WASHINGTON -- Federal authorities confined thousands of inmates to their cells at the country's 70 low-, medium- and high-security penal institutions yesterday after prisoner uprisings at four institutions in different states left dozens of inmates and staff members hurt and caused millions of dollars in damage, government officials said.
The uprisings at institutions in Alabama, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Tennessee were the most extensive in the federal system in years. Inmates set fire to mattresses, broke windows, threw chairs and hurled baseball bats in outbursts that seemed to ignite spontaneously.
Law-enforcement officials said yesterday that they had not found evidence that the disturbances were planned or coordinated, but they also said some inmates might have been incited by news reports about riots at other institutions.
Administration officials said yesterday that the latest violence appeared to be linked to the 332-83 House vote Wednesday rejecting a proposal by the Federal Sentencing Commission to erase the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between possession of cocaine powder and crack cocaine.
In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons said that it ordered on Friday night tighter security at all but its 14 minimum-security institutions. The order means prisoners, many of whom are allowed to leave their cells during the day, would be confined under guard.
The prison authorities said they had restored order at the four institutions and no one had been killed or had escaped. But officials appeared to be girding for the possibility of further unrest and said the harsher security would remain in effect for an indefinite period.
Administration officials said the debate and vote on the disparity of sentences for the possession of cocaine in powder and crack forms had ratcheted up tensions in the prison, even though it would not have affected the sentences of inmates at the prisons.
If the House had not overturned the sentencing commission's recommendation, the two forms of cocaine possession would have received equal sentences beginning Wednesday.
The issue gained broad national attention when it was addressed by speakers at Monday's Million Man March, including Louis Farrakhan, the rally organizer, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who expressed rage over how the federal drug laws disproportionately affected young black men.
It was unclear yesterday whether inmates at the institutions were able see the live television broadcast of the rally.
At present, people convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine, the crystalline form that has ravaged black inner-city ghettoes, are punished with a minimum mandatory sentence of five years. But powdered cocaine, a form more typically used by affluent white abusers, has no such minimum, and a person must possess 500 grams before the five-year mandatory sentence is imposed.