities, etc. For example, Tex Watson, the Manson family murderer is at MCSP. Phil Spector is on an SNY at Corcoran.
3. Sex offenders.
4. Mental health inmates.
5. Old and infirm people who are still ambulatory.


California Institute for Men at Chino, 2008 (Prior to Riot). Photo Credit: CDCR

Michael Shaw over at the excellent BAGnewsNotes pointed out a rather bizarre anomaly in our image-saturated world. There exist barely any photographs of the prison riot at the California Institute for Men at Chino that occurred this weekend.

Given that Shaw has his hand firmly on the newswire pulse of America I’ll take him at his word … photojournalist coverage of this significant riot was is scant.

I even think that the image Shaw presents is a concession; a still from film footage.

Today, the Los Angeles Times published this image showing the aftermath of the riot.


Photo: A view from outside the fence after weekend rioting at the California Institute for Men at Chino shows a dorm with a hole burned through its roof and a yard littered with mattresses and other debris. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

The BBC was quick to cover the riot. Most news sources framed the riot as a result of racial tension, but in truth those tensions only came to surface due to inexcusable and acknowledged overcrowding. In 2007, Doyle Wayne Scott, a former Texas corrections chief consulting on California prison security reported that overcrowding at the California Institute for Men at Chino created “a serious disturbance waiting to happen.”


Overcrowding is a problem that ignites other problems, and represents a serious issue that has no easy answers. Some prison reform activists would be wiling to see new (temporary) facilities built to ease the tensions, but this is an unlikely scenario as trust between they and the legislature, Governor’s office, CDCr and CCPOA is low. Recent history has taught us that when new prisons are built, they are filled and calls for more prisons follow. The solution is to change the laws that over the past two decades have warehoused increasing numbers of non-violent offenders.

One of the other depressing aspects to this story is that the racial tensions are apparently the result, partly, of enforced desegregation at Chino. Prison populations operate on strict codes and it would seem that top-down-enforcement of an anti-racist policy doesn’t change the attitudes of the men only agitates their existing prejudices, distrust and expected antagonisms toward one another.

My humble suggestion to work against these deep-seated hatreds would be to operate smaller facilities with immediate access to education programs. Sociological models taught as part of a basic curricula are revelatory for many prisoners. Many inmates, given the tools and the logic to explain their oppositions will identify other ways of seeing race.

It is true that some prisoners don’t want to rehabilitate, but they are in the minority. Often it is simply the case that race for this population has never been discussed in complex or nuanced terms.

Here’s some video of the aftermath.

Thanks to Scott Ortner and Stan Banos for the tips on this story.


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