Download: Nov. 2008 audit of CIM
Special Section: Criminal Neglect

CHINO - Last weekend's riot at the California Institution for Men was violent, destructive, and a grave danger to inmates and prison staff members.

It was also predictable.

In their most recent audit of the Chino facility, completed in November, state auditors noted numerous problems at the prison, including overcrowded conditions and crumbling infrastructure.

Debris fills the yard as a man takes a rest at the California Institution for Men in Chino on Tuesday after the prison riot last weekend.
Debris fills the yard as a man takes a rest at the California Institution for Men in Chino on Tuesday after the prison riot last weekend. (Thomas R. Cordova/Staff Photographer)

Auditors also found that dangerous, high-security-risk inmates were improperly housed with low-level inmates in Reception Center-West - where last weekend's riot took place - posing a safety risk for inmates and staff members.

"Staff members improperly placed some unsuitable inmates in crowded dormitories that are supervised by only two correctional officers," auditors said.

"Inmate disturbances can quickly escalate in these dormitories, making it difficult for officers to gain control of inmates who assault staff members or other inmates."

Reception Center-West is set aside for the lowest-level prisoners who arrive at the prison, with more dangerous prisoners assigned to the central or east reception centers.

But prison staff members assigned inmates to Reception Center-West despite inmates' high classification scores that exceeded the limit set for the reception center, auditors from the state Office of Inspector General reported in November.

A classification score is one of several factors used by prison staff members to assign inmates to appropriate housing. The score is based on an inmate's behavior in prison, sentence length, seriousness of crimes committed and other factors, auditors said.

In reviews completed in April and May last year, auditors found 19 inmates living in Reception Center-West whose classification scores exceeded the limit set for the reception center.

One inmate whose classification score was more than double the limit was housed at the facility for five weeks before being transferred to Reception Center-East, the auditors found.

Reception Center-West includes eight wooden barracks with inmates housed in bunk beds in open dormitories.

Seven of the buildings were set up to hold 200 inmates and the eighth held 100 inmates. Each building was supervised at the time of the riot by two correctional officers.

Putting violent prisoners in dormitory-style housing rather than more isolated units as found in the other reception centers poses a risk to low-security-level inmates and prison staff members, said Robert Weisberg, a criminal justice expert and law professor at Stanford University.

"It gives violent prisoners more potential victims," Weisberg said. "There's a great deal of crime in prison. There's a great deal of violence in prison."

The state auditors echoed Weisberg's remarks.

"Placing inmates with histories of disruptive or assaultive behavior in an open setting where they can roam freely and where fights among inmates can quickly escalate and spread creates a more dangerous environment for inmates and staff members," the auditors said.

The wide-open design of the facilities can also inhibit officers' ability to quell violence, auditors noted.

"In these dorms, inmates move freely in areas crowded with two-tier bunks and inmates' personal items, potentially obstructing the officers' line of sight and inhibiting the officers' ability to control volatile situations before they escalate to violence," auditors said.

It was unclear last week to what extent prison administrators implemented auditors' recommendations related to prisoner housing classifications.

A prison spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the audit on Friday. 

A spokeswoman for the Office of Inspector General said Friday that prison administrators were "working on" implementing recommendations related to housing classifications, though she was unsure to what extent changes were implemented.

Laura Hill, the spokeswoman, said that auditors from her office arrived at the prison Tuesday to investigate conditions there. The auditors left the prison Thursday evening, she said, and will return this week.

"We're looking at all of the recommendations from the audit that might have been affected by the riot," Hill said.

Nearly 1,300 inmates were housed in Reception Center-West when rioting began last weekend at about 8:20 p.m. Saturday, a time that some inmates where being fed and the majority were locked in their dorms.

The dorms had been on lockdown since Thursday after prison officials learned of rumors of possible violence at the prison.

Inmates who began fighting in the dorms eventually forced their way out of the locked buildings, prompting prison guards - two assigned to each building - to flee for safety, said Lt. Mark Hargrove, prison spokesman.

Rioters fashioned weapons from anything potentially harmful they could get their hands on. Weapons included metal pipes broken from bed frames and other objects, such as glass from broken dorm windows and pieces of metal.

"They literally tore the buildings apart," said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Blood splotches on mattresses and rags observed by reporters during a tour of the facility Tuesday spoke to the violence at the reception center.

Officials said that when the fighting took place, inmates divided into groups based on race. Authorities believe the riot was prompted by tensions between black and Hispanic prisoners, and fueled by animosity between rival gangs.

The riot was quelled after about four hours. Correctional officers used batons, tear gas, pepper spray and other methods to put down the uprising, Hargrove said. The reception center was secured by 7 a.m. Sunday.

More than 200 inmates were injured during the riot, including 55 who were treated at hospitals. Four inmates remained hospitalized Friday, Hargrove said.

Inmates suffered stab wounds, head trauma, lacerations and bruises, among other injuries, authorities said.

Seven of the reception center's eight dorm buildings were rendered uninhabitable following the uprising. One of the eight buildings, called Joshua Hall, was gutted by a fire that broke out during the riot - authorities described the building as "destroyed."

Thornton said Thursday that it will cost $5 million and take eight months to repair the damage at Reception Center-West.

It remained unclear last week whether the reception center will be rebuilt as previously constructed.

Prisoners at Reception Center-West were transferred following the riot to other prison facilities. More than 700 were bused across to the nearly Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility.

Others were transported to state prisons in Norco, Imperial and Soledad, said Thornton.

Besides the finding by state auditors in November that high-security inmates were improperly housed in Reception Center-West, auditors made additional findings about conditions at the prison that may have increased the potential for rioting.

None of the reception center's eight dorm buildings complied with current state building codes, nor did the buildings have any fire protection systems, auditors found.

The Department of Corrections' Architectural and Engineering Section "recommended that (the prison) replace all eight housing units," the auditors said.

Auditors also found that prison supervisors were conducting fewer than half of the required fire and emergency drills, "which may leave employees and inmates ill-prepared to respond to a crisis," auditors said.

In response to auditors' concerns about the drills, prison supervisors achieved "full and complete compliance" with the requirement last year, said Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections, in a November letter to the Office of Inspector General.

Supervisors at the Chino facility also allowed prison guards to work armed posts in the facility even though they failed to attend mandatory quarterly firearms training sessions, a violation of department policy.

It's unclear whether the issue ever affected Reception Center-West, or whether auditors' recommendations related to the finding were implemented at the prison prior to last weekend's riot, said Hill, spokeswoman for the Office of Inspector General.