LANCASTER — As many as 400 inmates rioted Thursday at a state prison and five were critically injured, authorities said.
No guards or staff were hurt in fighting that began about 10:45 a.m. in a yard at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, said Margot Bach, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. The prison is in the Mojave Desert about 40 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The fight involved 300 to 400 maximum-security inmates in a 200-by-200-foot recreation yard that includes a grassy area, basketball courts, a soccer field and monkey bars, prison spokesman Ron Nipper said.
“The inmates started to fight, and it just gained momentum,” with prisoners using fists and homemade weapons, he said.
Hundreds of guards responded, using pepper spray, tear gas and wooden bullets on the prisoners, but it was unclear whether any of the inmates were hit.
Several warning shots were then fired. It took fewer than 15 minutes to quell the riot, Nipper said.
“There was no way they could get to a building and destroy it. We contained them in one small area and then they ran out of gas,” he added.
Bach said 26 homemade weapons were recovered.
Five inmates were taken by helicopter or ambulance to local hospitals, where they were in critical but stable condition with “deep puncture wounds,” Bach said.
Another 12 inmates were treated for cuts at the prison infirmary.
None of the wounds were believed to be life-threatening, she said.
The prison had been under lockdown since Dec. 11, when a guard was beaten by four inmates, department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said. Inmates were just starting to get some of their privileges back Thursday when the riot began, she said.
The prison remained locked down Thursday afternoon, with many inmates confined to their cells. Televised news reports showed dozens of others sitting outside along a prison yard fence, waiting for guards to search them and the grounds for weapons.
Nipper said most prisoners would be released from lockdown tomorrow. The section involved in rioting, however, will slowly return to normal over several weeks as authorities try to determine which inmates were involved in the fighting.
Those inmates involved could face criminal charges, Nipper said.
The prison currently houses more than 4,000 inmates in its minimum- and maximum-security wings. That is about 85 percent over capacity, but Bach said it was not immediately clear whether that may have contributed to the rioting.
“There could be any number of factors,” she said, adding that it could take several days of inmate interviews to determine the cause.
Overcrowded prisons have been the scene of brawls involving racial unrest, but that did not seem to be the case this time, Bach said.
“It was multiracial. There wasn’t any group attacking any other groups specifically. They all got into it,” she said.
Last year at the prison, a racial brawl involving more than 120 Hispanic and white inmates left 10 injured. In 1999, an inmate was shot by guards during another brawl between whites and Hispanics.
The 262-acre prison opened in 1993 and has more than 1,200 employees, including more than 800 custody staff.
California has the nation’s largest prison system, with more than 249,000 inmates, 33 prisons and 52,000 employees. The inmate population grew by nearly 40 percent in the 1990s, spurred in part by the war on drugs and passage of a “three strikes” law that requires long prison terms for repeat felons.
Violence is no stranger to the system. In October, a riot at the privately managed Victor Valley Medium Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto left eight inmates and two employees injured.
In February 2000, guards shot 13 inmates, killing one, to stop a race riot at the Pelican Bay State Prison, which houses some of California’s most dangerous criminals.
The system suffers from a shortage of guards. California ranks 48th in its guard-to-inmate ratio, according to the Connecticut-based Criminal Justice Institute.
The corrections department last month projected a continued shortfall of 2,000 or more guards for at least the next two years, forcing tens of millions of dollars in overtime.
Some guards have faced legal action for alleged abuse of inmates. Last year, eight Corcoran Prison guards were acquitted of violating the rights of inmates who were allegedly pitted against each other in gladiator-style fights.
A federal civil rights lawsuit accuses three correctional officers and a former guard of setting up the rape of an inmate in 1993 by leaving him in the cell of a known sexual predator at the Corcoran prison. They were acquitted of criminal charges.