Despite decades of attacks and death threats, California prison officials moved inmate Hugo “Yogi” Pinell out of a solitary housing unit and into the general population in the last couple of weeks, his lawyer said Thursday, a move that may have led to his slaying Wednesday at a Folsom prison and a subsequent riot that injured dozens.
Pinell, 71, was moved without notification to his attorney and despite concerns that he would be targeted by rival gang members, Oakland attorney Keith Wattley said in a telephone interview.
“I asked them to let me know before they moved him so we could take appropriate action to protect him, to seek a court order,” Wattley said. “He was very concerned.
“The first confirmation that we got that he was in the general population was confirmation that he’d just been killed. We didn’t have an opportunity to take action.”
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Pinell, who was serving six life sentences and was considered one of the most notorious black gang leaders in the state prison system, was killed Wednesday afternoon at New Folsom prison, known officially as California State Prison, Sacramento, in an assault by two inmates. That attack sparked a full-scale riot involving 70 prisoners.
Authorities said Thursday that the incident left 29 injured, including five inmates who were admitted to hospitals. One inmate remained in critical condition Thursday afternoon with “a severe head injury and multiple stab wounds,” the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement.
No staffers were hurt in the melee, which was put down within 20 minutes and was quelled by guards using “significant amounts of pepper spray,” about 160 rounds of 2-inch foam or rubber projectiles and three warning shots from a Mini 14 rifle, the department said.
Officials said at least 15 weapons made by inmates had been recovered by Thursday and that Pinell died from stab wounds after being attacked by two inmates they did not identify.
“The riot started immediately after the attack,” the department said. “Pinell succumbed to his wounds and was pronounced dead at 1:22 p.m.”
Corrections officials said Pinell was transferred to New Folsom on Jan. 8, 2014, from Pelican Bay State Prison under a program to review the status of gang-validated inmates. Pinell had served time in a security housing unit – the SHU –longer than any other inmate.
Late Thursday, corrections officials said Pinell was placed into the general population on July 29.
Agency spokeswoman Terry Thornton said he was moved because of good behavior, part of the department’s ongoing case-by-case review for gang-affiliated inmates. Of the 1,363 cases reviewed since late 2013, officials have moved 996 security housing unit inmates to general housing, according to Thornton.
“If there wasn’t any behavior that has a nexus to gang activity for the last four years, those people were released to the general population housing,” Thornton said.
Thornton refused to answer questions about alleged threats against Pinell.
Don Novey, the former longtime head of the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association and a former officer who spent years watching Pinell in a cellblock, said he had been told Pinell had been out of his secure lockup housing for five days when he was killed.
“They had to know he was a prime target,” Novey said, adding that the attack on Pinell could cause unrest between rival prison gangs.
“It’s a really serious situation,” Novey said. “When a guy like that is attacked it has reverberations throughout the system.”
Pinell had been in prison since a rape conviction in 1965 and, while in custody, had been involved in extreme violence that included the murders of four guards, attacks on others and a notorious August 1971 escape attempt at San Quentin State Prison.
The attempted breakout by Pinell and five others who came to be known as the “San Quentin Six” resulted in the slaying of three inmates and three officers – Paul Krasenes, Jere Graham and Frank Deleon – and attacks on three others who had their throats slit but survived.
Sacramento resident Dick Nelson was a correctional officer at San Quentin at the time of the uprising and helped subdue the inmates by firing a Thompson submachine gun into a steel door near where they were hiding, he said Thursday.
“A gun was smuggled into the unit and the prisoners took control of it,” Nelson said in a telephone interview. “Three officers died being stomped and shot and beat to death, and three others had their throats slit and, fortunately, were able to survive.”
Nelson, now 77 and retired since 1998, said one of the survivors told him Pinell “had slit his throat and was trying to puncture his jugular vein with a broken pencil” when guards rescued the hostages.
“He was one of the most dangerous, treacherous, no-good scoundrels that’s been in this state of California,” Nelson said. “He was involved in the murder of four law enforcement officers. You can’t be more more dangerous than that.”
Prison officials say Pinell was the only fatality in the riot and that they still are investigating the incident that began in a maximum-security yard.
Wattley said he believes his client was targeted.
“The riot was a response to him being stabbed, is what I believe happened,” Wattley said.
Prison Lt. Aaron Konrad declined to specify any prison gangs that might have been involved, saying only that various “security threat groups” are being looked at.
“The evidence is still being sorted through,” he said. “There is buckets and buckets of evidence to go through.”
Video evidence of the incident must also being examined, he said.
In his 17 years at the prison, Konrad has seen inmates killed on the yard and said Wednesday’s violence ranks with a 2011 riot. “The staff did an exemplary job responding and getting the injured out and into local hospitals,” he said.
“The public’s perception is that we are quick on the trigger,” Konrad added. “In my career, I have not seen that to be the case. Not here.”
He said prisoners are able to go to their medical appointments but are not allowed on the main yard. Inmates are usually fed in their cells.
Pinell was one of the closest allies of George Jackson, who founded the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang and was killed in the San Quentin escape attempt. According to a 1987 story in The Sacramento Bee, Pinell was once called by his captors “the most dangerous man in the California prison system.”
Pinell sought parole but was denied 10 times, most recently in May 2014.
William Vizzard, professor emeritus of criminal justice at Sacramento State, expressed surprise that a 71-year-old gangster was targeted.
“Historically, there was a trend that older guys would withdraw from gang life,” he said. “There’s a term in criminal justice called aging out. (Pinell) may be an exception.”
“Maybe he was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Vizzard added. “Maybe he’s still a player. I don’t know.”
Fights and riots are not uncommon in prisons because of the tremendous tension that can build up, according to Vizzard, who once worked in county jails.
“We’ve got all these gangs and racial subgroups competing for control in the prisons,” Vizzard said. “Inevitably, there’s going to be conflict.”
Novey, the former prison guard union leader, noted that inmates have extensive communications networks inside prisons and that the upcoming Aug. 21 anniversary of the San Quentin escape attempt is a well-known date that may have played a role in the attack on Pinell.
“My God, why would you release a guy one week before the anniversary of the riot at San Quentin?” he asked.
Novey recalled being assigned to watch over Pinell and others at Folsom State Prison decades ago, and said that despite the passage of time Pinell was able to maintain his status as a feared – and targeted – gang leader.
“I just think this guy became lore in the movement of the black inmates of the system, and he maintained that capacity for years,” Novey said. “And these white thugs, as I call them, couldn’t get to him.
“There’s nothing bigger for them than to kill a gang leader, and that was Yogi Pinell. He always the No. 1 target.”