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California prison guards investigated for opening fire during riot
CRESCENT CITY, California (CNN) -- Three guards at a California maximum security prison are under investigation for opening fire on inmates during a racially charged riot earlier in the week, officials say.
The guards at Pelican Bay State Prison were placed on paid administrative leave, pending the investigations.
One inmate was killed and 15 others were wounded Wednesday morning when guards opened fire with military assault weapons after attempts to calm the 30-minute melee failed.
"Three officers used M-14s," said Lt. Ben Grundy, a prison spokesman. The firing of the weapons prompted the investigation, he said.
Miguel Sanchez, a 23-year-old convict serving a 38-year sentence for first-degree murder, died after being shot in the head.
Asked if Sanchez had a weapon at the time he was shot, Grundy said, "I can't speculate on that. I was not there. We will have to wait for" the results of the investigation.
"Pelican Bay experiences approximately 400 incidences of violence per year," said Lance Corcoran, an executive with the Correctional Peace Officers' Union.
"I think that if the officers had not eventually been forced to use lethal force -- I think the fatalities (from Wednesday's riot) would have been greatly increased," he noted.
Under California law, officers are authorized to use deadly force when lives are at risk or serious injury could occur if the action is not taken.
After any shooting incident, officers, by law, are placed on leave pending investigation.
An investigative unit from the Department of Corrections, the Deadly Force Investigative Team out of Sacramento, has begun looking into the riot and the officers' actions.
Inspector General Steve White, who reports directly to the governor, has launched an independent investigation.
The Wednesday morning riot at Pelican Bay involved some 200 black and Hispanic inmates in a 30-minute melee in a rain-soaked prison yard. Nearly 50 inmates were injured, including many who had been slashed with makeshift knives.
About 115-120 officers entered the yard to try to stop the brawl, using batons, tear gas and pepper spray. The inmates "were clearly attacking one another" and "made no move" to attack the officers, said Margot Bach, spokeswoman with California Corrections.
When that didn't work, she said, officers first began firing rounds in the air and then at arms and legs of the inmates.
"When they had a direct line of sight, when they saw blood ... they began shooting," Bach said. "That finally stopped them (the inmates)."
The shots were fired from elevated gun booths. The prison remains on total lockdown.
The last time an inmate was killed by a California prison guard was in May 1998 at Pleasant Valley State Prison.
In that case, Bach said, the inmate "was attempting to murder another inmate" in the dining hall. The case is still under investigation, and the guard remains on administrative leave.
As part of the probe into Wednesday's riot, investigators will interview all the inmates involved and review videotapes of the melee as well as surveillance tapes.
The local district attorney cannot take action until after the investigations.
Another inmate shot by guards is in critical condition at San Francisco's General Hospital with a gunshot wound to the chest. His name has not been released.
Authorities said 32 inmates were stabbed or slashed by other inmates in the rioting. Fifteen others were wounded by prison guards during the disorder.
Bach said at least 88 "manufactured inmate slashing weapons" have been recovered from the prison yard.
Affiliate KCRA in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.
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