California prisoners say videos show ‘gladiator fights’ at Soledad State Prison


Why snatch 936 acres of rich farmland, growing crops to feed California and the world, and make it hell on earth for 5,250 men, crammed in at 158.5 percent of capacity? This is the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, Calif., once home to George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, accused of killing a guard in retaliation for the murder of three prisoners shot from the guard tower during a forced gladiator fight, where today guards once again are instigating potentially deadly gladiator fights. George described the scene as seeing three of his brothers having been ‘murdered […] by a pig shooting from 30 feet above their heads with a military rifle’” in a June 10, 1970, letter included in his revolutionary book, “Soledad Brother.”

by Brian Sonenstein

California prisoners released video recordings of two prisoner fights they say were set up by officials at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California. It is now the second facility to report so-called “gladiator fights” after prisoners spoke out about similar incidents at the state prison in Corcoran.

The videos were provided after Shadowproof published reports on a hunger strike at the state prison in Corcoran over arranged prison fights at that facility.

Warning: The following videos contain violence. Audio has been removed to protect identities. Viewer discretion is advised.

One video, which prisoners say was recorded on Feb. 14, shows six prisoners approaching each other on the yard while corrections officers gather a short distance away. Three are white prisoners. The other three are members of a rival group, the Bull Dogs, according to prisoners.

Tear gas is fired directly at the prisoners as the fight begins. At least 10 corrections officers stand aside as prisoners brawl in a cloud of gas. More officers pool onto the yard but maintain some distance. One prisoner can be heard describing officers dressed in black, who fired tear gas, as “the goon squad.”4

Another recording shows a fight between a much larger group of white prisoners and Bull Dogs, which prisoners said was recorded the following day. Even though prisoners from these factions told officials that making them program together would lead to violence, and even though the two groups fought the day before, they claimed prison officials forced both groups to share the yard.

Once again, tear gas erupts as prisoners fight. Multiple shots ring out. Roughly a minute and a half later, over a dozen officers enter the frame, some with weapons pointed at prisoners. They yell at the prisoners to get on the ground.

Although they risk identification and fear retaliation from prison officials, prisoners were adamant that Shadowproof publish the videos.

“Prisoners are smuggling out the video for the public even though it guarantees retaliation, like lockdowns, being thrown into a yard for fights, solitary and possible increased time, in the hope that the outside knows what’s going on and helps them put a stop to these escalations of violence,” said Brooke Terpstra, a prisoner advocate with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).

“They have little to lose at this point.”

In addition to Corcoran and Soledad, IWOC said it confirmed reports of arranged fights at Pleasant Valley State Prison. They argue the fights are not isolated incidents, but rather, they constitute a larger pattern of practice within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

These incidents occur as a result of what CDCR calls “incremental releases,” in which small groups of prisoners are forced to share the yard for recreation, even though prisoners have said they cannot program together.

Several explanations have been offered for why the prison forces these groups to share the yard. At Corcoran, family members told Shadowproof the warden is on a power trip, refusing to let prisoners decide which groups can and cannot share the yard.

Advocates also say the fights undermine prisoner solidarity and disrupt a historic peace treaty between racial groups in Californian prisons known as the “Agreement to End Hostilities.”

Family members have gathered outside Corcoran to protest the fights and demand an end to the restrictive lockdown conditions, which prisoners have been forced to live under since September.

“CDCR is cynical and destructive,” Terpstra concluded. “Under the guise of making prisoner groups ‘get along,’ they in fact are escalating divisions and trying to break the agreements prisoner groups have already made among themselves to combat racial violence.”

Brian Sonenstein is publishing editor at Shadowproof, where this story first appeared. Email him at brian@shadowproof.com.