Officials ignored warnings before massive ‘gladiator fight’ at Soledad State Prison in California
Written by jm on 09/05/2019
by Brian Sonenstein
The head of California’s prison system visited the
Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad the day before dozens of
prisoners were injured and hospitalized in a fight, which prisoners and
advocates say was entirely predictable.
During the visit, prisoners say they told California
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Ralph Diaz they
wanted an end to the violence.
Dozens of fights
have broken out at CTF and other state prisons over the last year. Prisoners
and advocates contend this is the result of prison officials forcing rival
Latinx groups to have recreation together. Every time this happens, fights break out,
people get hurt, and prisoners are punished with lockdowns.
Additionally, some prisoners face punishment that may
negatively impact their chances at parole.
Prisoners said Diaz was adamant the groups will share the
yard and, if they are unable to get along, they will have to live with the
The next day, on Aug. 14, members of Latinx formations that
are known to be in conflict – Bulldogs and Southerners – were once again forced
to share the yard at Facility C. Prisoners said Bulldogs taunted others with
barking and used Southerners’ phones, a sign of disrespect in the state’s
highly segregated prisons.
Corrections officers gathered above as tensions escalated.
Eventually, Bulldogs attacked and officers fired rubber bullets into the melee,
which involved around 200 prisoners.
Around 50 prisoners were injured. Eight were hospitalized. “When
they did not comply [with orders to cease fighting], staff deployed chemical
agents, non-lethal weapons and discharged nine rounds from the state-issued
Ruger Mini-14 rifle as warning shots to end the incident,” CDCR said in a press
According to sources, one prisoner was shot in the back of
the head with a rubber bullet and required stitches. Another prisoner was shot
in the mouth, and his teeth were “bent up.” A third prisoner, who was one of
the younger prisoners out in the yard, lost an eye.
CDCR held prisoners under lockdown conditions for 12 days
after the fight. On Aug. 26, officials moved 50 prisoners into administrative
segregation (more commonly known as solitary confinement). Sources said some
were still recovering from injuries at the time of their isolation.
The department euphemistically refers to lockdown-like
restrictions imposed after these fights as a “modified program.” They are
similar to lockdowns except they target only a segment of the population with
restrictions on movement, programming, visitation, commissary, showers, mail
and other basic necessities.
The Monterey County District Attorney’s office is
Shadowproof interviewed the wife of a prisoner who was sent
to solitary confinement after the fight. She will be referred to as Alice
because of the risk of retaliation for speaking out.
Alice argued CDCR is punishing these men so they can be
scapegoated for a fight that was entirely of the department’s own making.
“My husband has been down since he was 16,” Alice said. “My
husband is a lifer. He possibly has a chance to parole next year because of SB
260. He’s worked hard. He made it all the way down to a Level 2 because he
knew he had a chance to come home. And they’re taking that from us.” (Note:
CDCR security classifications range from Levels 1 to 4, with Level 1 being the
lowest security level).
Officials are harming prisoners’ chances at parole and
taking away earned time credits, which extends their confinement.
“I know that they’re in prison. I know that he committed a
crime, but he’s already serving his sentence for that crime. He’s already being
punished. To keep putting them out in the yard to kill each other, essentially,
is irresponsible of CDCR because they all took an oath to keep them safe and
they aren’t doing a thing to do that.”
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking,” Alice added. “We
don’t know what’s going on. Nobody is keeping us informed. Nobody is telling us
anything. There’s nothing.”
She is worried prison officials will withhold his treatment
for his medical condition while he’s in solitary confinement. “It’s vicious
what they’re doing.”
Alice is one of several women engaged in the difficult labor
of supporting prisoners from the outside.
These women organize protests and actions, share information
among each other and the public, and look after one another as best they can.
They spend significant time and energy pushing back on the various injustices
visited upon them and their loved ones – calling and emailing prison officials,
watchdogs and even the governor. They also meticulously document everything as
Many juggle this labor along with their job, raising
children and projecting emotional strength for their incarcerated loved ones.
“We are a small but powerful group,” Alice declared. “And we’re
going to come together and band together to support each other. This is an
effort to show everyone that just because they’re on the inside doesn’t mean
they don’t have a voice on the outside. We are their voice.”
“If it takes me a lifetime, and if it takes us a lifetime
because we’re a group together, we’re going to do it.”
Prisoners spoke with the CDCR Secretary Diaz the day before
the fight “to try to find a solution,” Alice said, but he refused because “it
would destroy his public image” as the first Latinx person to lead the
One prisoner, who we are calling Michael to protect him from
retaliation for speaking to media, recounted Diaz’s visit to Soledad.
“During his visit, [Diaz] engaged in extensive dialogue with
inmates at [Soledad]. The subject of this dialogue was in regards to CDCR’s
goal of incremental releases and reintegrating two factions which are at odds
and have been since last year,” Michael said.
[Note: “Incremental releases” and “reintegration” are CDCR
jargon for making different factions share the yard.]
Michael insisted it was made very clear that if the groups
were forced to share the yard then “without a doubt inmate lives would be in
“Ralph Diaz, armed with this information, showed complete
disregard for institutional safety and security” for the prisoners thrown in
the middle of “gladiator wars,” Michael added.
He recalled Diaz was “adamant about his position” that “both
factions would have to learn to get along or else we would have to live with
the violence and that we would be deprived of any milestones credit earning in
Level 3 and 4 prisons.”
Under a 2016 ballot initiative known as Proposition 57,
prisoners earn credits off their time in prison for participating in education
and rehabilitation programs. However, CDCR can revoke them for disciplinary
Alice said Diaz “knew this was going to happen and neglected
to do anything.”
The media has been relatively silent on these fights, which
have taken place at Soledad, Corcoran, Pleasant Valley State Prison and
elsewhere since at least September 2018.
The outlets that cover it offer readers little
information beyond “an investigation is ongoing.” Local journalists
exclusively quote law enforcement, who give the impression that unruly
criminals are assaulting one another for reasons that remain unclear.
Prisoners, their families and allied activists strongly
contest this narrative. To the contrary, the violence is entirely predictable.
That is why they have taken to calling these incidents “gladiator fights.”
In the 1990s, Corcoran State Prison made headlines
when whistleblowers disclosed corrections officers arranged deadly “gladiator
fights” for amusement and financial gain. Similar stories emerged from other
state prisons and it became clear this was not an isolated incident. However,
corrections officers brought to trial were ultimately acquitted
of the charges.
Practically, all aspects of life in California prisons have
segregated for decades. CDCR traditionally uses
these factions to maintain order and keep prisoners from building
solidarity. Prisoners join them for reasons ranging from protection to a sense
that they have no choice.
In 2005, CDCR was forced to end its policy of segregation
as part of a settlement agreement. But the following year CDCR saw an uptick in
violence as it attempted to force integration of these groups, including
Bulldogs and Southerners.
Many of CDCR’s racial factions joined what is known as the “Agreement
to End Hostilities“ in 2012. The agreement was forged by prisoners engaged
in historic hunger strikes at Pelican Bay State Prison against indefinite
solitary confinement, which was employed to coerce prisoners into snitching on
Instead of fighting among themselves, they agreed to
organize together for better conditions. “We can no longer allow CDCR to use us
against each other for their benefit!” prisoners declared in the agreement.
Prisoners recognized they were an “empowered, mighty force”
that could “positively change this entire corrupt system into a system that
actually benefits prisoners and, thereby, the public as a whole.”
The Southerners are a party to the “Agreement to End
Hostilities.” The Bulldogs, however, are not.
As a result of the hunger strikes and lawsuits, California
moved to end
its use of indefinite solitary confinement. Now, corrections officers
appear to be weaponizing Bulldogs’ reputation as antagonists to foster an
increasingly violent environment that can be used as a pretext for unending
cycles of punishment and isolation.
Sources say the only times Bulldogs have not fought during
yard integrations are when corrections officers are there protecting them like
Some advocates told Shadowproof that CDCR should transfer
Bulldogs to facilities where they can have their own yards. Most other groups
are able to program together peacefully.
“Unfortunately, Bulldogs have historically derived power
from being a ‘spoiler,’” explained Brooke Terpstra, who organizes in support of
prisoners and their families with the Oakland chapter of the Incarcerated
Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).
“They can exert power by sabotaging whatever stability or
agreements have been reached in the yard. In this way, they hold a ‘trump card.’”
“This syndrome is very familiar across all systems, in all
periods,” Terpstra added. “It is a product of the state successfully enforcing
scarcity in all aspects of life by sowing division.”
Likening the situation to “crabs fighting in a barrel,”
Terpstra suggested the solution is to “demolish the barrel, not kill the ‘competition.’”
Prisoners and their families argue Aug. 14 fits into a
pattern of fights instigated by Bulldogs over the past year at Soledad,
Corcoran, Pleasant Valley and other facilities.
They are incredulous at CDCR’s insistence that officers don’t
expect violence when these groups are made to share the yard.
“CDCR will continue to claim that they do not know fights
will occur, but these are fights set up by them every Tuesday, Wednesday and
Thursday,” Alice said.
“They have interviewed the men. The men will tell them
violence will occur, and they also have loved ones, spouses, and family members
sending emails to everyone notifying them that violence will occur.”
Alice called the claim “ridiculous” and said CDCR has had “plenty
indication that violence will occur.”
There is evidence going back over a decade, such as news
articles in major publications and even commentary in the California prison
union’s magazine Peacekeeper, that the potential for violence between Bulldogs
and Southerners during integrations was well known.
Alice shared numerous emails with the warden, the governor,
the office of the inspector general and the ombudsman about the violence and
her husband’s loss of visitation, mail and food over the past year. Sometimes
she received unhelpful or gaslighting responses, such as claims that mail was
being delivered normally, even though it had been months since anyone received
Other times, she received what seemed to be automated
responses that mentions yards that have nothing to do with her husband or her
messages simply went ignored.
Sometimes the same games are played when women try to visit
their loved ones at these facilities, calling ahead for days to make sure there
is visitation only to be turned away after traveling and waiting for hours at
“The [Office of Inspector General] is over there watching
these men kill themselves and they’re OK with it, and it’s kind of baffling to
me that they would allow that,” Alice said.
“They’re withholding his mail; he hasn’t received his mail
since May. They don’t answer me on that. I’m tracking everything, and they won’t
answer me. They keep withholding it, and I know they’re throwing it away. I don’t
know what to do.”
“When I contact the ombudsman, she gives me the same
automated response. And I just want a real answer because if the shoe was on
the other foot, I guarantee they would do whatever it took to get their loved
Recently, the inspector general’s office said it was
assigning staff to monitor “integrations” at CTF and other facilities, and that
CDCR notified them it was “reviewing” the process as well. But they said the
same thing in April and found “no evidence” of fights taking place during
integrations at that time.
“I just want the public to educate themselves. Stop with the
ignorance. Educate yourselves to see what’s really going on,” Alice urged. “At
the end of the day, these men have [release] dates, and these men are just
another dollar sign for CDCR, another way to make money.”
Brian Sonenstein is a
journalist covering incarceration and the prison abolition movement. He is the
co-founder and publishing editor of Shadowproof.com, where he authors a column titled “Prison Protest.” He is also one of
the hosts of the Beyond Prisons podcast, which analyzes prison systems through
an abolitionist lens and elevates the voices of those directly impacted by
incarceration. He is also a columnist at the Portland Phoenix in Maine, where
his “Above the Law” column explores the law, justice, and accountability in the
state. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story first appeared at Shadowproof.
Source: San Francisco Bay View