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State authorities give update on investigation of Chino prison riot

The aftermath of a prison riot inside the California Institution for Men prison is seen on August 19, 2009 in Chino, California.
Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images
The aftermath of a prison riot inside the California Institution for Men prison is seen on August 19, 2009 in Chino, California.

State prison officials today released details regarding a long and bloody riot at a state prison in Chino last August. More than 200 inmates were injured in the violence at the California Institution for Men – or CIM.

The violence erupted in the prison’s Reception Center West area. That’s where most new inmates are checked in and screened before being moved to another unit, or another institution. The riot spread to almost all of the reception center’s eight wooden barracks. Two of those units were set on fire.

State investigators confirm what some inmates and prison officials already told KPCC; that a rivalry between Mexican and black gangs sparked the riot. Prison officials were warned in advance that violence was brewing but were unable to head it off.

Once the riot started, says CIM’s interim warden Aref Fakhoury, it took nearly 12 hours to contain the violence.

“You have inmates inside rioting that have weapons of opportunity available to them, so you have to have the right number of staff and equipment to go in,” said Fakhoury during a recent interview in his office. “That delayed restoring order. Someone may criticize how long it took. It took hours instead of minutes. But for the magnitude of this incident, if it wasn’t for all the training that we have provided our staff and all the tools available to them, this would have taken longer - and we would have a lot more seriously hurt people and possibly deaths.”

But many inmates say prison officers retreated when the riot exploded, leaving them in the dorms to fend for themselves.

Former inmate Sterling Werner was inside one of those dorms, Joshua Hall, with about 200 other men when it caught on fire. Sterling says an inmate apparently lit a mop on fire and shoved it against a wooden window frame.

“Inmates were able to get out of the building by getting on top of bunks and literally having to kick out these metal screens that were over the windows,” says Werner, “while other inmates are trying to knock down these fire extinguisher boxes because we don’t have access to them to even save our own butts. It’s kind of, kind of, a scary situation.”

Werner says alot of inmates did not fight. They tried to shield themselves and other non-combative inmates. About two dozen inmates face a variety of charges including attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. One inmate is charged with setting fire to Joshua Hall. More than 200 other inmates were cited for rule violations – and could have time added to their sentences.

Nearly 800 of the roughly 1600 inmates housed in Reception Center West at the time of the riot are serving time at other prisons while the damaged barracks at CIM are repaired. The $6 million overhaul will include surveillance upgrades and the installation of overhead fire suppression systems.

None of the 60-year old barracks had one at the time of the riot. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says its investigation of the riot continues.