“Animals,” Gladiators and California Prisons

“Animals,” Gladiators and California Prisons
Prisoners in California jails and prisons are treated like animals. ​​Photo by Pawel Czerwinski/Upshot

(Author’s note: Talk to any incarcerated or formerly incarcerated person and they will tell you that prisoners in California jails and prisons are treated like animals. I can personally attest to this fact.

In 1969, at the age of 18, I was incarcerated at the L.A. County maximum security jail, Wayside Honor Rancho, while awaiting trial for a nonviolent offense. The nickname for Wayside Honor Rancho was “gladiator school.”

I recall that every time we would go to court, L.A. County Sheriff’s Office jail guards would require us to strip naked and assemble in a 12✕12 cell with about 30 other men. The purpose of this was to change from our prison blue uniforms into our court clothes (our street clothes).

Another purpose was to dehumanize all of us. Everyone felt like an animal during this process. We would often wait for long periods in this cage to receive our clothes after we stripped.

At Wayside, unsentenced prisoners were housed in 90 men’s dormitories with convicted, sometimes violent felons, down from state prisons for trials and appeals. At one point, the man bunked above me admitted to murdering someone. I did not ask for details and, although polite, he kept to himself.

Another time, I was threatened and, in self-defense, was involved in a fight. The guards allowed the fight to continue for some time before turning the lights on to break it up. The same guards laughed about my broken nose the next morning. The guards at Wayside often degraded and taunted the incarcerated people there.

Inmates, even unsentenced inmates, were disciplined for rule infractions by being placed in a dark 8✕8 room for hours or days at a time and fed kitchen scraps, known as a “jute ball,” and water. So, if an incarcerated person uses the term animal, I completely understand.)

Although most California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prison guards might not be actively staging “gladiator” fights currently, it is well documented that it has happened in the past, even the recent past (see the March and April issues of the Community Alliance newspaper). A recent letter from an incarcerated person stated, after reading the March article, that “the writer appears to be shocked that these fights and torture [are] again happening. Well, from someone who has experienced it for many years as a targeted ‘animal’ (inmate), it never stopped.”

The issue historically and now is that the CDCR has issued guidelines on “programming” (programming means participating in rehabilitative programs) and policies that mix rival gang factions, also known as Security Threat Groups (STGs), in the same exercise yards or cell blocks, which often leads to fights and injuries between rival factions. In essence, these are “gladiator fights” caused by CDCR policies that must be rebuked and overturned.

Governor Gavin Newsom could issue an order to change these policies and practices to a policy of bifurcating housing and exercise yards while still allowing rival inmates to program successfully. The current policy stops the successful programming of anyone involved in a fight or riot, regardless of the circumstances, because the inmate is placed on lockdown for an extended period with no programming services available.

The governor must have the courage to change a longstanding policy and practice. He must have the courage to challenge the system. It’s an expensive system with excessive overtime and hazard pay costs when guards must respond to fights and riots between rival factions.

The same incarcerated person states in his letter that “when there is a riot, the guards get what they call hazard pay, and for those who stay over to deal with the incident they created, they also get overtime with hazard pay. When there is a peaceful programming yard or prison, they do not like that because none of them get any hazard and overtime pay.”

It’s also costly to taxpayers when injured inmates involved in fights or riots must be medevaced by ambulance and helicopter to hospitals, many some distance away. Some documented inmate injuries have been so severe that they required transportation to outside hospitals.

It’s a brutal and violent system spawned by the CDRC. It’s a system that has created many confrontations between gangs that resulted in “gladiator” fights.

No matter your view on how prisoners should be treated, everyone should be opposed to this misuse of public dollars in a failed effort to control various factions in the prisons. Everyone should be opposed to the cost of increased sentencing when inmates are getting more time for fighting.

Again, the prison inmate’s letter reiterates the opinion of many “inside” when he states that the guards “do not want to release any ‘animals,’ as it is their job security. The more inmates they have, the more they get paid; [fighting] will extend the stay of the ‘animal.’”

Everyone should be opposed to a system that injures and could kill incarcerated people because of their gang affiliation. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence. Unfortunately, the CDRC is doubling down on its policy, as you can see from a recent CDCR memorandum:

In 2022, CDCR announced it would begin to house all incarcerated people the same way, based on their case factors and programming needs, not on their Security Threat Group (STG) affiliation. This is consistent with CDCR’s move toward a behavior-based system and aims to provide all incarcerated people the opportunity to participate in rehabilitative programs, promote prosocial behaviors and better prepare them for release. Unfortunately, integration has not been successful for all groups. CDCR convened a multidisciplinary workgroup to assess the integration and develop a plan specific to these individuals. In order to keep them and all staff and incarcerated people safe, effective March 17, 2023, CDCR began endorsing certain Level III and IV STG members to Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP), California State Prison, Corcoran (COR), and Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP), after careful consideration of their case factors and programming needs. All other Level II members will be endorsed to Non-Designated Programming Facilities (NDPF) statewide. The Department will continue to assess the integration of STG members statewide and will update all stakeholders as there are developments.

Respectfully, Krissi Khokhobashvili,

Chief Strategic Communications & External Affairs, CDCR

Although this memorandum states that the integration policy has not been successful among some groups, the policy reiterates that Level II STGs will be integrated. The policy claims it provides an opportunity to participate in rehabilitative programs and to promote prosocial behaviors. This policy ignores the reality that some Level II STGs are enemies that cannot program together because fights and riots will ensue.

It must be noted that the fights and riots we have documented occurred between Level II STGs. The policy seems to be in place to control gangs through inflicting injury and further punishment on some gang members. The policy will increase fights and riots between Level II STGs and is life-threatening to all incarcerated people in California prisons.

The policy also contradicts its stated intention to rehabilitate all incarcerated men when all men involved in a fight or riot are denied all programming opportunities. In addition, family members are denied visitation and phone calls indefinitely with men involved in a fight or riot.

And, as implemented, the policy appears to be in violation of the California Constitution and the U.S. Constitution as both prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. This policy seems to set the conditions for cruel, violent confrontations that result in injuries, some severe, and more punishment.

This reporter contacted both Khokhobashvili and Governor Newsom’s office for information and comments about the new memo and the policies in place. They have not responded and have not responded to the two previous articles, which were forwarded to them.

Take Action!
Contact Governor Gavin Newsom to demand that he take action to end the unconstitutional, ineffective, costly and brutal policy that, in effect, promotes violence in the form of “gladiator” fights in our state’s prisons.
Leave a message at gov.ca.gov/contact/ or call 916-445-2841.

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Manjit Singh
Manjit Singh
1 year ago

Very insightful and informative article with author showing human compassion. In India, the top cop in 1980s, Ms. Kiran Bedi started yoga programs in prisons for inmates as part of rehabilitation. As a Sikh, I say that every human being on this Earth deserves God given right to live a happy, healthy and spiritual life with dignity, be it even your enemy. Guru Nanak teaches that compassion is what keeps this Earth together, otherwise things will fall apart. May Waheguru bless all!

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