California halts failed prison gang peace effort after brawls, riots

Corrections officials in California have halted a failed experiment aimed at forcing warring prison gangs to make peace after multiple attempts to integrate inmates resulted in fights and riots.

Officials began gradually allowing inmates from different gangs in prison exercise yards together a year ago in the doomed peace effort. Previously, gang members were mostly kept in their cells for long periods without access to programs that could shorten their sentence.

However, the end result at several state prisons were violent brawls some critics allege were orchestrated by corrections officers.

Prison officials "are kind of at the point where they realize this isn't working," Shaun Spillane, a spokesman for the corrections department's inspector general, told The Associated Press.

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In this Jan. 14, 2009 file photo newly arrived inmates are escorted into the California State Prison, Corcoran. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File )

In this Jan. 14, 2009 file photo newly arrived inmates are escorted into the California State Prison, Corcoran. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File )

Spillane denied inmates were made to fight at the behest of corrections officers.

Most of the violent confrontations involved the Fresno Bulldogs, a gang with more than 6,000 loosely affiliated members in the Central Valley city of Fresno. The gang's name and symbol come from the California State University in Fresno, which uses a bulldog as its mascot.

The gang has participated in 32 fights with other prison gangs in the last year. The battles ranged from small fights to full-scale riots.

"Every threat group is having issues with the Bulldogs, or vice versa. These are all Bulldogs vs. other threat groups," Spillane said.

Of the 45 times prison officials put members of different gangs in the same yard, violence erupted 27 times, according to the inspector general's office.

The most recent brawl occurred on Aug 14 at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, south of San Francisco, where 200 inmates rioted. Eight were treated in outside hospitals and another 50 treated in the prison.

A prison riot in July at Pleasant Valley State Prison involved 182 inmates. Three were treated for puncture wounds.

In this Jan. 14, 2009 file photo inmates use the recreation yard at Corcoran State Prison. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File )

In this Jan. 14, 2009 file photo inmates use the recreation yard at Corcoran State Prison. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File )

Past attempts to force peace talks between the Bulldogs and other gangs have gone the way of earlier attempts. In one instance, a fight occurred between five Bulldogs and another gang after talks broke down. They were initially uncuffed but separated by a fence.

The fight broke out after they were allowed back through the fence and ordered to return to their cells, said prisoner rights attorney Charles Carbone.

"Bulldogs basically have an attack-on-sight ethos," Carbone said.

Richard Edmond-Vargas, a prisoner advocate who served time for robbery, blamed corrections officials for creating situations where violence is inevitable.

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"They actively put folks in this situation where they would have to fight and they know the culture of prison is that you have to fight," Edmond-Vargas said.

Instead of resuming the program, officials will "explore options to find a resolution to this and safely house these individuals, corrections officials said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.