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  • Houston jail riot -

    About 50 inmates were injured when a riot erupted inside the Federal Detention Center in downtown Houston on Tuesday, authorities said.
    Lawyers and prison officials said such fights are extremely rare in federal facilities, which traditionally house nonviolent criminals.
    Houston firefighters and police arrived at the facility about 6:30 p.m. after receiving reports that up to 80 prisoners were fighting on the sixth floor at 1200 Texas, said District Chief Tommy Dowdy, a Houston Fire Department spokesman.
    Guards used a "flash-bang," or stun grenade, to break up the brawl, which Dowdy described as a riot. The device momentarily stuns people with "a lot of noise and bright light, but (there's) no aftereffects like tear gas," Dowdy said.
    One unidentified man was taken to the hospital with a head injury, he said. The other wounded prisoners were treated late Tuesday inside the administrative facility, which housed about 960 male and female pre-trial and hold-over inmates as of Thursday.
    None of the inmates' injuries appear to be life-threatening and no guards were hurt, said Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
    "The institution staff responded quickly and effectively and all of the inmates were returned to their cells inside the unit," she said. "All the units are now secure."
    Officials will conduct a probe into the cause of the incident, Billingsley said.
    "There will be an investigation for the institution to determine exactly what caused the fight to begin, and we'll take appropriate action," she said.
    Houston lawyer Kent Schaffer said he has six clients in the facility but was unable to find out their conditions Tuesday night.
    "I'm hoping that none of mine were injured, but I don't know," Schaffer said. "I asked my secretary to call the center, but she said they're not giving out any information."
    He said he was shocked to learn a riot took place at the facility.
    "It's so unusual because usually they have very nonviolent prisoners at the Federal Detention Center," Schaffer said. "I've never heard of a federal detention center having any kind of riot at all, and I've been doing federal cases almost 25 years. It's just unheard of."

    Undergoing change

    The prisoners in such facilities are more likely to be nonviolent drug offenders or white-collar criminals charged with fraud than dangerous felons, he said.

    But as federal authorities indict more criminals involved in organized syndicates and racketeering, that has changed, Schaffer said.
    "You used to have a much better class of federal prisoners. Now you're mixing documented gang members into a facility that's traditionally been nonviolent," he said.
    "It's really changed the whole landscape of the federal court system so that it looks more and more like the state court system."
    Another Houston lawyer, Todd Dupont, said he is concerned about his two clients in the detention center: a 64-year-old man with a minimal criminal history who recently received a 9-year sentence on drug charges and another defendant who was assigned to him on Tuesday.
    "The [federal detention center] runs a real tight ship," Dupont said. "The federal folks put it right. But if there is a mass uprising like this, there has to be a fundamental breakdown at some point in the process — which is probably unheard of at some levels — or, I suspect, a large conspiracy of folks that just decided to uprise."
    Whatever caused the fight, the public will find out eventually, he said.
    "There are cameras all over the place. Everybody's accounted for, even to their last minute — even when they go to the restroom," Dupont said. "If something like that happened in that center, there is something wrong."
    A prison official said she believes the sixth floor of the facility where the fight took place is a holdover floor for male inmates who have been sentenced but are scheduled in court for additional prosecution or testimony.
    It is also a floor for those who are convicted but not sentenced, sentenced inmates who have not been assigned to a prison or those awaiting transportation to another prison.
    "There are two beds in every cell, but whether there are two inmates who occupy that cell depends on our population," said Trish Doty, a case management coordinator at the prison.
    A special housing unit, also known as the "shu," has two-person cells on the seventh floor for inmates who commit violent acts. An inmate might also be kept there for his or own protection, Doty said.
    Sometimes "the shu" houses two inmates to a cell while other prisoners are alone, she said.
    Chronicle reporters Cindy George and Mary Flood contributed to this report.
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