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Inside the riot at Chino: What really happened?


Bunks are seen through the wall of one of the dormitories heavily damaged by the fire. (AP photo)

By Luke Whyte

CHINO, Calif. — Even before the violent riot involving more than 1,000 inmates broke out on the night of August 8th, tensions were high at the California Institute for Men in Chino (CIM).

Two days earlier, staff had received an anonymous note from an inmate saying that an uprising would soon erupt somewhere in the prison.

The informant warned that there would be a staged fight, after which inmates across the facility planned to follow suit — the whole complex exploding into revolt.

In response, the administration put the whole prison on modified lockdown. They began interviewing inmates, conducting searches and trying to gather as much intelligence as possible.

Two days later, it happened.

Phase I: The outbreak
“The dorms had just finished dining,” CIM Warden Aref Fakhoury told Corrections1, “and we were doing searches.”

CIM is a large complex consisting of four facilities under the administration of one warden. Primarily, it functions as a reception center for returning parolees and newly-sentenced felons waiting to be shipped out to more permanent residencies at other California state prisons.

One of CIM’s facilities - Reception Center West (RCW) - consists of eight dormitories, each with the capacity to hold about 200 inmates. It was at RCW that the riot took place.

As the last inmate entered the last dorm, Fakhoury explained, the first punch was thrown. And just like that, as if sparking a chain reaction, six of the seven functioning dorms (the eighth was under renovation) exploded into violence.

This map shows the Reception Center West at the California Institute for Men. It was within these dormitories that the riot took place.

Divided along racial lines, the inmates attacked each other. The only dorm that didn’t participate was housing permanent inmate workers who, unlike the others, were not awaiting transfer and thus “had incentive not to be involved,” Fakhoury said.

Quickly, custody staff reacted.

“Initial responders called for additional staff from neighboring units,” Fakhoury said, “and 80 people responded.”

The Crisis Response Team (CRT) suited up, local police arrived and surrounded the perimeter, and other nearby prisons were put on alert — ready to mobilize staff if needed.

“Medical staff created a triage station in the Reception Center West,” Fakhoury said. As inmates started to drag other injured inmates from the chaos, staff treated small injuries on the spot, only sending the most serious wounds to the hospital.

“Initially, we wanted to just contain the riot, protect the staff, and help the injured,” Fakhoury said.

The facility has an electrified fence. Management felt that if they could just mediate the uprising and stop it from spreading, it would burn itself out – as most riots do.

But that was before they realized how big this thing was becoming.

Inside the chaos, the inmates destroyed everything in sight. They smashed every ceramic sink. They shattered every window. They trashed every dorm.

“Anything they could break they broke,” Fakhoury said.

Perhaps most violently of all, inmates ripped out the dorms’ metal window frames with fragments of glass still attached. Wrapping them in towels to make handles, they used them as weapons.

All the dormitory beds were bolted to the floor, a lesson staffed learned from a previous riot. But this didn’t stop the inmates from dragging the mattresses outside.

“They burned mattresses with a smuggled lighter,” Fakhoury said. Then they threw them back into one of the dormitories, which subsequently started to burn.

“The only thing they saved was the TV and the phone,” Fakhoury said.

Phase II: The shut down
“When the fire erupted,” Fakhoury said, “we had to call the local Chino fire agency.”

Of course, calling the fire department is one thing, actually getting them into a burning, electrified prison complex filled with angry inmates wielding crude homemade weapons is another.

“We escorted them in with the CRT team armed with handguns,” Fakhoury said. The inmates were contained into an area while the fire department went to work. As the fires continued to burn and the numbers of injured inmates continued to rise, administration decided it was time to shut this thing down.

Armed with pepper spray, wielding batons, and shooting foam projectiles, the CRT team went dorm to dorm, securing them one by one and separating the inmates who had barricaded themselves.

Inmates were then funneled into transport vans and shipped to an unutilized unit of the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility located about two miles from CIM.

All in all, it took more four hours to get the riot under control and 10 hours before everything and everyone was accounted for and secured.

More 240 inmates had been injured, but only 55 were hospitalized. No one died and not a single staff member was harmed — an amazing success all things considered.

Perhaps the most significant of all was staff endurance.

“The riot broke about two hours before a 10 p.m. staff shift change,” Fakhoury said. Once the news spread, many late-shift staff members jumped in their cars and came to work early. Many of those who were already on the clock stayed way past the end of their shift, some working up to 20 straight hours.

Fakhoury explained: “Some staff out on long-term illness even showed up to help.”

Phase III: The debriefing
All in all, $5.2 million dollars worth of damage was done, two dormitories were destroyed and almost 1,300 inmates had to be transferred.

“It’s a learning process every time there’s an uprising,” Fakhoury said, highlighting communication and identification as major issues during the riot.

“We had multi-agencies and multi-facilities involved in this response,” he said. “We had problems with communication between LEOs on the outside and those of us on the inside.”

A major reason for this was that the outsiders were unfamiliar with the prison, and that staff were not given the right tools to explain and direct people through the facility who didn’t already know the names and terms for various sectors.

A second major issue was that amidst the carnage, many of the inmates’ IDs were thrown out. Thus, as they were escorted from the facility, staff found it extremely difficult to identify them.

Luckily, local police officers had a Live Scan fingerprint machine for scanning records.

“These instruments have been made a priority to be obtained statewide,” Fakhoury said.

Phase IV: The investigation into the cause
Not until December 9th did officials release the results of their investigation into the cause of the riot.

“It’s just an ongoing racial street war,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in an interview with the Associated Press.

Thornton said tensions began between Hispanic and black gangs on the street and “when they came to prison, they brought their animosity with them.”

CIM was housing almost 5,000 inmates in a facility built for just fewer than 3,000 when the riot broke out. Many speculate that overcrowding could have been a factor behind inmate tensions.

The most intriguing lesson however, is in the story of that one dorm in Reception Center West that didn’t participate in the riot. Despite the chaos unfolding around them, the inmates who were permanent working residents at the facility remained calm and compliant throughout the whole process.

The reason for this, according to Fakhoury, is because of their jobs: “They had incentive not to get involved.”

This observation seems almost too obvious. And yet it begs an important question:

What incentive do inmates at your facility have to remain calm and compliant? What are they not willing to lose?

The team of editors and writers is committed to tracking down and reporting on the most important issues and interviews in the correctional field.