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Officials Ignored Warnings Before Massive ‘Gladiator Fight’ At Soledad State Prison In California

The head of California’s prison system visited the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad the day before dozens of prisoners were injured and hospitalized in a fight, which prisoners and advocates say was entirely predictable.

During the visit, prisoners say they told California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Ralph Diaz they wanted an end to the violence.

Dozens of fights have broken out at CTF and other state prisons over the last year. Prisoners and advocates contend this is the result of prison officials forcing rival Latinx groups to have recreation together. Every time this happens, fights break out, people get hurt, and prisoners are punished with lockdowns.

Additionally, some prisoners face punishment that may negatively impact their chances at parole.

Prisoners said Diaz was adamant the groups will share the yard and, if they are unable to get along, they will have to live with the violence.

The next day, on August 14, members of Latinx formations that are known to be in conflict—Bulldogs and Southerners—were once again forced to share the yard at Facility C. Prisoners said Bulldogs taunted others with barking and used Southerners’ phones, a sign of disrespect in the state’s highly segregated prisons.

Corrections officers gathered above as tensions escalated. Eventually, Bulldogs attacked and officers fired rubber bullets into the melee, which involved around 200 prisoners.

Around 50 prisoners were injured. Eight were hospitalized. “When they did not comply [with orders to cease fighting], staff deployed chemical agents, non-lethal weapons and discharged nine rounds from the state-issued Ruger Mini-14 rifle as warning shots to end the incident,” CDCR said in a press release.

According to sources, one prisoner was shot in the back of the head with a rubber bullet and required stitches. Another prisoner was shot in the mouth, and his teeth were “bent up.” A third prisoner, who was one of the younger prisoners out in the yard, lost an eye.

CDCR held prisoners under lockdown conditions for twelve days after the fight. On August 26, officials moved 50 prisoners into administrative segregation (more commonly known as solitary confinement). Sources said some were still recovering from injuries at the time of their isolation.

The department euphemistically refers to lockdown-like restrictions imposed after these fights as a “modified program.” They are similar to lockdowns except they target only a segment of the population with restrictions on movement, programming, visitation, commissary, showers, mail, and other basic necessities.

The Monterey County District Attorney’s office is investigating.

*

Shadowproof interviewed the wife of a prisoner who was sent to solitary confinement after the fight. She will be referred to as Alice because of the risk of retaliation for speaking out.

Alice argued CDCR is punishing these men so they can be scapegoated for a fight that was entirely of the department’s own making.

“My husband has been down since he was 16,” Alice said. “My husband is a lifer. He possibly has a chance to parole next year because of SB 260. He’s worked hard. He made it all the way down to a Level 2 because he knew he had a chance to come home. And they’re taking that from us.” (Note: CDCR security classification range from Levels 1 to 4, with Level 1 being the lowest security level).

Officials are harming prisoners’ chances at parole and taking away earned time credits, which extends their confinement.

“I know that they’re in prison. I know that he committed a crime but he’s already serving his sentence for that crime. He’s already being punished. To keep putting them out in the yard to kill each other, essentially, is irresponsible of CDCR because they all took an oath to keep them safe and they aren’t doing a thing to do that.”

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking,” Alice added. “We don’t know what’s going on. Nobody is keeping us informed. Nobody is telling us anything. There’s nothing.”

She is worried prison officials will withhold his treatment for his medical condition while he’s in solitary confinement. “It’s vicious what they’re doing.”

Alice is one of several women engaged in the difficult labor of supporting prisoners from the outside.

These women organize protests and actions, share information among each other and the public, and look after one another as best they can. They spend significant time and energy pushing back on the various injustices visited upon them and their loved ones—calling and emailing prison officials, watchdogs, and even the governor. They also meticulously document everything as it unfolds.

Many juggle this labor along with their job, raising children, and projecting emotional strength for their incarcerated loved ones.

We are a small but powerful group,” Alice declared. “And we’re going to come together and band together to support each other. This is an effort to show everyone that just because they’re on the inside doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice on the outside. We are their voice.”

“If it takes me a lifetime, and if it takes us a lifetime because we’re a group together, we’re going to do it.”

*

Prisoners spoke with the CDCR Secretary the day before the fight “to try to find a solution,” Alice said, but he refused because “it would destroy his public image” as the first Latinx person to lead the department.

One prisoner, who we are calling Michael to protect him from retaliation for speaking to media, recounted Diaz’s visit to Soledad.

“During his visit, [Diaz] engaged in extensive dialogue with inmates at [Soledad]. The subject of this dialogue was in regards to CDCR’s goal of incremental releases and reintegrating two factions which are at odds and have been since last year,” Michael said.

[Note: “Incremental releases” and “reintegration” are CDCR jargon for making different factions share the yard.]

Michael insisted it was made very clear that if the groups were forced to share the yard then “without a doubt inmate lives would be in danger.”

“Ralph Diaz, armed with this information, showed complete disregard for institutional safety and security” for the prisoners thrown in the middle of “gladiator wars,” Michael added.

He recalled Diaz was “adamant about his position” that “both factions would have to learn to get along or else we would have to live with the violence and that we would be deprived of any milestones credit earning in [higher security] Level 3 and 4 prisons.”

Under a 2016 ballot initiative known as Proposition 57, prisoners earn credits off their time in prison for participating in education and rehabilitation programs. However, CDCR can revoke them for disciplinary infractions.

Alice said Diaz “knew this was going to happen and neglected to do anything.”

*

The media has been relatively silent on these fights, which have taken place at Soledad, Corcoran, Pleasant Valley State Prison, and elsewhere since at least September 2018.

The outlets that covered it offer readers little information beyond “an investigation is ongoing.” Local journalists exclusively quote law enforcement, who give the impression that unruly criminals are assaulting one another for reasons that remain unclear.

Prisoners, their families, and allied activists strongly contest this narrative. To the contrary, the violence is entirely predictable. That is why they have taken to calling these incidents “gladiator fights.”

In the 1990s, Corcoran State Prison made headlines when whistleblowers disclosed corrections officers arranged deadly “gladiator fights” for amusement and financial gain. Similar stories emerged from other state prisons and it became clear this was not an isolated incident. However, corrections officers brought to trial were ultimately acquitted of the charges.

Practically, all aspects of life in California prisons have been racially segregated for decades. CDCR traditionally uses these factions to maintain order and keep prisoners from building solidarity. Prisoners join them for reasons ranging from protection to a sense that they have no choice.

In 2005, CDCR was forced to end its policy of segregation as part of a settlement agreement. But the following year CDCR saw an uptick in violence as it attempted to force integration of these groups, including Bulldogs and Southerners.

Many of CDCR’s racial factions joined what is known as the “Agreement To End Hostilities” in 2012. The agreement was forged by prisoners engaged in historic hunger strikes at Pelican Bay State Prison against indefinite solitary confinement, which was employed coerce prisoners into snitching on fellow prisoners.

Instead of fighting among themselves, they agreed to organize together for better conditions. “We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit!!” prisoners declared in the agreement.

Prisoners recognized they were an “empowered, mighty force” that could “positively change this entire corrupt system into a system that actually benefits prisoners, and thereby, the public as a whole.”

The Southerners are a party to the “Agreement To End Hostilities.” The Bulldogs, however, are not.

As a result of the hunger strikes and lawsuits, California moved to end its use of indefinite solitary confinement. Now, corrections officers appear to be weaponizing Bulldogs’ reputation as antagonists to foster an increasingly violent environment that can be used as a pretext for unending cycles of punishment and isolation.

Sources say the only times Bulldogs have not fought during yard integrations are when corrections officers are there protecting them like bodyguards.

Some advocates told Shadowproof that CDCR should transfer Bulldogs to facilities where they can have their own yards. Most other groups are able to program together peacefully.

“Unfortunately, Bulldogs have historically derived power from being a ‘spoiler,'” explained Brooke Terpstra, who organizes in support of prisoners and their families with the Oakland chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).

“They can exert power by sabotaging whatever stability or agreements have been reached in the yard. In this way, they hold a ‘trump card.'”

“This syndrome is very familiar across all systems, in all periods,” Terpstra added. “It is a product of the state successfully enforcing scarcity in all aspects of life by sowing division.”

Likening the situation to “crabs fighting in a barrel,” Terpstra suggested the solution is to “demolish the barrel, not kill the ‘competition.'”

*

Prisoners and their families argue August 14 fits into a pattern of fights instigated by Bulldogs over the past year at Soledad, Corcoran, Pleasant Valley, and other facilities.

They are incredulous at CDCR’s insistence that officers don’t expect violence when these groups are made to share the yard.

“CDCR will continue to claim that they do not know fights will occur but these are fights set up by them every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday,” Alice said.

“They have interviewed the men. The men will tell them violence will occur, and they also have loved ones, spouses, and family members sending emails to everyone notifying them that violence will occur.”

Alice called the claim “ridiculous” and said CDCR has had “plenty indication that violence will occur.”

There is evidence going back over a decade, such as news articles in major publications and even commentary in the California prison union’s magazine Peacekeeper, that the potential for violence between Bulldogs and Southerners during integrations was well known.

Alice shared numerous emails with the warden, the governor, the office of the inspector general, and the ombudsman about the violence and her husband’s loss of visitation, mail, and food over the past year. Sometimes she received unhelpful or gaslighting responses, such as claims that mail was being delivered normally, even though it had been months since anyone received it.

Other times, she received what seemed to be automated responses that mentions yards that have nothing to do with her husband or her messages simply went ignored.

Sometimes the same games are played when women try to visit their loved ones at these facilities, calling ahead for days to make sure there is visitation only to be turned away after traveling and waiting for hours at the prison.

“The [Office of Inspector General] is over there watching these men kill themselves and they’re okay with it, and it’s kind of baffling to me that they would allow that,” Alice said.

“They’re withholding his mail, he hasn’t received his mail since May. They don’t answer me on that. I’m tracking everything, and they won’t answer me. They keep withholding it, and I know they’re throwing it away. I don’t know what to do.”

“When I contact the ombudsman, she gives me the same automated response. And I just want a real answer because if the shoe was on the other foot I guarantee they would do whatever it took to get their loved one safe.”

Recently, the inspector general’s office said it was assigning staff to monitor “integrations” at CTF and other facilities, and that CDCR notified them it was “reviewing” the process as well. But they said the same thing in April and found “no evidence” of fights taking place during integrations at that time.

“I just want the public to educate themselves. Stop with the ignorance. Educate yourselves to see what’s really going on,” Alice urged. “At the end of the day, these men have [release] dates, and these men are just another dollar sign for CDCR, another way to make money.”

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.