Inmates riot over sentencing debate

The Associated Press

CHICAGO The Rev. Jesse Jackson urged inmates yesterday not to react with more violence, like that at five federal prisons last week, in response to Congress' refusal to reduce sentences for crack cocaine convictions.

''There are people on the outside, in Congress and at other levels of government who are working to change the laws,'' Jackson said. ''But they (inmates) must help us by cooperating and exercising the same kind of discipline and dignity that we saw last Monday at the Million Man March.''

The House voted 332-83 Wednesday against the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation that would have brought crack cocaine trafficking and possession in line with the lower penalties associated with powder cocaine. The Senate approved a similar measure last month.

The mandatory minimum jail sentence is five years for possessing 5 grams of crack.

Two people trapped inside the federal prison in Talladega, Ala., during a riot Thursday night said the inmates smashed windows and set fires in response to the vote. The measure also was mentioned as a possible cause of disturbances Friday in Memphis, Tenn., and Allenwood, Pa.

Those three uprisings prompted the Justice Department to order all federal prisons locked down indefinitely. Inmates are mostly confined to cells or housing units and security has been increased.

In response to the lockdown, inmates took over a dormitory Friday night and Saturday morning at the prison in Greenville, Ill.

In El Reno, Okla., several inmates attacked two staff members at a federal prison that houses Oklahoma City bombing suspects Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Officials were unsure whether the attack was related to the other disturbances.

A total of at least 26 people were injured in the five uprisings, which caused millions of dollars in damage.

Faye Pollard, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said yesterday the cause of the outbreaks was still being investigated and could not necessarily be attributed to the vote in Congress. Inmates and staff where riots occurred will be interviewed to explain the disturbances, she said.

''Everything is apparently quiet with the lockdown,'' Pollard said yesterday. ''We're in the process of trying to assess the situation, what happened.''

But Jackson, on his way to speak to inmates at a maximum-security state prison in Joliet, said he understood the inmates' anger because of the ''racist sentencing structure.''

A stiffer penalty was originally adopted for crack because it is considered more addictive, with a quicker, more intense high than snorting cocaine powder. Crack, which is smoked, can be sold in small, inexpensive quantities at lower prices than powder.

Many Democrats, led by members of the Black Congressional Caucus, argued that the mandatory five-year sentence unfairly targets young, poor, mostly black people.

Jackson agreed: ''Those in jail for a $5 high are black and brown.''

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