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California Prison Had History of Safety Problems

08/11/2009 -The California state prison that erupted in violent race riots this weekend had a history of safety problems in recent years,reports The New York Times.

Three inspection reports at the Chino prison — by an internal investigator, an expert witness in a federal class-action lawsuit and the state inspector general — show longstanding problems.

In 2005, an inmate stabbed a correctional officer to death. The inspector general’s review concluded that the killer had a history of mental illnesses and should have been placed in a more restricted setting. The review also found that guards lacked proper training and safety equipment.

In 2007, a prison expert inspected the Chino complex and told the three-judge court that it was “an incredibly old, poorly maintained, unsanitary facility with inadequate staffing.” The expert, Doyle Wayne Scott, a former executive director for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, described how prisoners were often deprived of educational and counseling programs and recreation time outside their living quarters....Last year, the California inspector general, David R. Shaw, highlighted inadequate correctional officer training and poor classification of inmates that allowed high-risk felons to mix with less serious offenders. Mr. Shaw described the Chino facility as being in “beyond poor condition.”

The rioting began on Saturday along racial lines and ended with hundreds injured, dormitories destroyed by fists and flames, and more than 1,000 prisoners relocated to different prisons. The Chino prison housed 5,900 inmates,according to the Los Angeles Times, double its capacity.

Just last week, a three-judge panel ordered the state to reduce its 150,000-strong prison population by 40,000 inmates within two years. After the ruling, Attorney General Jerry Browntold the NY Timesthat he would appeal the panel's decision. The LA Timesthen reported that Brown called the panel's decision judicial activism and said that the order to release 27 percent of the prison system's inmates while cash-strapped municipalities are cutting law enforcement is not a smart formula. No word yet whether the riots will weaken or strengthen Brown's resolve to appeal the decision.

California isn't the only government stretched thin by overcrowded prisons. In late July, Congress heard testimony from witnesses who argued overflowing federal prisons increased the safety risk for inmates and guards alike.

"Correctional administrators agree that crowded prisons result in greater tension, frustration, and anger among the inmate population, which leads to conflicts and violence,"said Harry G. Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

♦ Photo byRob Shenk/Flickr