A series of riots took place at a Central Coast prison just before the Christmas holiday. Officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) confirmed prison fights broke out at Soledad State Prison, and four inmates were hospitalized. CDCR officials call them minor incidents, but families of inmates say more fights are occurring because of a new state prison program.
“Our families are being tortured. Most of these men—they have worked hard to go to Level I and Level II facilities.” Darlene Burke said. “It’s as though they’re being punished for all the hard work they’ve invested in themselves.”
Burke and several dozen protesters held signs and read inmate letters outside the CDCR headquarters in Sacramento last month. The Level I and Level II facilities she mentioned are security classifications. Essentially, while serving time, inmates are assigned points and then work them off to downgrade security levels. The lower the number, the more privileges offered and the better the chance to receive parole. But get in trouble, and that chance decreases.
“People are being denied their suitability to parole back into their community because they are being forced to integrate and being forced to keep themselves safe,” Burke said.
Burke and others are protesting a new integration effort related to sensitive needs yards, or SNYs. For 20 years, sensitive needs inmates have been separated from the general population for their own safety, often for being informants. But California now has the largest protective-custody prison population in the nation.
To change this statistic, the CDCR has begun merging the two populations together at Level I and Level II facilities across the state, calling them “non-designated programming facilities," or NDPFs.
It started as a voluntary program for inmates who are “programming well," which means they are educating themselves and are not breaking rules.
Ruthie Montalvo has been organizing protests of the NDPFs, because now the program is mandatory. Her husband is an inmate, and she said the two populations, GPs and SNYs, are set up to hate each other. She said the integrations are putting inmates at risk for getting attacked, and described an incident this summer at North Kern State Prison.
“Those inmates were stabbed, beaten with locks, and [received] injuries of different sorts,” Montalvo said. “Basically [they were] taken to medical, and once they were treated, [they] were sent to administrative segregation— which is the hole—and provided 115s [disciplinary write-ups] for participating in a riot."
Montalvo said inmates have become fearful of the integrations. She said some inmates start fights hoping to get sent to solitary confinement, or get moved out of a prison entirely, which would hurt their chances for parole.
KCBX News reviewed a number of rules violation reports for riots at North Kern and other state prisons in 2018. The reports do not cite the cause of the violations, but do describe general population (GP) and sensitive needs yards (SNY) inmates fighting with each other in the yards and dorms, and officers firing expulsion grenades, pepper spray, and direct impact rounds to break up the fights. The reports also include photographs of inmates with lacerations and contusions on their faces and bodies.
"Just like any change, there have been incidents that have occured at some prisons, but not at the magnitude, from my perspective, that would warrant us to change or stop at this point," said Ralph Diaz, acting secretary of the CDCR.
Diaz said CDCR officials integrate inmates on a case-by-case basis.
"It’s explained in committee, why it would benefit them," Diaz said. "We cannot have inmates just flat out say 'I’m not gonna go,' without any documentation that we can validate through their file, or even as we discuss with them.”
Diaz said he won’t put inmates in the same areas as their documented enemies, but inmates are "going to need to learn to get along moving forward," Diaz said, and that the CDCR’s goal is to give more inmates more "programming opportunities," aimed at getting them out sooner.
"Because eventually they are going to go home," Diaz said. "They are going to need to be prepared and equipped and educated and trained and be provided skills. But if certain segments of inmates can't go there, because one particular group doesn’t like them, then fundamentally that’s wrong."
Montalvo said CDCR "programming opportunities" have worked for her husband.
“He’s worked so hard," Montalvo said. "He’s serving a 21-year, four-month sentence. My husband has completely turned his life around, and he deserves that opportunity to come home to his family.”
Montalvo said Avenal State Prison, where her husband is currently housed, is set to integrate at the beginning of the year. She says she is worried an integration incident could hurt his chances for release, or worse.
“There is no bigger fear than finding out something has happened in a prison,” Montalvo said. “You’re left with your thoughts. ‘Is my husband dead? Is he alive? What happened?’”
Montalvo and a group of protesters met with Diaz in November, and while Diaz said he heard their concerns, he still has no plans to halt the integration program.
Montalvo said she and the loved ones of inmates across the state will keep protesting.