Sentenced to Death by Doing Time

Vince Beiser is a California-based writer who often writes on criminal justice issues.

The interracial riot Oct. 25 at a state prison in Riverside County was extraordinary in its brutality -- it left 54 inmates injured and two stabbed and bludgeoned to death. But, at the same time, it’s just the latest example of a pattern of growing violence inside California’s lockups.

Although the battles are often fought along racial-ethnic lines, bigotry is not necessarily the cause. Overcrowding in the prison system has made violence endemic.

Part of the reason the incident at the Eagle Mountain Community Correctional Facility turned so lethal, it seems, is that the institution is run by a private contractor. Because private prison staff don’t carry weapons, when a group of Latino and white inmates started brawling with a group of African American inmates, the guards could only retreat and call for backup from gun-toting state correctional officers at nearby state-run facilities. That gave the cons 90 minutes to lay into each other with chair legs, mop handles, knives and meat cleavers stolen from the kitchen.

Although two inmates getting killed in one riot is unusual, prisoners attacking one another is common -- and getting more so. The rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults has almost doubled since 1990, according to the state Department of Corrections’ most recent statistics. Prisoners attack other prisoners an average of nearly a dozen times a day in California’s vast penal archipelago. Thirteen were murdered by fellow cons in 2001.


This violence frequently takes on a racial character. If you’re locked up in a penitentiary, you have little choice but to ally yourself with other members of your racial or ethnic group. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: You have to get with your group because everyone else is with theirs. If you don’t, you’ll have no protection from the other groups. And when a fight breaks out between some of “your” people and some of “them,” you are expected to back up “your own” -- or face retaliation later.

Latinos are the rising power in California’s prisons, as they are in the rest of the state. In recent years, they have become the single largest racial/ethnic group behind bars, making up nearly 35% of all state inmates.

Whites and blacks each comprise only slightly smaller shares of the total, but the proportion of Latinos is sure to continue growing. Of all incoming prisoners in 2000, 42% were Latino -- a much higher proportion than that of whites and nearly twice that of blacks. The Department of Corrections counts three major Latino prison gangs, the leaders of at least one of which were recently indicted for allegedly ordering a string of murders from inside prison.

In prison, hanging out with and even fighting alongside members of your racial or ethnic group isn’t the same thing as being in a gang with them.


California’s prison gangs -- Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi Low Riders, Black Guerrilla Family, Mexican Mafia and the other Latino factions -- are, as their names rather unsubtly suggest, racially and ethnically based, but they are also surprisingly exclusive outfits, with elaborate criteria for full-fledged membership. They are less about racial ideology than regular criminal activity -- extortion, drug dealing and so on. These gangs are involved in a great deal of the violence in California’s 33 prisons, but their membership is relatively small.

Many inmates and their advocates believe guards deliberately foment racial strife, playing one group against another to keep them divided and thus more easily controlled. This is not a completely far-fetched notion. Two guards at Pelican Bay State Prison were convicted this year of recruiting inmates to attack others who displeased them.

Of course, not all the violence in California’s correctional system is interracial. Factions within the established gangs often feud with each other, and Latinos from Northern and Southern California have a long-standing and frequently violent rivalry. Just a couple of weeks ago, an inmate was shot dead by a guard trying to break up a melee between two Latino groups in Pleasant Valley State Prison. And many assaults are simple score-settling or garden-variety fights.

Still, the racial fault lines run deep in California’s prisons, and the pressures are growing. The two convicts killed at Eagle Mountain may have deserved to be in prison for their crimes -- burglary and felony drug possession, respectively -- but they certainly didn’t deserve to die there. Part of the blame for their deaths can be laid at the feet of the state’s policymakers, who have done so much to send unprecedented numbers of people to prison.


Thanks largely to harsh anti-drug laws and “three strikes"-type mandatory minimum sentences, the number of state inmates has grown sevenfold since 1980 to a total of about 160,000 today. Result: California’s lockups are packed with nearly twice as many inmates as they were designed to hold, a level of overcrowding that virtually guarantees violence.

Many inmates are in for nonviolent crimes, especially drug offenses, and could be more effectively and cheaply dealt with in rehabilitation programs, supervised parole or other nonincarcerative programs. But as long as we continue to shovel people into our teeming prisons, there will be more appalling incidents like the one at Eagle Mountain.