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Prison riot blamed on overcrowding as cuts loom

Officers gather near the entrance of the California Institution For Men State Prison in Chino, Calif., on Sunday, the day after the 4-hour riot.
Officers gather near the entrance of the California Institution For Men State Prison in Chino, Calif., on Sunday, the day after the 4-hour riot.
Ed Crisostomo, Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Inmates at an overcrowded California prison tore doors from their hinges and broke off toilets and sinks in a four-hour riot that injured 175 people, and many fear the crowding that may have helped escalate the brawl will only get worse with $1.2 billion in budget cuts.

A national expert warned 20 months ago that the Chino prison, which held nearly twice as many men as it was designed for, was "a serious disturbance waiting to happen" because of crowding.

The fight, which appeared to be racially motivated, comes at a critical time for California prisons. Next week state lawmakers begin deciding how to cut $1.2 billion from the corrections budget, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to trim the state inmate population by about 27,000 inmates to save money.

Prison watchdogs and some state lawmakers were quick to blame Saturday's riot on overcrowding. The California Institution for Men in Chino holds 5,900 men but was designed for 3,000.

"There's just too many prisoners in that building, too few staff, and some of the staff can't even see because there are walls separating the prisoners from the staff," said Don Specter, an attorney who represents prisoners' interests. "There's no possible way you can provide adequate security in those kind of units."

Inmates suffered stab and head wounds as inmates attacked each other with makeshift weapons including shards of glass and broken water pipes. Sixteen inmates remained hospitalized Monday, state prisons spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.

"It looks like they destroyed anything they could get their hands on," said Lt. Mark Hargrove, a spokesman for the prison. "They broke out windows, they pulled out water pipes, they broke off toilets and sinks, they tore doors off their hinges, they broke metal bunks that are secured to the floor by bolts."

A fire also ignited, damaging two dorms. Authorities don't yet know how the fire began.

A national expert warned of the riot danger at the prison in a Nov. 9, 2007, report. A unit at that time had two guards overseeing 198 inmates, many of whom were locations where they couldn't be easily observed.

"If the prisoners wanted to take over the dorm they could do so in a second and no one would know," Wayne Scott, former director of the Texas Department of Corrections, wrote after touring Cleveland Hall within the prison's West Facility, where Saturday's riot happened.

Scott later testified before a special panel of three federal judges about the effect of crowding on inmates' medical and mental health care. Earlier this month, the judges ordered the state to submit a plan to reduce the population in the state's 33 adult prisons by 40,000 inmates over two years.

But prison officials said that while overcrowding has been a long-standing problem at state prisons, it was too early to determine the cause of the riot.

"I kind of chuckle when I hear people say, 'Well, overcrowding caused this.' No, misbehaving caused it and they didn't get into prison for behaving in the first place," said Thornton, the prison spokeswoman.