Lancaster - News Articles


2 Inmates Killed in Lancaster
By Amanda Covarrubias
January 27, 2006 in print edition B-1 

Two inmates have been slain over the last three weeks inside a cellblock at the Lancaster state prison, renewing concerns about overcrowding at the institution.

The latest victim was found Tuesday morning, stuffed under the bottom bunk of his cell and wrapped in a bedsheet, said prison spokesman Ken Lewis. Richard Ponton, 36, also reportedly had a pillow over his face and a cardboard box shielding his body.

“There was a significant amount of blood on the floor,” Lewis said. “He apparently bled to death.”

The killing came two weeks after another inmate was found wrapped in a bloody sheet in his cell.

That victim, Robert Painter, 59, had been beaten to death and died from multiple injuries to his head, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said.

Painter’s cellmate is being blamed for his death. Ponton’s death remains under investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, though his cellmate is a suspect, authorities say.

Both deaths occurred within one cellblock in a unit segregated from the general prison population for inmates who need extra security.

Officials acknowledged that having two prisoners killed in the same cellblock within the same month was unusual. But they said it was too early to know whether changes were needed there.

“We don’t know all the details yet,” said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “But any time there’s a homicide in one of our prisons, it’s always a cause for concern and investigation.”

Some prisoner-rights advocates say the incidents highlight the danger of having two potentially violent prisoners in one cell. So-called double-celling is one of the ways that Lancaster and other facilities in California’s prison system have been dealing with the growing inmate population.

“The deaths are due to overcrowding,” said Cayenne Bird, whose son was once incarcerated at Lancaster and who heads a support group for prisoners’ families. “The guards have a campaign going on that it’s too few officers, but what it is really is there’s too many inmates. They’re carelessly double-celling the mentally ill with regular inmates.”

Officials at the Lancaster prison have no immediate plans to change their screening process for placing two inmates in one cell. The prison houses about 4,500 minimum-, high-medium and maximum-custody inmates but was designed to hold fewer than half that number when it opened in 1993 as the only state prison in Los Angeles County.

Lewis said prison policy prevented him from disclosing why Ponton, Painter and their cellmates had been placed in the “administrative segregation” unit, adding that none of them were known gang members.

“Prison is an unpredictable environment,” Lewis said.

“There’s only three officers assigned to each cellblock, and each one holds 200 inmates,” he added. “How can you do it? We have procedures in place with security checks to ensure everyone’s safe. But anything can happen at any given time.”

Charles Hughes, whose firing as a Lancaster correctional officer last year is on appeal and who heads the officers’ union, said there is plenty of time for cellmates to hurt each other or for a prisoner to sneak into another inmate’s cell.

“We could be releasing prisoners into the yard and be totally distracted, or the inmates will do something to divert our attention,” he said. “These diversions happen all the time.”

Furthermore, he said, prisoners often successfully lie their way into “sensitive needs” units with orders from gang leaders to kill another inmate.

“They say, ‘We don’t care where you are, we are going to get you,’ ” Hughes said. “My first nine years, we hardly ever saw any murders, but the last two or three years, there’s been a lot of murders at Lancaster. Why? I don’t know.”

Ponton was serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a murder in Los Angeles. His cellmate, Christopher Bass, was imprisoned for second-degree robbery in Ventura County.

Bass was being held as a suspect Thursday but had not been charged, and sheriff’s investigators said they had not ruled out that someone else may have killed Ponton.

Painter was serving a 25-year sentence for setting fire to then-state Sen. Ray Haynes’ office in Riverside after Painter became upset over having to register as a sex offender for a child molestation conviction.

State prison officials are also investigating the deaths of two inmates this month in Monterey County.

One occurred Jan. 3 at Salinas Valley State Prison and the other the previous week at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad.

A cellmate is a suspect in at least one of the cases, prison officials have said.


Inmates Losing Space as Prisons Add Bunks
By Richard Fausset
July 28, 2004 in print edition B-1 

Note This article includes corrections to the original version.

In a new sign of strain on California’s overcrowded prison system, inmates at 14 lockups are being housed in some of the last spaces available to corrections officials – the “dayrooms,” or communal spaces where prisoners watch TV, mingle and play cards.

The emergency move – outlined in a state Department of Corrections memo obtained this week by The Times – is being enacted as new inmates, primarily from Los Angeles County, continue to flood the prison system despite predictions from corrections officials that the convict population would decrease this summer.

For years, state prison officials have found creative ways to deal with chronic overcrowding, often by converting gymnasiums to dormitories. But moving bunk beds and prisoners into dayrooms has raised new safety concerns as convicted felons jostle for a shrinking slice of elbow room. And it has some insiders wondering how much worse the crowding can get.

“This is it – we’re to the rim,” said Lt. Charles Hughes of the state prison in Lancaster, where four dayrooms are now jammed with full-time inhabitants. “Let’s hope people stop committing crime.”

California’s prison system – the nation’s largest, with an inmate population of about 160,000 since the late 1990s – has operated at or near capacity for years, corrections officials say. No new prison has opened since 1997, and the only one under construction, called Delano II in Kern County, will not open until April.

The new crisis has emerged as good news collides with bad. In Los Angeles County, aggressive policing – spurred in part by Chief William J. Bratton’s policies in the Los Angeles Police Department – has pushed total arrests up by more than 10%, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Chief Chuck Jackson, who oversees the booking and release of inmates at county jails.

“We’re on track for booking 180,000 inmates into our system this year. That’s [about] 25,000 more than last year,” Jackson said.

But the deluge of new convicts has overwhelmed the beleaguered and cash-strapped state prisons.

By this spring, corrections officials had hoped that new alternatives to prison for parole violators – such as rehabilitation programs and house arrests – would lower the inmate population. Instead, the prisons have had to deal with 1,200 unexpected inmates, many from Los Angeles County jails.

In response, the Corrections Department began “triple-bunking” inmates in dormitories at three prisons where the norm had been two-bed bunks.

In mid-July, another unexpected wave of L.A. County inmates numbering nearly 1,800 began arriving.

The new plan calls for adding more than 2,600 beds this month and in August to accommodate the increase. Most of the beds are being set up in dayrooms and former vocational classrooms closed due to budget cuts.

Margo Bach, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, could not say whether the new arrangements were temporary. “One would hope,” she said.

“We don’t like putting them in dayrooms,” she said. “But we have no choice in this matter when we’re receiving the number of inmates that we are.”

Bach also could not say whether the conversion of dayrooms to dorms was unprecedented. But a number of veteran officers said they could not remember such a drastic move.

In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department began housing its prisoners in dayrooms to relieve overcrowding at its downtown Men’s Central Jail.

But in recent weeks, sheriff’s officials removed the beds after two inmates were killed amid the dayrooms’ clutter, Jackson said.

Corrections Lt. Hughes said the bunks block guards’ sight lines, making it more difficult for them to respond to a riot or fight.

“There’s blind spots now,” said Hughes, who is also president of the local chapter of the guards union. “The line of sight if you had to shoot is totally blocked. [Inmates] could grab an officer and drag him behind the bunk and the officers can’t shoot at him.”

Today, some Lancaster inmates housed in cells are seeing their dayroom privileges cut back because there isn’t enough space for everyone. When they do use a dayroom, they must share it with 40 inmates now living there full time.

Hughes worries that the cuts and overcrowding may increase tensions among prisoners, who count dayroom privileges among the few perks in an otherwise dreary reality.

Cayenne Bird, director of the prisoners’ rights group UNION, said her son’s dayroom in Lancaster was converted to a dorm. The move, she said, was inhumane.

Bach acknowledged the conundrum for law enforcement and corrections officials.

“You’re cleaning up the streets, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “Then you get people upset because we’re overcrowding.”

Eight charged in prison brawl 
Inmates indicted in fight that hurt guards 
LA Daily News 
Article Last Updated:01/24/2007 06:41:49 PM PST 

LANCASTER - Eight inmates from the Lancaster prison have been indicted on charges stemming from an altercation last year in a prison yard between correctional officers and about 20 inmates. 

Prosecutors said they decided to present the case in a secret proceeding before a grand jury rather than go through a standard preliminary hearing to move the case more quickly. 

"It's simpler and quicker when you've got that many defendants and defense attorneys," Deputy District Attorney Guy Shirley said. 

The eight inmates at California State Prison-Los Angeles County are charged with battery on a nonconfined person by a prisoner. Six guards are the alleged victims in the April14 brawl. 

"Eight were identified. It was a fairly chaotic situation," Shirley said. "Inmates had to be pepper-sprayed. It was put down fairly quickly." 

There were injuries to guards and inmates, but none was severe, Shirley said. The defendants are Juan Thornton, 31; Justin Jackson, 36; Kenneth Watson, 36; Roderick Lipsey, 32; William Rainer, 48; Billy R. Gray, 24; James Hampton, 38; and Paul Roger Jackson, 30. 

They have all pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. 

A grand jury was convened in early January to hear evidence presented by Shirley. The defendants and their attorneys were not present. 

"We do what's similar to a preliminary hearing in front of the grand jury. We present evidence, the grand jury gets to ask questions, you submit a proposed indictment. They accepted it as we proposed," Shirley said. "We have an obligation to present any exculpatory evidence to the grand jury." 

The indictment was unsealed Jan.16.

(661) 267-5744,1413,200~20943~2773485,00.html#

Los Angeles Daily News

Better life behind bars

Inmate working against chaos

By Greg Botonis
Staff Writer

Inmate Kenneth Hartman in the Honor Yard. (Jeff Goldwater / Daily News)

Sunday, March 20, 2005 - LANCASTER -- While most 19-year-olds are considering college or career choices, Kenneth Hartman found himself sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Convicted of beating a homeless man to death in a Long Beach park, Hartman has spent the last 25 years in some of California's toughest maximum security prisons.

He's seen a lifetime worth of violence and chaos. Unlike most inmates who accept life "on the inside," Hartman decided to make a change in how he thought and how he behaved.

"I will probably spend the rest of my life here. That's my reality and I don't want to live in a world of chaos," Hartman, 44, said last week in his second-floor cell at California State Prison-Los Angeles County. "I don't want to live like that."

For 15 years, Hartman has been writing about life in prison, about the drunken, drugged-up murder that landed him there and about the changes he saw as necessity for California's correctional system.

A recent essay, "A Prisoner's Purpose," won Hartman a $10,000 prize in a writing contest in the Power of Purpose Awards sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. The money will go to Hartman's wife, whom he married while in prison, and their 9-year-old daughter.

The essay discussed Hartman's personal experiences in prison, what he has seen and felt since being locked away and how he was one of the originators of a prison program he says gives inmates a greater chance at staying out of trouble once they leave the prison system.

The program, which is in its fourth year, is called the Honor Yard: 600 inmates who have promised to avoid drugs, gang activity and violence against each other or prison staff and who live in a section of the prison separated from the general inmate population.

The prison is the only California state prison that has an Honor Yard program, and Department of Corrections officials want to establish similar programs at other prisons because of its success, prison Lt. Ken Lewis said.

Hartman was one of the inmates who promoted the idea.

"The ideas were brought by the men's advisory council, a group of inmates that brings prison issues or program issues to staff's attention. Some of those guys helped work with prison staff to establish the Honor Yard program," Lewis said.

"It's to help inmates recognize their achievements. It helps them to recognize that they could change their social factors, so to speak. They can change within themselves. They are willing to stay away from drugs and gangs, they are willing to intermingle and work together as a group, and it's just overall; it's a better prison environment than that of a normal prison environment," Lewis said.

Of Hartman, Lewis said: "He's a mild-mannered person. He is very smart. He's one of our clerks on the Honor Yard. He tries to be helpful. He's helpful to staff and supports a lot of programs on the Honor Yard."

Hartman's concept for the Honor Yard was to "treat civilized men as civilized men."

"Guys who conduct themselves in a civilized way get treated like civilized people," Hartman said. "We've taken guys who have a chance to make it in the free world and removed most of the stress they would experience in other parts of the prison and given them a chance to concentrate on transformational change."

Hartman's dream is living out his remaining days free of violence and able to spend his time writing.

"We've had a lot of support from the institution but none really from the Department of Corrections," Hartman said. "They haven't torpedoed the project but they aren't helping. I'd like to see this program take off at other institutions and grow here. We need outside support."

Hartman said he became concerned about 10 years ago when the Department of Corrections began cracking down on inmate misbehavior by punishing them in ways like taking away radios and hot plates.

"If you take these guys who spend all this time in prison and just beat them over the head, you're going to see them right back here after they're released," Hartman said.

Prisoners who already have lost everything don't have a motivation to behave, he said.

"They need to stop and think, hey I don't want to lose my visitation or I want to be able to go to that creative writing class I'm almost done with."

Hartman teaches a creative writing class to Honor Yard prisoners. Prisoners also can take vocational training and art classes.

"There's no supervision and no censorship," Hartman said. "It's just us writing what we see and what we feel."

Hartman's writings have been published in newspapers, national magazines and online writing Web sites. One work is a children's book, written for his daughter.

He is organizing his writings for publication and is also collecting his students' essays and hopes to have them published in a book.

To view Hartman's essay on the Honor Yard visit

Staff Writer Karen Maeshiro contributed to this story. 

Greg Botonis, (661) 267-7802,1413,200~20943~2626959,00.html

Los Angeles Daily News

Inmate facing charge
Prisoner is accused of killing cellmate 
By Karen Maeshiro
Staff Writer 

Thursday, December 30, 2004 - LANCASTER -- A state prison inmate has been charged with murder in the death of his cellmate, who was strangled.

Frank Perez, 30, gave three different explanations for why he killed 27-year-old Eddie Arraiga last September in their state prison cell, including that he was ordered to kill him for the Mexican Mafia and that the victim had poor hygiene.

"He basically strangled his cellmate to death with a homemade garrote. He made it from part of a bed sheet. He made a rope, a thin rope out of the bed sheet," Deputy District Attorney Robert Foltz said.

Perez is currently serving a 12-year sentence for carjacking, according to state Department of Corrections records. After Arraiga's killing, Perez was transferred from California State Prison-Los Angeles County in Lancaster to Corcoran State Prison outside Bakersfield.

He will be arraigned on the murder charge in February in the Antelope Valley courthouse.

Arraiga was serving a five-year sentence for second-degree robbery and was scheduled to be released in July 2005.

Both Perez and Arraiga were in the prison's administrative segregation unit for inmates who are disciplinary problems, could be in danger among the general prison population, or other reasons. Both were undergoing psychological treatment.

Arraiga was put in administrative segregation after he destroyed another inmate's television set, prison officials said. Prison officials didn't say why Perez was in the segregation unit.

Administrative segregation inmates are allowed out of their cells only to shower, for 10 hours a week of closely guarded recreation, and, in the two inmates' situation, therapy, officials said.

Arraiga's death was one of five at the Lancaster prison since September, two of which were investigated for the possibility of drug use being involved.

Another inmate died from natural causes, and one inmate went into cardiac arrest and died at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills after he was pepper-sprayed after biting and kicking correctional officers.

l=8s=8 Karen Maeshiro, (661) 267-5744,1413,200~20943~2465988,00.html

Los Angeles Daily News

Prison death cause sought
Inmate's body found in cell

By Greg Botonis
Staff Writer

Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - LANCASTER -- An inmate at California State Prison-Los Angeles County at Lancaster was found dead in his cell Monday afternoon but officials still have not been able to determine the cause of his death.

The 41-year-old man, whose name was not released because officials can't locate his family, did not appear to have suffered any trauma and coroner's officials are trying to determine exactly what killed him.

"The deceased did have a history of IV drug use and a history of high blood pressure, so what we have here is a case of accident versus natural death," said Los Angeles County coroner's spokesman David Campbell.

Prison officials said that at about 12:45 p.m., an inmate began yelling for an officer to come to his cell. When the officer arrived, the man said he thought his cellmate, who was lying in his bunk, was dying. The officer yelled to the man but got no response.

The officer called for prison medical personnel, who found the man not breathing and without a pulse. They tried to resuscitate the man while calling 911 to have an ambulance respond. The man was rushed to Antelope Valley Hospital, where he was pronounced dead just before 2:30 p.m.

The man's cellmate was questioned but officials said they do not believe the inmate was involved in the man's death.

The deceased man was being held at the prison on a conviction for possession of a controlled substance.

"The whole thing is under investigation," said prison spokesman Lt. Ken Lewis. "Right now we don't know, pending the report from the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, what the cause of death is. That's the first thing we need." 

Greg Botonis, (661) 267-7802

Inmate dies of cardiac arrest
This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Sunday, October 10, 2004.
Valley Press Staff Writer

LANCASTER - An inmate who was subdued after attacking correctional officers Friday at the California State Prison in Lancaster died after going into cardiac arrest, prison officials said.
The death comes on the heels of two recent cases at the prison of inmate-on-inmate violence which left one inmate dead and another severely burned.

"Prison is an unpredictable environment," said Lt. Ken Lewis, spokesman for the state prison in Lancaster. "There can be violence without a moment's notice and all we can do is respond with our procedures."

Officers used pepper-spray Friday to subdue the 49-year-old inmate after he shouted incoherently and abruptly rushed at an officer about 4:15 p.m. in the prison's Facility D. The inmate struck one officer, and was biting and kicking others, prison and sheriff's officials said.

Once handcuffed and under control, the inmate was taken to the infirmary because he was having trouble breathing. His condition worsened and he went into cardiac arrest. Paramedics could not revive the inmate and he died after being transported to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.

The inmate's name was not released pending family notification. He was serving prison time after a March 1998 conviction for voluntary manslaughter in Sacramento County, and had been at the prison in Lancaster since June 2000, Lewis said.

Last month, inmate Eddie Ralph Arriaga, 27, was beaten, stomped and strangled to death by his cellmate. Arriaga, in prison for second-degree burglary was allegedly attacked on Sept. 10 by his cellmate, a convicted rapist. The district attorney's office is pursuing a murder charge against the cellmate, who is now housed at Corcoran State Prison, Lewis said. The case remains under investigation.

Earlier this week another inmate was attacked by his cellmate and scalded with hot liquid, Lewis said. Neither of the inmates' names were released. Lewis said officers heard someone screaming from inside a cell just before noon on Thursday. They found the victim inside the cell covered in severe burns on his face, neck, upper body and arms. The victim was transported to the USC Medical Burn Center, where it was determined that he had second-degree burns. The victim is now recuperating at the prison's infirmary, Lewis said.

Inmates are allowed to keep hot pots and coffee warmers in their cell, and officials suspect that the victim's cellmate scalded him with boiling water, Lewis said.

The facilities where this week's incidents took place are now on a temporary modified lock-down in which prisoners are not allowed to leave their cells unless given special clearance to perform their job assignments.

The Lancaster prison contains some of the most violent criminals in the state, with most serving time for murder, rape or robbery convictions.,1,282839.story

Inmate Dies After Being Subdued
From a Times Staff Writer

October 10, 2004

A state prison inmate in Lancaster who allegedly attacked guards before being subdued died after he was taken to a hospital, authorities said Saturday.

The inmate, whose name was not released, bit and kicked the guards Friday, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Tania Plunkett.

The correctional officers used pepper spray to defend themselves and then handcuffed him, she said.

Moments later, the prisoner began having problems breathing and was taken to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, where he was pronounced dead at 4:12 p.m., Plunkett said.

No other details about the confrontation were released. The cause of death was being investigated by the county coroner's office.

Inmate Killed Inside Cell

The Daily News of Los Angeles

September 14, 2004 Tuesday, Antelope Valley Edition


BYLINE: Charles F. Bostwick, Staff Writer

LANCASTER - A state prison inmate undergoing mental treatment is suspected of killing another inmate in the cell they shared, officials said.

The suspect, whose name was not released, is being kept by himself in a prison cell while officials await the coroner's report on what killed Eddie Ralph Arraiga, 27, who was found with multiple injuries in their cell.

"At this time we've ruled it a homicide," California State Prison-Los Angeles County Lt. Ken Lewis said Monday.

If officials conclude the cellmate is responsible for Arraiga's death, he will be charged in Antelope Valley Superior Court,
officials said.

Arraiga had been imprisoned in August 2000 on a five-year sentence for an attempted robbery in West Covina. He had been at the Lancaster prison since September 2003 and was scheduled to get out in July 2005.

Both he and his cellmate were in the prison's administrative segregation unit for inmates who are disciplinary problems, could be in danger among the general prison population, or other reasons. Both were undergoing psychological treatment.

Administrative segregation inmates are allowed out of their cells only to shower, for 10 hours a week of closely guarded recreation, and, in the two inmates' situation, therapy, officials said.

Arraiga was put in administrative segregation after he destroyed another inmate's television set, Lewis said.

Officials did not say why the cellmate is imprisoned or why he was in administrative segregation.

Arraiga was found injured Friday afternoon in the two-man cell afteranother inmate yelled "man down," which is a jailhouse term inmates use when there is a serious problem with an inmate, Lewis said.

A correctional officer found Arraiga on the floor of the cell and hiscellmate standing at the cell door, Lewis said.

Arraiga was treated by prison medical staff and pronounced dead bythe prison doctor. Officials did not disclose the nature of Arraiga's injuries.,1,6277873.story?coll=la-editions-valley

Crowding at Prison Threatens Honor Program
Dangerous criminals at the Lancaster facility are being housed with those who have pledged peace.
By Richard Fausset
Times Staff Writer

April 27, 2004

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, 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 gang 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%.

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