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More Reports Of ‘Gladiator Fights’ As California Prison Officials Tear Up Cells To Find Recording Device

Another fight between rival prisoner groups took place at the state prison in Corcoran, California on the morning of February 20.

The fight happened during what the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR) calls “incremental release,” when small groups of prisoners are released onto the yard together for recreation.

Prisoners, their families, and advocates argue officials are scheduling incrementals with members of racial groups they know are in conflict. For that reason, they call them “gladiator fights”—a nod to fights orchestrated by Corcoran corrections officers in the 1990s.

CDCR denies the fights are set up by prison officials.

The February 20 incident at Facility 3C involved four prisoners from the racial factions known as the Sureños and the Bulldogs, and happened at around 9:40 AM. Officers used a “pepper spray instantaneous blast grenade to quell the incident,” CDCR told Shadowproof, noting prisoners were “decontaminated from the pepper spray and medically evaluated.” No injuries were reported.

Multiple sources, which will remain anonymous because they fear retaliation, say the Sureños were put in solitary confinement.

The fights triggered lockdown conditions for some prisoners, which CDCR refers to as “modified programs.” At Corcoran, the conditions have been imposed since September 28 and cover 300 of the 700 people housed in Facility 3C. Those individuals have been denied visitation and programming, commissary access, recreational time, and endure other restrictions.

As a result, 270 prisoners were inspired to launch a hunger strike in January. It lasted for almost all of the month and was suspended when Warden Ken Clark agreed to negotiate. However, those negotiations have fallen apart.

Prisoners engaged in a noise demonstration in response, and many have reportedly faced write-ups for their participation. The environment in Facility 3C is apparently growing more intense every day.

‘Hungry All The Time’

Shadowproof spoke to a woman, who will be referred to as “Rosa” so she can tell her story without fear of retribution from CDCR officials. Her husband, who will be referred to as “Luis,” is incarcerated in Facility 3C and a member of the Sureños.

When asked about living conditions under the “modified program,” “[Luis] told me how he pretty much tries to sleep as much as possible because he’s tired of feeling hungry all the time,” Rosa said.

“They’re giving such small portions and the warden is cutting off any allowance of food to be bought through the store. They’re now just living off of the portions that they’re given.”

Rosa and Luis were counting down the days until his release before the incremental releases started.

She said Luis was on the verge of release to Level 3—essentially general population for prisoners with behavioral misconduct records—until the warden called for every Sureño to be written-up for the noise demonstration on February 11.

His counselor told her Luis cannot drop to Level 3 now because of the write-up.

“We’re constantly living in fear that, if he gets pulled out into one of these incrementals, it’s a whole new charge,” Rosa added.

Rosa and other families have protested outside Corcoran during visitation hours for the past few weeks. They have called and emailed CDCR officials, pleading with them to cease programming these racial groups together. But so far, CDCR has not responded to their concerns.

“I’m out there [protesting] weekly, I’m out there every Saturday and Sunday,” Rosa declared, adding there has been a small but vocal contingent of around 10 or 12 protesters, including children.

On that first Sunday, Rosa’s 14-year-old son joined the protest, as did a 5-year-old child. It was pouring rain and very cold, she recalled. That day was hard because “as the COs were coming in and out, they were recording and laughing at us.”

“It really upset me because I’m like, you guys are heartless. There are children here in the pouring rain with literally a sign that says, ‘Let me see my father.’”

Rosa said she has voiced her concerns to prison officials many times in recent weeks, including once when a CO stopped to speak with protesters on his way into Corcoran.

She apparently told the CO they’re calling it a “gladiator fight” because they know it will happen. Every time they release these prisoners, the “end result is violence,” she told the CO, because “both [groups] have already established they’re not going to program together.”

“You understand that these men have to, but don’t want to, [fight],” Rosa shared. “My husband, if it was his choice, he wouldn’t participate in these things. But he doesn’t have a choice because it’s the living situation. He has to live in it.”

California State Prison – Corcoran. Photo via California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

CO’s Tear Up Cells Looking For Device That Captured ‘Gladiator Fights’

Corcoran is not the only California prison experiencing violence from incremental releases.

CDCR confirmed two fights at the state prison in Soledad to local news outlets after Shadowproof released video footage of the incidents on February 18.

Multiple sources tell Shadowproof that COs at Soledad tore cells apart on February 20 looking for the device that recorded the fights.

CDCR has confirmed additional fights to Shadowproof. One occurred at Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP) on February 14 at approximately 10:35 AM. This incident involved four inmates on the Facility C yard.

“Officers used pepper spray to stop the fight. No one was injured. Facility C at PVSP has been on modified program since September 29, 2018,” Thornton said.

Anonymous sources told Shadowproof the fight, like the one at Corcoran, involved two Sureños and two Bulldogs, even though prison officials were warned it would lead to violence.

The incident allegedly began when one Sureño put out his hand to shake in solidarity and was struck by a Bulldog. All four were sent to solitary confinement and written-up afterward.

Shadowproof also learned of a possible fight on February 19 between white prisoners and Bulldogs. Officers originally attempted to bring Mexican prisoners onto the yard, but those prisoners refused. Their personal items were confiscated.

Sources told Shadowproof the Sureños do not want to be involved in these fights. We were told some officers feared losing their jobs if they intervened.

Setting Up Fights

A San Francisco Bay Area native that will be referred to as “Frank” was tried as an adult and sentenced to six years in prison as a 17-year-old. He was incarcerated from 2005 to 2011. (Shadowproof granted Frank anonymity so he can share his experiences without fear of retribution from prison officials.)

Frank told Shadowproof these kinds of fights might be making headlines now, but they are not new.

“Gladiator fights were happening on a regular,” Frank said of the two years he spent at Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP). “Knowing that certain group segments weren’t in agreement with each other, COs would release inmates—one-on-two, two-on-two, two-on-ten.”

Frank was in the SHU in 2010, where he said he “witnessed numerous men enter the hole for staged gladiator fights.” He said their lock-up orders, which they shared with him, showed they were “catching extra time on their sentence, extra points, as well as gang-related charges for these staged gladiator fights.”

“Multiple men told me how they and their cell mate were told to go to the yard. When they went out to the yard, the COs were lined up on the grass and on top of buildings with pepper spray, batons, cameras, lethal & non-lethal weapons, and tasers. The COs staged these fights, and the individuals who were from general population were sent to the hole and labeled the aggressors,” he recalled.

“When I was on mainline at PVSP, I used to anxiously stand by my door waiting for the COs to set me and my celly up in a dog fight.”

Frank explained the fights were perceived as a way to keep prisoners in higher-classification (and more restrictive) housing units.

He echoed the claim made by many over the last few weeks, that the fights are an effective strategy for breaking up peace and solidarity between racial groups.

“Rather than encouraging inmates to collectively coexist, CDCR is deliberately creating violence by putting those who are in agreement with one another out on the yard with group segments who are not in agreement,” Frank explained.

He argued the “Agreement To End Hostilities”—a peace treaty between racial groups that came about during the 2013 statewide hunger strike, ending indefinite solitary confinement and setting legal precedent for challenging confinement as torture—”deeply [scarred] the reputation of CDCR.”

“The last thing CDCR wants is inmates collectively organizing and challenging their conditions, like the Pelican Bay hunger strike.”

“Therefore, forcing them into gladiator fights disrupts unity, places group segments on arbitrary lockdowns, adds time to their sentences, and ruins chances of possibly paroling,” Frank contended. “These gladiator fights are swept under the rug, and CDCR blames everything on gang violence when the real issue is CDCR manufacturing violence.”

Rosa said Sureños (who have agreed to the peace treaty) have “a lot of rules that they follow by in order to keep peace and to keep safety and the structure,” but the Bulldogs (who have not) “don’t answer to anybody. They don’t have rules. So they’re very aggressive, and they don’t answer to anybody.”

“The [Sureños] only do it because the COs don’t live it every day, all day. They go home to their loved ones. [Prisoners] have to live it,” Rosa added.

Brooke Terpstra, a prisoner advocate with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), addressed the balance of power between racial groups and CDCR, as well as the role these groups play in prison life.

“At root, inside structures are survival strategies in the face of a barbaric violent system and hellish conditions. They indeed issue orders, maintain strict codes of conduct as well as engage in internal political education, mutual support, and information sharing.”

“Historically, there have been many periods of interracial and political organizing inside to unify populations and address conditions, but DOCs historically have beheaded those efforts, smashed them and criminalize them,” Terpstra added.

“What is left are battered racial groups that have to resort to extreme measures of discipline to protect themselves and whatever they can materially secure for themselves within a violently imposed state of deprivation.”

Terpstra likened the response of authorities to the COINTELPRO strategy to disrupt political organizing on the outside.

“Racial hostilities and inter-clique fights have been encouraged for decades by CDCR,” Terpstra continued, arguing CDCR imposed racial segregation in the 1970s to combat political prisoner movements. (The de jure practice of racial segregation in CDCR facilities ended in 2014.)

Terpstra accused CDCR of stoking violence on a basic level by depriving “every type of human need: sunlight, contact, self-respect, family, nourishing food, expression, hope,  communication.”

“That doesn’t just stoke violence, it is violence.”

In that context, according to Terpstra, CDCR is imposing an ultimatum, where prisoners must “surrender [their] whole self to [their] brutal CDCR masters and denounce [their] set, which provides belonging, identity, respect, communication, survival, and a form of family in the midst of hell on earth, or else—now that indefinite solitary has been neutralized—[they] will be locked down, isolated, and fought like dogs on the yard at the whim of sadists.”

Family members protest in support of hunger strikers at the state prison in Corcoran, California (Photo from Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee)

CDCR Claims Allegations Are ‘Unfounded’

Shadowproof asked CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton why the department insists on incremental releases between rival groups despite repeated outcry and several violent incidents over the last few months.

Thornton called the allegations “unfounded.”

“CDCR is charged with providing a safe and secure environment for everyone who lives, works and visits its institutions. Furthermore, the rehabilitation of individuals entrusted in the department’s care is also a priority. To that end, CDCR will continue to move toward a behavior-based model that focuses on providing the most programming opportunities for inmates in the least restrictive setting,” Thornton said.

“This carries greater significance as incarcerated people have more opportunities to earn credits and be reunited with their families,” Thornton added. “Any individual or group who does not follow the rules and who inflicts violence on inmates and/or staff, will be subject to sanctions.”

Thornton also insisted, although prisoners face numerous restrictions under the “modified program,” it technically does not fall under the legal definition of a lockdown in California (i.e., a restriction placed on all inmates, who are confined to their cells and dorms), which she said “only happens on rare occasions.”

Shadowproof responded that multiple independent sources have told prison officials these groups cannot program together peacefully, only to be told the orders for incremental releases were coming from CDCR headquarters in Sacramento.

With that in mind, Shadowproof asked Thornton to clarify what exactly CDCR was “categorically” denying.

The spokesperson categorically denied the allegation that its officers are “setting up inmates to fight. CDCR is always concerned about safety and security in its institutions. Unfortunately, a small minority of inmates choose to engage in violent behavior.”

“CDCR does not expect people and security threat groups to fight when they are released to the yard. CDCR expects all incarcerated people to engage in positive programming and behavior.”

This assertion is called into question not only by the testimony of prisoners and their advocates but by documentation as well.

Shadowproof obtained a gang alert from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office from 2018, titled, “Sureño vs Bulldog Prison Assault Spillover To Fresno County.”

It states, since September 28, 2018—the first day of the “modified program” at Corcoran—”there have been several large scale assaults involving Fresno Bulldogs and Sureño gang members at several prisons in California, including Corcoran State Prison, Avenal State Prison, Pleasant Valley State Prison, and Vallecito Conservation Camp.”

It noted some of those involved were taking to hospitals due to injuries from the fights.

Importantly, the alert noted that “information has been developed indicating a state-wide ‘green light’ on Bulldogs in all prisons has been authorized by the Mexican Mafia,” which controls the Sureños, leading to an “increase in shootings/acts of violence involving Bulldogs and Sureños targeting each other” in Fresno County.

Multiple sources have told Shadowproof about fights involving the Bulldogs and other racial groups over the last six months.

‘These Are Families’

As is so often the case, the burden to support and advocate for prisoners falls on women on the outside, who often are working and raising children at the same time.

Through tears, Rosa said, “Obviously, for him, I try to be his support because he’s the one who lives it. But it’s constantly, on my end, the fear.”

“The worst part are the incrementals. When they do those, all the wives, literally, when we hear they do incremental releases, we get together in a group and everyone just tries to deal with that gut feeling.”

This most often means waiting to receive a handwritten letter from the inside. “There’s no communication because there’s no phone privileges. So it’s waiting for any word to get out to find out that it wasn’t your loved one, is by far the hardest.”

“But to know the feeling of your husband being hungry and to read his letters that he hasn’t eaten in three days, it’s heartbreaking,” Rosa shared. “I’m trying to stay positive at work. I deal with customers every day and I’m just constantly trying to hide the emotion.”

“It’s tough. Every day I call his counselor. Every single day I call her and ask her, is there any way? Has he dropped his points? Can we get him moved off this yard? Because there’s no end to it. And it’s heartbreaking. It’s stressful. I’m sick. I don’t know if you can hear it because I’ve been out in the rain for the past two weekends and it’s cold. My voice doesn’t even heal because I’m constantly trying to be loud and protest.”

Rosa said it’s one of the hardest things she’s ever been through, but that she is trying to be tough for him “because, mentally, he has to stay ready at all times. I’m his backbone, I’m his support, I’m his wife. I can’t let it show.”

“There’s been breakdowns. I cry myself to sleep every night just praying that he’s okay.“

“These are families,” Rosa declared. “At any point in time, it could be your son, your father, it could be your brother. This is my husband. That might not mean anything but he’s my husband. And he’s my child’s father.”

“All I want to know is that they’re being rehabilitated. And positive rehabilitation is education. It’s a detriment to the rehabilitation process to not have a connection with their loved ones, and they’re not getting that.”

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Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.