State-Sponsored Carnage in California Prisons

State-Sponsored Carnage in California Prisons
Photo by Maria Oswalt/Unsplash

“The integrated yard policy (IYP) is per force a staged fight because integrating rival factions will always lead to violence…In my experience, the IYP was always a device used to break the leadership of the gangs and to prevent the gangs from acting with impunity,” said Fresno attorney Robert Navarro.

Navarro was part of a team of attorneys that successfully litigated a case against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for the shooting death of Preston Tate, who was incarcerated at Corcoran state prison in 1994. The case, filed by Fresno attorney Catherine Campbell, resulted in an $825,000 settlement.

Through the efforts of Campbell and the team of attorneys, the CDCR’s policy and practice of placing rival gang members in the same prison exercise yards, for the orchestration of gladiator fights, was exposed.

There is ample evidence that delineates the use of the IYP as a method of employing gangs’ own required violence toward rivals in an attempt to control and punish at the cost of everyone in the prisons, their families and our tax dollars. Video recordings of these staged fights in the 1990s are openly available on YouTube.

There seemed to be less use of this policy during the 1990s following a series of articles by journalist Mark Arax, who exposed the policy and provided Congressional testimony.

Unfortunately, we have evidence that the policy was fully embraced again in 2003 when a gang at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran attacked a single imprisoned man, which ended in his death.

Photo by Maria Oswalt/Unsplash

In 2007, Lieutenant John Kavanaugh, from the Corcoran state prison, wrote a commentary entitled “Anatomy of a Failed Prison Yard Integration” published in Peacekeeper magazine (Vol. 24 Jan/Feb). He states that “the history of violence between [rival gangs] in the CDCR is lengthy and well-documented. Each institution that houses these disruptive factions in the same general population facility documents numerous cases of violence between them, and corresponding lengthy disruptions of institutional operations.”

Hence, the CDCR’s policy investment in the control and punishment of gangs with these fights also “pressurizes the entire institution,” points out Navarro.

Lieutenant Kavanaugh goes on to say, “In the early 1990s, Corcoran endured litigation and public scrutiny due to the so-called gladiator wars…Once again, the Department of Corrections arbitrarily placed rival inmates in the same exercise yard.”

He explains one consequence: “On Oct. 12, 2006, seven members of [one gang] and seven members of [another rival gang] were released to the Facilities 3A east yard. The institutions’ Investigative Services Unit staff members were present with a camera, prepared to watch the show.

“Within minutes of the release of the inmates to the yard, the 14 inmates initiated a riot in which they savagely attacked one another…The 14 rioters were treated for abrasions, scratches and slashes, [and] there was one stabbing…The CSP Corcoran administrators knew of the potential for violence and the necessary subsequent use of force by correctional officers to stop the violence.”

Based on evidence that we have received across several prison sites, this early 2000s example has been repeating since mid-2022 at an increasing rate.

Since our March 2023 article, we have learned of the records curated by the late private investigator Tom Quinn indicating that since the 1960s, and aggressively implemented in the 1980s, the CDCR has used reintegration to attempt to “break the backs of gang leaders” even though that does not work.

Previously, we documented a 2018 staged attack by 180 men on 12 men of a rival faction. While CDCR public documents frame the 2022 reintegration as a policy to expand rehabilitation, historical evidence shows that in fact breaking gangs or simply controlling and punishing them with these fights “has been a continuous policy,” says Navarro.

The enactment of the 2022 reintegration policy allows for easier coordination of fights by correctional staff across the state. Internal investigation documents and reports from families suggest that transfers within prisons, as well as new arrival instructions, are announced in advance of the fights, allowing many people in the prison to know which fights will take place because of these advance staging activities.

We have obtained official documents that confirm such sequences as one security threat group arriving the night before and being brought the next day to the recreational yard where rival gang members are released at the same time. The result has been violent riots and fights between gangs, with many serious injuries reported. When rival gang members are placed in the same space, their membership requires fighting and the CDCR knows this.

Additional confirmation comes from an inmate at Pelican Bay who states that “on Nov. 15, 2022, a [known gang member] was transferred from Salinas Valley to Pelican Bay. Upon arriving here, staff told all of us inmates to be ready tomorrow morning and all of us will have yard and inmates from B yard will be out there.

“On Nov. 16, the tower started to let inmates out for the morning yard. The tower started opening doors and releasing inmates despite their ‘race’ and gang affiliation. And the tower opened the [gang member] new arrival cell and immediately three [rival gang members] rushed the two new arrivals who were stabbed multiple times. On this day alone at Pelican Bay, there were four other fights and stabbings of new arrivals.”

Family and friends are deeply concerned about the safety of their incarcerated loved ones. Since our March article, we have heard from additional families about the violence that their sons, husbands and fathers are experiencing from these fights. Men who were not previously gang affiliated have found that they must accept membership in response to the “pressurized” situation.

The CDCR’s claim that “reintegration” makes rehabilitation more accessible across prisons is shown to be false given the family comments and medical reports that have been shared with us. Men cannot program with violence taking over the prisons and correctional staff jeopardizing men for the sake of the CDCR’s enactment of the “breaking gangs” policy.

“We have not heard from our family members since Jan. 4, 2023,” said L.M., who has family and friends inside. “Anyone involved in a fight loses all privileges. No family visiting, no day room activities, limited phone calls, no recreational activities, no packages can be received, no educational activities, no access to the law library and most other ‘privileges.’ This is called ‘modified programming.’” 

She went on to say “what we need is for the reintegration program to be exposed. We are very passionate about this. We love and miss our loved ones.”

L.M. has a brother in Corcoran who was seriously injured in a group brawl caused by the cruel reintegration policy. She said that “it’s been very traumatic [for my brother]. It’s not only physical trauma but [also] mental trauma that causes PTSD.”

A.C. has a boyfriend and some family inside. She said that “it doesn’t just affect the inmates. [The reintegration or programming policy] affects family members. Mentally, emotionally, it causes a lot of damage. [These CDCR policies] violate the civil rights of our loved ones and all California prisoners and are destroying the lives of family members.”

L.M. and A.C. are members of No More Silence to Violence, a group with the mission to “expose CDCR and the misconduct they have implemented upon the incarcerated with the forced integration. We are here to help, advocate, educate and be the voice of the incarcerated and the families affected by CDCR and their negligence.”

A.C. says they have lobbied numerous elected officials, CDCR officials and the Governor’s office. “We’re trying to put our time, our energy, into spreading awareness and shedding light on the injustices that our loved ones face while they are incarcerated.”

Y.F. has a brother at Corcoran’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF). She said, “My brother was one of two injured with life-threatening injuries on Nov. 22,, 2022, when he was set up by CDCR at the Corcoran SATF. He survived and to this day, CDCR officials never called his mom to inform her that her son had been stabbed eight times.”

We are awaiting documentation from Y.F. about additional staged fights between rival gangs at the prisons as we continue to investigate CDCR-sponsored violence.

There is hope of ending the deplorable reintegration and programing policies. Attorney Shawn Burkley represents families of incarcerated victims of the CDCR policies.

On Sept. 7, 2022, he notified the CDCR of an imminent, credible and likely threat shortly before a violent riot occurred at Ironwood State Prison. He is now filing a writ of mandamus, which is a request for a court order to ensure that the CDCR is complying with the law, in particular the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Declaration of Rights, Section 17, of the California State Constitution, which states that “cruel and unusual punishment must not be inflicted by the State.”

Multiple bodies of law govern prisoner safety. Under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials must take responsible measures to protect prisoners from assault by other inmates. Deliberate indifference by prison officials of a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment.

To establish deliberate indifference, an incarcerated person must show that prison officials failed to respond to a reasonably known and substantial risk of serious harm. Article 1, Section 17, of the California Constitution, if enforced by a court order, would immediately halt the policy and practice of setting up rival gangs.

It must also be pointed out that Governor Gavin Newsom has the authority to stop the CDCR’s system-wide “reintegration” policy. It appears that the CDCR has no interest in operating the prison system for the purpose of rehabilitation.

While this has been generally argued in past decades based on other failures of the CDCR, the current “breaking gangs policy,” and its use of staged fights to do so, exposes the heightened level of disregard for safety, transparency and decency. Internal investigation documents show that correctional staff are not willing to respond to investigators’ questions on direct and poignant details such as why officers placed a few men of one gang with hundreds of rivals who gathered immediately outside of the passage into the “reintegrated” yard.

Take Action

Governor Gavin Newsom has been contacted by many families regarding the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s integrated yard policy. Readers are encouraged to also contact the Governor’s office to voice their concerns about the supposed “reintegration” policy of 2022 that has resulted in what is likely hundreds of gladiator fights and dangerous circumstances for all men in all California prisons:

Readers are also encouraged to contact No More Silence to Violence, an organization of family members of incarcerated victims of state-sponsored violence. Contact them for information on how to support their efforts:


  • Bob McCloskey

    Bob McCloskey is a homeless advocate in Fresno.

  • Morghan Vélez Young

    Morghan Vélez Young, Ph.D., is an educator and researcher focused on transformative opportunities for those involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. She consults and trains through and lectures in the Anthropology Department at Fresno State. Contact her at

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Amanda castellon
Amanda castellon
1 year ago

Thank you to all who helped put this article together we will continue to shed light on these matters as we fight against injustices.

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