Laws, Prison Riots Linked -- Report Cites Anger Over Crack Sentences

WASHINGTON - Eight days of disturbances at federal prisons last fall were triggered by anger over unequal penalties for crack and powder cocaine use and cost the government $39.7 million to control, a Bureau of Prisons report concludes.

To halt the incidents, federal prison officials imposed the first nationwide, precautionary lockdown in federal prison history - confining all inmates to their cells or housing units until order was restored.

Some guards and inmates were injured during the disturbances, but no one died. No hostages were taken.

The report, ordered by Kathleen Hawk, director of the Bureau of Prisons and released yesterday, concluded that the trouble was aggravated by the increasing number of federal inmates who belong to gangs and are serving long sentences without the possibility of parole for drug, weapon or violent offenses.

Beginning last Oct. 19 in Talladega, Ala., disturbances spread to a total of 15 federal prisons from coast to coast, but the report classified 10 as major and five as minor incidents.

Despite multiple underlying causes, "the initial disturbance at the Federal Correctional Institution, Talladega, was related to congressional action to not equalize penalties for crack and powder cocaine at the existing levels for powder," the report said. "There were no indications that staffing, crowding and other conditions of confinement or internal management issues were involved in causing the disturbances."

Federal law mandates minimum 10-ear prison sentences for possessing either 50 grams (1.75 ounces) of crack cocaine or 5,000 grams (175 ounces) of powder cocaine. Because crack is used more frequently by blacks and powder by whites, civil-rights leaders, some members of Congress and prison-eform groups have argued this disparity discriminates against blacks.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended equalizing the penalties, but that was blocked in Congress just before the Talladega disturbance. Since then, President Clinton signed legislation blocking that change.