After Year of Mobilization on Both Sides of the Bars, California Prisons End ‘Gladiator Fights’ Program

Loved ones of people impacted by integrated releases have been holding protests

Statement from Oakland Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and family members of California prisoners on recent news announcing the end of the bloody “Gladiator Fight” program, known as “Incremental Release.”

Submitted by R Totale on September 28, 2019

We have produced a collective response to Tuesday's announcement with imput from inside and from the family members we've been working with for several months. We're publishing it here alongside a powerful statement on the matter from a working group of loved ones.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press published an article announcing, ostensibly on behalf of CDCr, that the corrections agency would be ending its incremental release practice. The practice selects a few individuals from rival factions by surprise and releases them into the yard together, creating an extremely dangerous situation. The article is the first admission of the practice by CDCr, which audaciously frames itself as well-intended peace-makers. In reality, prisoners, families, and their allies have been criticizing the violent practice loudly since it began over a year ago. The department’s sudden acknowledgement appears to attempt to favorably reframe its actions from the past year with the help of a more popular media platform -- the AP news syndicate -- than critics of the practice have had access to. Moreover, the language of the article uses abusive rhetoric and points also to further negligence and violence to come.

In the article, Spokesman Spillane excuses the institution’s repeated use of IR by pleading ignorance to the causes of violence that occurred during every IR for months. This statement negligently minimizes the surveillance systems that CDCr uses inside prisons to monitor and predict how operations play out. More importantly, a chorus of loved ones and advocates had been explaining to administrators about the dangers in no uncertain terms through all the complaint processes at their disposal.

This advocacy started at the latest in November 2018, when CDCr Secretary Ralph Diaz himself finally met with family members of impacted prisoners. Despite the bloody results, Secretary Diaz promised that the practice continue repeatedly, even in the Spring during further meetings with family members. In response, family members held repeated protests for several months outside CDCr facilities, and even visited legislatures in their offices in Sacramento to raise the issues on three occasions. This included speaking to a Parole Budget Hearing. Still readers are meant to believe that the administration did not expect the prisoners to fight and claims to still not know why they do so.

Sheer common sense would predict that locking hostile groups in space together with countless other stressors is not “peacemaking.” In the words of a loved one of an impacted prisoner, Dee, “CDCr knows why they fight… because they are placed in a hostile environment by the department themselves.” History shows that prisoners know the way toward peace better than anyone. “Warring prison gangs” forged the historic Agreement to End Hostilities in 2012, establishing peace between all main population groups, and recognizing that the real enemies are the keepers of the cages. This peace has been disrupted by incremental releases, and we believe with the intent of the administration.

A self-determined peace by imprisoned people threatens the myth of terminally violent criminals beyond rehabilitation, and thus challenges the justification for prisons to exist at all. The AP piece is lousy with this mythology beginning with the headline. It is noteworthy that officials conducted so many incremental releases soon after a variety of laws passed that give more imprisoned people a chance at shorter prison stays. Individuals who were forced into incremental releases were working toward parole but will now have longer prison stays because of the violence they were forced into.

CDCr’s admonishing tone toward the Fresno Bulldogs conceals the reality that the group’s antagonistic posture is rewarded by favorable treatment from the administration . Bulldogs are not the ones who lost out most as a result of the “experiment” with incremental release. After an attack by the Bulldogs last September , Sureños were kept in “modified program,” a lockdown in everything but name. The lockdown lasted for several months and was only broken by a hunger strike in January, after which many of the lockdown conditions persisted. Bulldogs were met with no such punishment, despite the fact that every incident report shows them initiating conflict.

Repeatedly favoring the Bulldogs in this way certainly does not support the claim that CDCr officials sought to discourage violence from the Bulldogs. Harsh punishment by administrators against the Surenos, instead of the Bulldogs, suggests that the IRs were conducted with a very different aim. It is important to note that the Bulldogs are one of the few groups to remain non-signatory to the multilateral Agreement to End Hostilities mentioned above. Rather than an experiment toward peacemaking, IRs seem intended to manufacture violence on the prison yards that have been much more peaceful than before the Agreement to End Hostilities and Prisoners’ victory in the Ashker v. Brown case.

One particularly egregious piece of rhetorical trickery in the article (and in CDCr’s overall approach) is the setting up of a false dependency between compliance with the “experiment” and access to rehabilitative programs and basic necessities like yard time and visitation. Spokesman Spillane tells the reporter that incremental releases "permitted officials to reduce harsh restrictions that kept gang members locked up in cells for lengthy periods without access to rehabilitation programs."

This obscures the origins of these restrictions, which are completely controlled by CDCr’s own policies. If CDCr officials wanted to extend access to rehabilitative programs to more inmates, they could simply provide more programs.. The violence of incremental releases were followed by months of punitive lockdown-type restrictions and were often enacted as group punishments upon entire cell blocks, rather than individualized consequences. When the terms of these punishments would expire, another incremental would be scheduled. And again, the administration tended not to give the harshest punishments to the Bulldogs.

We do not mean to suggest that the Bulldogs are the root source of the antagonism. Contrasting who initiated the fight with whom was punished for it is only useful because it suggests false pretenses by CDCr. It is the prison system that manufactures violence through dehumanization, deprivation, and consistent callousness that sometimes verges clearly into sadism. To be placed in an incremental, especially, is to be placed in an impossible situation with your life on the line. There is no good or “right” choice available to you. Forcing people to choose between getting stabbed or catching more time onto their sentences is torture. Whatever the true aims of prison officials’ IR practices may be, the manufactured violence needs to stop, in Dee’s words “my loved one is not a guinea pig.”

Like many CDCr tactics, incremental release may continue informally. Corcoran yards are currently on lockdown as a result of Bulldog cells being “accidentally” unlocked during southerners’ yard time. Details of this are laid out in the statement from inside photographed above. Bulldogs are likely to be moved around, as they have been in the past, still with a policy of attacking other groups on sight. Family members and advocates remain vigilant. Gladiator fights and other manufactured violence are likely to continue with other new policies by CDCr officials. For example, mandating Non-Designated Programming Facilities and Honor Yards --which integrate General Population prisoners with Protective Custody prisoners against their wills--seem like a similar “experiment” in heightening tensions.

Whatever CDCr’s next move, the network of people resisting its violence is stronger for having taken a stance against incremental release, and struggled hard enough to elicit a response. Prisoners, family members and advocates will continue to fight against the lack of safety and care in CA prison’s today. CDCr can and must stop violent “experiments” with people’s lives and the public must be vigilant against officials’ attempts to rewrite the histories that so many have lived.

There is much that we didn't have space to get into, like the way that pro-prisoner litigation is being turned against prisoners to justify these IRs, the decades long history of prisoners' rivalries being used by guards to break people and to perpetuate the state's narrative about them, all of the voices and perspectives that were erased in the making of this article, and all of the other press requests on this matter that OIG and CDCr ignored. If you'd like to learn more, ask questions, offer feedback or come to a meeting and get involved with us please reach out!

Our Love Is Stronger Than CDCr Lies. A Response to CDCr and IG Spokespeople Statements Regarding Gladiator Fights

by Wives and Family Members

CDCr calls it modified program, we call it lockdown.

CDCr calls it “an experiment in forcing gangs to get along,” we call it a willful and deliberate set-up of violence: gladiator fights.

CDCr can speak all they want about not knowing what they were doing and having good intentions, but from every angle we look at what is going on in the prisons, this is systematic violence, period.

The officials and bureaucrats inside CDCr administration keep coming up with names for their policies that sound innocent, even hopeful: “Reintegration.” “Incremental Releases.” “Non-Designated Programming Facilities.” But we know what these are too. These are programs that have caused our men to be corralled in yards like animals with armed guards at every exit, set up next to people who have colluded with the prison officials, with our men getting blamed for the fights, thrown in the hole, with no way to contact us or the outside world.

CDCr, we see you for who and what you are. Because we have known you for decades and we have seen the evolution of your lies and your sneaky games.

In this article released September 24, 2019, CDCr and IG officials were “interviewed.” The officials explained that they were “allowing” members of different gangs into the same exercise yards, admitting that they were “experimenting” on our loved ones. CDCr uses the term gangs, we know that associations are the only protection our men have anymore.

Any attempt that we have had to legitimize protection – whether in the form of prisoner associations or Inmate Family Councils, we know attempts at transparency and accountability have only been made useless or hollow by CDCr.

We are wives and families of men who have done some wrong but who truly are the amazing, smart, and very peaceful people. But some of our men have been forced into fighting back against the system for decades now. Some of our men have been on hunger strike in the Pelican Bay SHU. Our men, because of their associations, recognized the Agreement to End Hostilities, which in 2013 was written to ensure full system peace amongst rival associations.

It was a peace treaty for our families, and therefore a tiny peace of mind for us, knowing that for just another day our men weren’t merely fighting for survival. Knowing that they had a chance to rehabilitate. We had hope then.

CDCr, you never wanted peace. You moved our men, separated our husbands from our families further. Put our men in solitary. Increased points and time for our men, retaliated on a daily basis by, messing with their food, their mail, their visits, their yard time, their program and stripping them from their dignity by harassing them daily with strip searches, etc.

CDCr, you knew exactly what you were doing when you created these conditions for violence. You are trying to keep our men down. We know that even after one torture ends, CDCr will keep attempting to break our loved ones!

We – ourselves and our families – are unbreakable. We see you. CDCr, you are exposing yourself. You will be held accountable for what you have done to our families. We are taking your secret processes and talks behind closed doors out into the open. We are the ones with power and control, you don’t get that anymore. Because we know what to do. We are women and mothers who have been living this life for decades now, we are members and builders of our communities, and now, we are advocates.

When we felt alone in this struggle we reached out to each other. Now we have heard all the families that have voiced out anger against CDCR’s words and disregard for accountability, and agree that this should have never started to begin with. Now we know what needs to be done, what we need to make happen in order to fix everything CDCr keeps messing up.

CDCr, Our love and our unity is stronger than your lies. We see every single falsehood you spin. And we are here to share the truth to the entire world, and together we are going to turn your system inside out.

This is only the beginning of the struggle. We are here to make sure our loved ones are treated as the human beings they are, with dignity! We are here to tell other wives and families that they are not alone – that we are here to work all together. We are not going to stop until our husbands and family come back home.