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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.

We are all agreed: Michael Jackson’s death is a sad event. Firstly because he was young, secondly because he runs through our cultural DNA and thirdly because we never really managed to fully understand him.


Jackson’s life and work were wrapped up in the confuddling of race and the obliteration of its prerequisites for discussion. I am not talking only about his self-manipulated skin colour. I am talking about the fact he was accused of antisemitism for contested lyrics in the 1996 release They Don’t Really Care About Us and the fact he was accused of exploiting the poor of Rio de Janeiro for its music video.

This song is only one time Jackson was simultaneously cast as victim and perpetrator by the media and public all making use of his eccentricity to grind their own agendas.

The controversy led Jackson (for the only time in his career) to film a second video for one of his songs, taking his crotch grabs off the favela streets and into the prison chow hall. One or both of the versions was banned by MTV – I am not quite sure, but it doesn’t matter.

Jackson threw enough contorted imagery at these two videos to satisfy a life’s worth of political action. The prison version is a montage of famous photojournalist and media images; death, natural disaster, street brutality, Vietnam napalm, hate crimes, Rodney King, African pestilence, riots, nuclear detonation and the Ku Klux Klan?

I am undecided as to how Jackson’s convolution of imagery helps an informed debate on inequality in society. How much does a famine of the 80s in an unnamed African nation have to do with US urban riots?

It should be said, that for his manic prison tableaux, Jackson did accurately reflect reality in the casting of a disproportion number of men of colour.





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