SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In a brawl that officials say was extreme even by the violent standards of California prisons, prison officers had to open fire to stop a melee that eight guards and seven prisoners in hospitals.
Pelican Bay State Prison guards in three gun towers fired 19 gun bullets and three hard foam rounds to stop large groups of prisoners from the attacks of other prison guards on Wednesday.
The guards had been had been using pepper spray and batons to break up a fistfight between two inmates when they were overrun by other criminals in an exercise yard filled with a few hundred high-security prisoners.
“They ran in the direction of the incident from different areas of the yard and just rushed the officers,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “They overwhelmed them. Overwhelmed is the word that I heard again and again.”
The eight guards were treated in hospital and released, though one will have his shoulder surgery. All eight had facial injuries, bumps, bruises and contusions, Thornton said.
Five of the seven injured prisoners suffered bullet wounds in the prison, which houses about 2,000 inmates near the Oregon border. Four were admitted, including those airlifted to another hospital for a higher level of care. Three were transported to the prison.
Researchers are trying to determine whether the widespread attack was planned. Two inmate weapons were found at the scene, but Thornton said she appeared to be makeshift weapons the prisoners seized during the fighting, and officials still don’t know if they were used on the officers.
Premeditated or not, the mass attack was unusual. Ninety-seven prisoners were isolated in a disciplinary homes after the abuse, because they are believed to have participated.
“I can’t remember an incident like this, where so many prisoners just flooded our employees like that, I really can’t,” said Thornton, who has been with the department for almost 20 years. “Believe it or not, the staff attacks of various degrees happen every day. But often it is just someone who is resistant.”
Large-scale fights between inmates are not uncommon, but often leave employees untouched. Individual correctional officers are sometimes targeted for attacks, including that of “gassed” with a toxic mix of urine and stool.
“The fact of the matter is, people take a risk when they work in a prison,” Thornton said. “They are fully aware of that risk, they take it willingly and they behave very professional and very human in general.”
Such attacks may be more common, said Nicholas Gomez, a spokeswoman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union representing most of the guards.
“We are concerned that this kind of activity will increase as the state continues to ignore negative behaviors of the inmate for the importance of the monetary savings,” Gomez said in a statement.
California has greatly reduced the population in recent years to comply with a federally imposed population cap and a voter-approved reduction of penalties for those sentenced for drug and property crimes.
New regulations resulting from another voter-approved initiative is intended to reward inmates for good behavior by reducing their prison sentences.
But Thornton said prisoners can still be punished if they misbehave.
“Yes, we are looking to improve prisoners’ lives … through the provision of rehabilitation programs,” she said. “But to say that we ignore negative behavior, that’s absurd.
“There are a number of prisoners who are very dangerous,” Thornton said. “That is the reality.”