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When Prison Guards Force Inmates to Fight

That sort of brutal violence is just "part of doing time," one former federal prisoner says.

Max Cherney

Max Cherney

San Francisco Hall of Justice, which includes the county jail. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On at least two occasions in March, Sheriff's Deputy Scott Neu allegedly used threats of violence and rape to coerce inmates—including 150-pound Rico Garcia and 350-pound Stanley Harris—to square off against one another in an out-of-sight hallway in the bowels of San Francisco County's main jail. Four other deputies reportedly wagered on the bouts.

The resulting injuries were minor, as Neu apparently prohibited hitting in the face. But the deputy allegedly instructed the two men not to seek medical treatment for their wounds, and threatened to thrash them if they did.

The disclosure by the local public defender's office prompted national headlines about the violence in the San Francisco County system—which likely has been going on for some time, including more fights and other forms of physical abuse. But what's unusual about the San Francisco fights is not that they occurred—violence between inmates and guards is routine in prisons across the country. What's truly weird is that the matches were in a county jail, not state or federal prison.

"It was shocking for it to be at 850 [the county jail's downtown address on Bryant Street]," says Eli Crawford. At one time Crawford was a part of a notorious African American prison gang, the Black Guerilla Family. Now, decades later, after about 30 years in federal prison—Crawford jokes that he toured the country on the US government dime—he runs Raw Talk, a program that helps at-risk men and women change their lives.

"I know a guard who used to work downtown [at the jail]," Crawford says. "He called me the other day because he was really fucked up about [the gladiator matches]. You know, because you got these new deputies in here now. These younger guys who've never really been through any of this. They've changed the whole nature of the county jail system—and [Sheriff Ross] Mirkarimi, he's not paying attention."

One reason county jails are unlikely venues for guard-organized fights is that the institutions—and the people inside—aren't as dedicated to the criminal mentality as those in state and federal prison. Simply put, there are fewer killers and other violent men in county jails than prisons. And any uncompromising thugs that happen to locked up in county are only there for a little while as they awaititrial.

"In county jail we're talking about the low levels of criminals, people doing wino time," Joe Loya, a retired bank robber turned author, says. ("Wino time" is prison slang for any stint that's shorter than a year, Loya explains.) "To the prisoners [in jail] they are still people who aren't dedicated to the convict code. It's easier for them to [snitch]."

State and federal prisons are a different story. Perhaps the most egregious example in recent history of guards orchestrating fights among inmates was also in California. In 1996, a number of prison guards at Corcoran State Prison in the San Joaquin valley blew the whistle on abuse dating back years, which included arranging fights in one of the yards. Many of the others go unreported, according to Loya, because of the code of silence that exists between inmates and also between guards. But it's definitely going on.

"People are people, bro," says Jesse De La Cruz, a gang expert with a doctorate in social work. De La Cruz used to be affiliated with a Latino street gang in Northern California, and the prison gang that backs it from the inside. He's served 30 years inside state prisons, rattling off a laundry list that includes so of the country's worst, such as Pelican Bay.

"These [guards], and the majority of the police don't have the ethical training," he tells me. "They walk into a jailhouse and what happens is this: The institution takes hold, and they're surrounded by negative energy on a daily basis. So if they have any dark spots, they come out. It manifests itself. They become just like the monsters that they're caging."

Ultimately, eight prison guards charged by federal prosecutors for the abuses at Corcoran were acquitted in 2000, a verdict De La Cruz marvels at. "Regular people just don't believe officers are capable of that kind of violence," he says. De La Cruz suggests that scandals like the one in San Francisco and Corcoran are unusual. What's more common, he thinks, are day-to-day abuses of the power. Setting a problematic prisoner up for a nasty and violent encounter with an enemy, for example—or simply not stepping in to prevent a clobbering.

"I've been part of the conspiracy to make [guard-sanctioned assault] happen," says Loya, the retired bank robber, who served time in federal prisons across the country. "I know it can happen, I know the human material needed to make it happen. Prisons are corrupting, toxic places that cannibalize those who live and work in them."

The gladiator matches aren't isolated to California. Across the country in St. Louis, a 2012 lawsuit alleged that at least two guards, and possibly more, coerced prisoners to fight one another. Using the promise of special privileges, extra food and snacks, the guards reportedly bribed attackers into fighting others, and like in San Francisco, are accused of making bets on the results. "For a guard it's easy to, you know, get in the ear of a gang banger to promise commissary, or phone calls in exchange for a fight," says Crawford. "The guards know that these young guys don't know anything."

Despite the uproar over the San Francisco scandal, violence and abuse within American prisons is not likely to change any time soon, according to the ex-cons and experts I canvassed. The real issue is the environment—the jail or prison institution itself.

A now–famous Stanford Unviersity experiment published in 1973 by Philip Zimbardo and a research assistant sought to recreate the experience of incarceration for both the jailers and prisoners, and thrust a group of otherwise healthy and non-criminal students into the situation. Essentially, the "guards" quickly grew went off the rails, but they were not permitted by the researchers to use physical violence, and so instead verbally attacked the "inmates."

The power, in other words, went to their heads.

"Prison really is a matter of the strong survive, the weaker members get preyed on," says Rachyll Dempsey, a forensic psychologist who used to conduct mental health evaluations at San Quentin state prison.

Dr. Terry Kupers is a psychiatrist at the Wright Institute—a clinical psychology graduate school in Berkeley—who's studied prisons and the effects they have on the inhabitants. He argues that there are three things needed to create the violent conditions inside the country's jails and prisons: one group of people that has all the power (guards), a second group that has none and no recourse if their rights are violated (inmates), and third, a strict code of silence—"so the perpetrators can do violence and sexual abuse without abandon," as Krupers puts it. He believes that all three conditions are present in the jails and prisons where fights occur—typically maximum security facilities, such as the seventh-floor unit in which the San Francisco inmates resided.

"The solution, the remedy is that there has to be an incredibly good selection of staff, and there has to be really solid education for the guards," Krupers says. "There also has to be outside supervision, because now nobody cares. Society is locking them up and throwing away the key. And society has to take responsibility, and say you can't do that in our name."

After all, despite years of reporting about guard-initiated gladiator fights on Rikers Island, violence there continues nearly full force. Neither the funding New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced—tens of millions of dollars—or an investigation by the Justice Department has changed the culture of brutality in the facility.

Splashy headlines about gladiator-style fighting between inmates aren't likely to spark an overhaul of San Francisco County jails, either.

"It's part of doing time," Loya says. "We understand that violence is bred into jails, and designed into the prison. There are these moments."

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