Crowding at Prison Threatens Honor Program
Dangerous criminals at the Lancaster facility are being housed with those who have pledged
By Richard Fausset
LA Times Staff Writer
An innovative program that seeks to reduce
violence among maximum-security inmates is being severely tested at the state prison in Lancaster, where a population squeeze
is forcing officials to house dangerous criminals with others who have vowed to remain peaceful.
Since 2000, Lancaster's honor yard program
has created a special housing area for prisoners who have promised to stay away from gangs [of the violent variety], drugs
and violence. Families, convicts and prison experts have praised the program for reducing violent incidents, and prison officials
have considered taking the idea to other lockups around the state.
But last month, about 130 inmates who did
not meet the criteria were transferred to honor yard housing, prison spokesman Lt. Ken Lewis said Monday. Some of them are
responsible for a stabbing March 16 and a violent melee Friday involving six prisoners.
As a result of the fight, some honor inmates
remained locked in their cells Monday while prison guards investigated the incident.
Lewis acknowledged that the transfer ran
the risk of diluting the honors program.
"But our main goal is to house inmates, [and]
we have to do what we have to do to house inmates. We're overcrowded," he said.
The honors yard now houses 850 inmates.
Lewis said that state corrections officials
had told the prison to make more room for convicts with "sensitive needs," [such as informants or other potential targets].
In the last few weeks, the number of these inmates has doubled to 2,000.
That change displaced inmates who do not
qualify for either the sensitive needs or honors program. Some were shipped to different prisons, but others remained at Lancaster,
where the only beds available for them were in the honor yard, he said.
Kenneth E. Hartman, an honors program inmate,
wrote a letter to Youth and Adult Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman after the March stabbing incident, saying he feared
it was "the start of a spate of violence."
Lt. Charles Hughes, president of the local
chapter of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., said that staff members also worried about the changes. But he
hoped the prison could find a way to maintain peace in the yard, he said.
"Cops want it, inmates want it and management
wants it," Hughes said. "I still think with some good managerial stuff we can make it work."
The recent melee was quelled when officers
fired block guns and sprayed mace at the fighting inmates. Giving few details, Lewis said all of the honor yard's black inmates
and those classified as racial "others" by the Department of Corrections — usually Asians or Pacific Islanders —
would remain locked in their cells for the time being, because the fight involved members of those two groups.
A study released by Lancaster prison officials in 2003 compared illegal
activity in the yard before and after the honors program was established. It showed that weapons infractions decreased 88%,
violence and threatening behavior dropped 85% and drug-related offenses and trafficking were down 43%.