SACRAMENTO (AP) — California prison officials have halted an experiment aimed at forcing warring prison gangs to get along with each other after the inmates wound up brawling and even rioting when they were allowed to mingle together in prison recreation yards, officials told The Associated Press.

The effort started more than a year ago, with officials gradually allowing prisoners from the different gangs into the same exercise yards to try to get them to make peace. This also permitted officials to reduce harsh restrictions that had kept gang members locked up in cells for lengthy periods without access to rehabilitation programs that could allow them to shorten their sentences.

But the greater liberty generated the same result at several state prisons: Gang members brawled in what critics labeled “gladiator fights” that they allege prison officials deliberately set up to get the inmates to fight.

The brawls led officials to stop the practice of trying to get the gang inmates to interact with each other in the prisons, Shaun Spillane, a spokesman for the corrections department’s inspector general, told the AP in an interview.

Prison officials “are kind of at the point where they realize this isn’t working. Rather than getting the same result, they’re putting their heads together and trying to come up with a new approach,” Spillane said.

The program is on hold so officials “can explore options to find a resolution to this and safely house these individuals,” said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the corrections department.

She denied that officials set up inmates up to fight.

“I don’t know why they fight. We just expect our people to engage in positive behavior, engage in positive programs,” she said.

At the heart of the problem is the Fresno Bulldogs prison gang that has participated in 32 battles with other prison gangs over the last year, ranging from small battles to full-scale riots, according to data prepared for the AP by the inspector general’s office.

 

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