California's Increasingly Violent Prisons

Times Staff Writer

A young convict jogging around the track inside the granite walls of Folsom Prison on a recent sunny morning suddenly pitched forward, flopped on his back and began kicking as though stricken by a seizure.

Two guards rushed to the fallen inmate, while other officers looked warily around the vast prison yard where hundreds of convicts milled. As stretcher bearers carried the inmate from the track, other officers broke toward Graystone Chapel on the other side of the yard.

"They got one! They got one!" a guard yelled.

"Goddamn diversion," veteran officer Jim Blanchard muttered, referring to the inmate who had suffered the "seizure" on the track.

Soon officers carried a second stretcher from the yard. On it lay a convict with blood smeared over the front of his T-shirt and down one arm. He was taken to the hospital in serious condition with a knife wound in his lower back.

Back to 'Normal'

As the stretcher disappeared inside a cellblock, inmates once more jogged around the track. Others resumed a handball game. A convict strummed a guitar. The yard had returned to what passes for normal, and the blood had not dried on the sidewalk in front of Graystone Chapel.

This was not, after all, an unusual occurrence. The victim was the 184th convict at Folsom to be stabbed this year; the total reached 208 by mid-December.

After this incident, word quickly spread through Folsom that victim No. 184 was a white child molester. Officers, and certainly a good number of inmates, were relieved to hear that. It meant that the stabbing did not signal the end of a recently declared truce between warring black and Latino prisoners.

Epidemic Numbers

Stabbings sparked by racial tension and gang rivalry have reached such epidemic numbers at Folsom and some other California state prisons that officials admit that they do not know how to cope with the problem. They are actually relieved when an assault is based on some other motive, one that might involve fewer antagonists.

But there seem to be plenty of motives for more and more violence in California's outmoded and overcrowded prisons. Assaults against inmates and staff members have reached crisis proportions.

No sooner had the blacks and Latinos declared a truce in their yearlong knifing war at Folsom, for example, than the white, racist Aryan Brotherhood gang began stabbing their own group members and then went after convicted child molesters, prison officials said.

Keepers Are Victims Too

Nor is it only inmates who are the victims of violence in California prisons. The convicts are increasingly turning their rage on their keepers. Stabbing attacks on guards were almost unheard of until the last year or so, when inmates began assaulting corrections officers with spears made of sharpened metal objects attached to shafts of tightly rolled newspaper.

At San Quentin, Correctional Sgt. Howell D. Burchfield was stabbed to death with such a spear last June. There have been more than 70 spear attacks on San Quentin staff members this year, according to D. D. Taylor, a prison officer and San Quentin chapter president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

Statistics on prison violence must be viewed with some caution because reporting methods and definitions of terms may vary from one prison to another, from one incident to the next and from year to year.

Even so, the pattern of increasing violence in California prisons is alarmingly clear. It is especially apparent at Folsom and San Quentin, the state's two maximum-security institutions, and at Tracy, a heavy- to medium-security prison. For the prison system as a whole, the number of assaults on inmates and staff members jumped from 698 in 1979 to 1,882 in 1984. About half of the assaults in 1984 involved the use of weapons. More important, over the same period, the rate of assaults on convicts and staff members for each 100 inmates doubled at Tracy, tripled at Folsom and quadrupled at San Quentin.

'Lockdown' the Response

The main response by officials to the increasing violence has been the "lockdown," in which all or selected numbers of prisoners are locked into their cells, 24 hours a day, for extended periods.

In addition, at Tracy, officials are installing gun turrets and enclosed gun walks inside the corridors, cellblocks and the gymnasium. Previously, there was only one special, ultrasecure cellblock at Tracy equipped with what is called "inside gun coverage."

At Folsom, guards have fired so many warning shots to break up assaults that "it got to be just like a regular noontime whistle," Officer Gary Jerue said. "That was when the Mexicans and blacks were going at it. Every chance they got they tried to stick one another."

At least half a dozen convicts were stabbed in one day alone at Folsom earlier this year, for instance, Jerue said.

Mayhem's Effect

All of this mayhem, not surprisingly, seems to have a residual effect on both inmates and staff members. In some cases it seems to produce a kind of numb acceptance of violence as an ordinary part of life. Violent inmates have become even more inured to violence.

Ronald T. MacGilfrey, 33, has been a Folsom inmate for a year. He explained this effect.

"I've seen people get stuck," he said matter-of-factly. "I went to chow last week and a guy got stuck in the face; it looked like it was somewhere in the eye. I was sitting at the table and everybody hit the floor. I sat there and said, 'Oh well, what can I do?' I finished eating and said, 'Well, that's part of being in prison.' "

George Simpson, 60, was released from prison in 1983. He has served more than 20 years in California penitentiaries, most of that time at San Quentin and Folsom. Simpson told of casual violence over petty debts in prison. He said he stabbed a fellow convict who arrogantly refused to pay $70 he owed to Simpson.

'I Dropped Him'

"When he came out on the tier, I dropped him," he said. "I gave him a break. . . . (The knife) went in deep enough to put him in the hospital, but it didn't hit him in no vital spot. . . . I saw a man killed one time over a pack of cigarettes in a domino game. And you think that's cheap, which it is, but in there it's the principle. . . . You got to live by your word in there."

The violence seems to produce a climate of fear for those who are confined and for those who confine them.

Arturo Rosales, 25, a Folsom prisoner, was kept locked in his cell this fall, as were other Latino convicts, while prison officials tried to arrange a truce between brown and black inmates.

"The safest place is in your cell," he said. "Because as soon as you step out of your cell, your life is in your own hands. It's all on you. . . . You don't know if the man next door is going to stab you."

Sound of Bullet in Chamber

Jerue told of the feeling he gets when he hears the unmistakable sound of a fellow guard in a tower slamming a bullet into a rifle's firing chamber as an incident develops:

"Sometimes you're standing out on the yard and you hear him chambering a round and you feel your heart go down to the bottom of your stomach."

Correctional Officer Larry Fallon, 26, occasionally dreams that someone is coming after him with an ax, a spear or a knife. He started having the dreams after a Folsom convict jabbed him with a spear last December.

"It kind of stunned me," he said. "I knew it happened, but I didn't want to look down and see how bad it was."

Fortunately for Fallon, the spear tip hit his hip bone, causing only a small puncture wound.

Wanted Different Cell

"I didn't even know the guy," Fallon said. "They say it had to do with him wanting a (different) cell (and) that he just took it out on the first officer (who came along) after they told him 'No'. "

Jerue and Fallon say they have not allowed their anxieties to turn into a blanket hatred of inmates.

"I deal with them one-on-one," Fallon said. "If they treat me like an officer and give me respect . . . then I give them respect."

But the violence, tension and fear have embittered some guards. Morale seems especially low among officers at San Quentin, where Burchfield was killed and where some guards feel caught between dangerous inmates on one side and what they perceive as an unresponsive prison administration on the other.

'As Human Beings'

"When I first started there," said a San Quentin guard who declined to be identified, "I was looking at (inmates) as human beings who had kind of taken a down road to life. Anymore, I can't say that."

How does he now view inmates?


"You're walking by a cell," he said, trying to explain the rage some officers feel, "and an inmate asks you for a light and you tell him, 'I don't have a light on me right now, but I'll get you a light,' and the inmate says, 'I want it now,' and you say, 'Wait just a minute,' and he throws (excrement) in your face."

The outrage and humiliation from such an incident, he said, is accompanied by the nearly constant tension and fear: "Having to walk down the tier and stop before passing (each) cell to find out if an inmate is standing against the wall with a spear."

Improper Search Cited

Another officer who also declined to be named blamed the San Quentin administration for not conducting a proper weapons search before Burchfield's death, even though prison officials had been warned that a piece of metal bed frame was missing from an inmate's cell. It has been speculated that the spear tip that killed Burchfield was fashioned from the missing piece of bed frame. The officer told of his feelings after Burchfield's death:

"I couldn't deal with the inmates. I wanted to kill one of them. . . . I knew who set up the hit and I wanted to kill him, plus any of the administration that was involved . . . in the negligence of handling the situation."

Three inmates, at least two of them suspected gang members, were charged with killing Burchfield nearly six months after his death.

San Quentin administrators refused to discuss the Burchfield killing, citing legal advice, but they said they are installing fine-mesh security screens on cell bars to prevent spearings. They also plan to furnish guards with stab-proof vests. But some officers view the security-screen measure as only a stopgap.

'The Inmates Learn'

"It's not going to be very long," a San Quentin guard said, "before the inmates learn to get these screens off at the corners, and then when you pass by the corner comes off and a spear spears you."

Daniel Vasquez, the San Quentin warden for the last two years, said he is reducing violence among mainline inmates by carefully screening those convicts released from the super-secure lockup units, which house two-thirds of San Quentin's 2,500-man population. He said he is also reducing the amount of time mainline inmates are locked in their cells.

"Now, the violence in the lockup units is still high," he said. "If there's going to be violence . . . a controlled environment like a security housing unit is where it's supposed to occur."

But some officers are seeking tougher security measures, asking that newspapers and magazines be withheld from prisoners in high-security cells to prevent inmates from making spear shafts. Taylor, the San Quentin guard union official, supports that proposal but acknowledges that withholding newspapers would not stop prisoners from making weapons.

'No Clothes, No Nothing?'

"They'd find something else," he said, shaking his head, and asking almost plaintively: "So what do we do, end up with a guy standing in his cell with no clothes, no nothing?"

That, of course, is not likely to happen. Still, the state's top corrections officials seem to have few plans other than tightening security and building penitentiaries to deal with a prison system that is in apparent disarray.

Besides the problem of rampant violence, California prisons are also severly overcrowded--the system operates at 160% of capacity. Some, such as San Quentin and Folsom, are decrepit, dirty and under court orders to improve conditions. Large numbers of inmates in the prison system are idle. There are not enough jobs or opportunities for training, education and recreation. At some prisons, such as Tracy, where vocational programs exist, the inmates often cannot take advantage of them because of lockdowns caused by the violence.

Compounding this is that there has been little continuity in the state Corrections Department leadership in recent critical years. In the last five years, as the prison population doubled from 25,000 to nearly 50,000 inmates, largely as the result of get-tough legislation, there have been four department directors or acting directors. The leadership problems have extended over the administrations of two governors, George Deukmejian and Edmund G. Brown Jr., and many legislative terms.

Reluctant Veteran at Top

Veteran corrections official Daniel J. McCarthy, 61, is the state prisons director now, although a reluctant one. He took the post in late 1983 at Deukmejian's urging, and has vowed to retire next year at the end of the governor's first term. McCarthy's primary solution to the problem of penitentiary violence is a $1.2-billion prison construction program that has been plagued by delays, some of which have been caused by environmental, community and political opposition to proposed prison sites. Other delays have been caused by planning foul-ups.

"The building (program) to me is the key to everything right now," McCarthy said. "One of the things I tried to accomplish was to keep the lid on the place until such time as we had sufficient space to deal with these (prisoners) in an appropriate manner."

But McCarthy is aware, and state Corrections Department figures indicate, that the prison violence problem is complex and that there is no strict correlation between assaults and overcrowding.

Department figures for 1980 to 1984 show, for example, that the assault rate at San Quentin increased dramatically even though the population was reduced as a result of a court order. At the same time, the assault rate at Soledad, another prison, decreased while the population nearly doubled. At both Folsom and Tracy, however, the violence rate increased dramatically as the prisons became greatly overcrowded.

Not in This Century

At any rate, it is unlikely that Californians will see the effect of an uncrowded prison system this century. If the proposed prison construction program is completed by 1990, which seems improbable, the system will still be operating at 120% to 130% of design capacity, McCarthy said.

In the meantime, keeping "the lid on" often means trying to control violence by tightening security and locking convicts in their cells en masse for days, weeks and even months.

Yet the effectiveness of even these methods appears questionable. During the last few years at San Quentin, for example, two-thirds of the prison's 2,500 convicts have been placed in ultratight security units, where inmates live one to a cell, eat all meals in their cells and are strip-searched before brief exercise periods in pens with a small number of other "compatible" inmates. The violence has continued to increase.

In 1978, there were eight inmate assaults reported on San Quentin staff members, state Corrections Department figures show.

In 1981, there were 76.

By 1984, there were 134.

Inmate Assault Rate Too

And the rate of inmate assaults on other inmates also rapidly increased despite tightened security.

For this, officers and some top prison system administrators sometimes blame court intervention. One argument made is that at Folsom, for example, mainline prisoners commit assaults in order to be placed in the top-security lockup units, where conditions are monitored by the federal court as a result of a prisoner lawsuit. The 750 or so inmates kept in Folsom's top-security lockups are housed one to a cell, as required by the court. The prisoners there receive two hot meals a day and one sack lunch. The court requires that they receive minimum periods of outside exercise.

Meanwhile, the 1,850 generally less troublesome mainline inmates whose living conditions are not under court scrutiny often are locked up, two men to a tiny cell, for days, weeks and perhaps months at a time. During these lockdowns the mainline prisoners often get only two cold meals a day in their cells.

"A lot of these guys," Fallon said, "are stabbing because they like to go to lockup."

Rapidly Increasing

Perhaps, but the violence rate has been rapidly increasing at Folsom for at least the last six years, while the federal court injunction ordering lockup unit reforms went into effect only last October.

Another reason violence has increased at Folsom and San Quentin, prison officials say, is that the department's inmate classification system that began in 1980 has concentrated young inmates serving long sentences at those two prisons. In addition, the most troublesome inmates at other prisons, such as Tracy, for example, are weeded out and sent to Folsom and San Quentin.

But even with the weeding-out process, Tracy, where more than 3,000 inmates are crowded into space designed for about 1,500, remains a violent prison.

Robert M. Rees, the veteran Tracy superintendent, has also served as San Quentin warden and as a Folsom interim warden. Rees, 59, a burly man known for his candor, said the number of prison system homicides has not increased during the last several years and argued that many of the stabbings are half-hearted "hits" carried out by reluctant soldiers pressed into duty by gang leaders.

Partial Lockdown

Rees, who dislikes the wholesale punishment of lockdowns, admitted that there is at least a partial lockdown in effect at Tracy most of the time because of violence. He just does not know what else to do.

"It increases the hostility toward us," he said of lockdowns. "But I don't think it increases the hostility among the (warring) groups. . . . I think it cools the situation. . . . But, yeah, they get hostile (during lockdowns), aggravated and frustrated toward us. . . . And if something happens, if you throw a garbage can lid against the wall, well, you'll probably have a riot because everybody's up-tight. . . .

"I can't continue to live with this lockdown, unlock, lockdown, unlock. . . . We feel obliged to try to run an institution for the people who want to behave. (But) we're having more and more difficulty isolating those that don't want to behave. . . . It's not hopeless. . . . There's got to be a solution. But I don't know what it is."


INSTITUTION 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 TOTAL MEN 671 734 887 1,073 1,276 1,813 3.19 3.31 3.54 3.61 3.74 4.76 FOLSOM 38 57 89 139 181 249 2.25 3.54 4.55 5.21 5.22 7.26 SAN QUENTIN 80 130 220 275 329 468 2.98 4.40 7.31 8.37 9.95 14.22

Number of incidents: Bold Face

Rate per 100 average prison population: LIGHT FACE

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