How do prison riots start/get resolved?


In a recent post to Quora, a user asked "how do prison riots get started? How do they get resolved?" Check out the below response from Chung Kao, an inmate at San Quentin State prison and a participant in the prison's Last Mile program.

Prison riots seldom happen among the same race or gang, but usually do between different races or rival gangs. Riots kick off over dominance, respect, debts, and oftentimes, trivial reasons such as someone was drunk/high and stepped on another's toes. They get resolved typically by the prison administration moving people around to avoid further tension. But they can also settle when the individuals responsible for the cause are disciplined (by their peers), when the debts are paid (with interest, of course), or when the aggressors get what they want.

Here is how trivial and silly the riot, reportedly the biggest in California, started on August 8, 2009 at the California Institution for Men (CIM) at Chino, California. A smaller scale riot happened first about a week before it. CIM has four sub-facilities, three which, Central,East, and West, back then were reception centersfor parole violators. The riot happened in the West Facility, but the preluded in the Central Facility, on the yard. I was there, with about 100 other inmates. (I was not a parole violator, long story short.)

In this Tuesday Aug. 11, 2009 file photo, dozens of burned-out bunks are seen in a dormitory damaged by fire, during a tour of the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif.
In this Tuesday Aug. 11, 2009 file photo, dozens of burned-out bunks are seen in a dormitory damaged by fire, during a tour of the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

It all began in my unit, Sycamore Hall, where there were about 60 Mexicans, 30 blacks, 10 whites, and me, all locked up 24 hours a day besides three-hour yard time every three days and any visits to clinic, law library, and counselors. Tension had already risen between Mexicans and blacks for the noise made by the latter after "program shutdown" (9 p.m.), an agreed-upon time when everyone would stop talking on the tier until the next morning.

The matter worsened when a couple of blacks would make the sound of machine gun fire whenever they walked by a Mexican cell (as if they had been doing a drive-by shooting). This is a taboo that we call "cell-soldiering," where one provokes another when neither can physically "deal with it" (because the cell doors were locked, in the instance). So the next time we had yard, we had a riot. The Mexicans attacked the blacks, feigned to stop, and attacked again, in three waves. The two provocative blacks were targeted and received serious injuries. Countless 47mm rubber bullets were fired at the mob. Then it was lockdown of the entire prison.

Obviously, the blacks did not stop provocative behaviors after all of the riot participants were locked up in the "hole." So the Mexican leader for CIM (who was in the hole waiting to go to the Security Housing Unit for an indeterminate term) ordered a "green light" on attacking blacks at any chance. Because the West Facility was dorm-living -- each dorm had about 200 prisoners -- an all-out riot broke out there under the lockdown on August 8, 2009, with more than 1,000 inmates participating. Two dorms were lit up when the blacks were trying to burn the Mexicans alive in there. All the prison guards backed out of the facility and were shooting at the rioting mob, with lethal rounds, from outside the electrical fence. The riot made national news, while all of us prisoners at CIM went 48 hours without food, or even a drop of water to drink -- the prisons hut down the water supply to prevent inmates flooding the housing units. The West Facility was evacuated -- all of the prisoners there being dispersed to other prisons -- and California reactivated a closed juvenile facility to accommodate the evacuation.

I transferred out of CIM on October 16, 2009, when it was still on partial lockdown (all inmate movements were separated to Mexican/white vs. black/other). Indeed, riots seldom get resolved without the prison administration's moving people aroundto alleviate tension.

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