More details emerge in Calif. prison melee
COs were attempting to break up an inmate fistfight when they were swarmed by other felons in an exercise yard
By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a brawl that officials say was extreme even by the violent standard of California prisons, correctional officers had to open fire to stop a melee that sent eight guards and seven inmates to hospitals.
Pelican Bay State Prison guards in three gun towers fired 19 rifle bullets and three hard foam rounds to stop large groups of prisoners from attacking other correctional officers Wednesday.
The guards had been had been using pepper spray and batons to break up a fistfight between two inmates when they were swarmed by other felons in an exercise yard teeming with several hundred high-security inmates.
"They just ran toward the incident from several areas of the yard and just rushed the officers," said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "They overwhelmed them. Overwhelmed is the word I heard again and again."
The eight guards were treated at hospitals and released, though one will have to have shoulder surgery. All eight had facial injuries, bumps, bruises and contusions, Thornton said.
Five of the seven injured inmates suffered gunshot wounds at the prison, which houses about 2,000 inmates near the Oregon border. Four were admitted, including one who was airlifted to a different hospital for a higher level of care. Three were discharged back to prison.
Investigators are trying to determine if the widespread attack was planned. Two inmate-made weapons were found at the scene, but Thornton said they appeared to be makeshift weapons that inmates seized during the fight and officials did not yet know if they were used on the officers.
Premeditated or not, the mass attack was unusual. Ninety-seven inmates were isolated in disciplinary housing units after the assault because they are believed to have participated.
"I can't recall an incident like this where so many inmates just swarmed our staff like that, I really can't," said Thornton, who has been with the department for nearly 20 years. "Believe it or not, staff assaults of varying degrees happen every day. But oftentimes it's just someone being resistant."
Large-scale fights among inmates are not uncommon, but frequently leave employees untouched. Individual correctional officers are sometimes targeted for assaults, including being "gassed" with a noxious mix of urine and feces.
"The fact of the matter is, people take a risk when they work at a prison," Thornton said. "They're fully aware of that risk and they take it willingly and they behave very professionally and very humanely overall."
Such attacks may become more common, said Nichol Gomez, a spokeswoman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union representing most prison guards.
"We are concerned that this type of activity will increase as the state continues to ignore negative inmate behavior for the sake of monetary savings," Gomez said in a statement.
California has sharply reduced its prison population in recent years to comply with a federally imposed population cap and a voter-approved reduction in penalties for those convicted of drug and property crimes.
New regulations stemming from another voter-approved initiative are intended to reward inmates for good behavior by reducing their prison sentences.
But Thornton said inmates still are punished if they misbehave.
"Yes, we are trying to improve inmates' lives ... by providing rehabilitative programs," she said. "But to say that we ignore negative behavior, that's absurd.
"There are some inmates who are very dangerous," Thornton said. "That's the reality."