Posted on Fri, Feb. 10, 2006
LA County jails trying to quell violence but expect more trouble
LOS ANGELES - County jailers separated black and Hispanic inmates, began transferring troublemakers out and brought in clergy to try to restore peace after a week of racially charged brawls they feared would continue to erupt through the weekend.
"It's got momentum," said sheriff's Chief Marc Klugman, who oversees the nation's largest jail system. "They're battle-hardened. They're angry."
Thousands of Hispanic and black inmates clashed on Feb. 4 at the biggest of three jails at the Pitchess Detention Center complex, 40 miles outside of town. A black inmate was beaten to death and dozens of prisoners were injured.
Small brawls throughout the week occurred at the two smaller jails, including a Friday clash involving 73 inmates that took an hour to quell.
Ninety inmates have been injured and 28 remained hospitalized, Klugman said.
Investigators said they do not know specifically what sparked the first melee. But Klugman said the fights that have broken out since then appear to be tit-for-tat retaliation by one side or the other.
Originally, investigators believed Hispanic gang leaders outside the jail ordered the first fight as retaliation for a street attack, but that proved untrue, Klugman said.
Klugman said about 80 percent of the inmates are affiliated with gangs in some way.
All of the fights appeared to be orchestrated by "shot-callers" within the jails that authorities were trying to identify and remove from the dormitories to single-man cells in a downtown jail.
It was a slow process because empty beds were hard to find and authorities wanted to make sure they didn't spread the violence, Klugman said.
All 19,000 inmates in the Los Angeles County jail system will remain on lockdown through the weekend, meaning no visits or other privileges, Klugman said.
"The momentum here will die," he said. "We are taking away privileges. They don't like that. They want their commissary, they want their classes, they want their mail. That's going to start to wear on them."
On Thursday, sheriff's officials allowed 70 clergy members to talk with inmates. Many prisoners complained about being unable to shower or call home.
Many inmates really don't want to fight, Klugman said, but risk a beating unless they stand up for their race. "There's a lot of people involved in these things who don't want to be involved."
Black and brown inmates also remained segregated at the jail where it all started on Feb. 4.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that racially separating prisoners is illegal except in extraordinary circumstances.
Margo Schlanger, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said she saw no constitutional problems to using segregation as a last resort.
"If the alternative to a temporary race segregation is a riot, where people get hurt, then yeah, you can do that," she said.
Klugman said sheriff's officials view the segregation as both morally and tactically unsound in the long run and don't plan to extend it to other jails or continue it for more than two weeks.
"We're not willing to segregate every place. It's a bad policy," he said.
Not only do inmates who want racial isolation win a victory, he said, but it creates suspicion that a class system is in play.
Already, some black inmates have complained they believe Hispanics are getting better treatment, Klugman said. Prisoners are getting equal treatment, he said.
James Gilligan, a University of Pennsylvania professor and psychiatrist who directed mental health services in the Massachusetts prison system for many years, said he has been called in to help brainstorm solutions to the current round of violence.
He had not been briefed Friday afternoon but said in general, defusing prison violence involves negotiating with the ringleaders.
"The most important thing is to keep talking," he said. "Find out what do you want? What is your grievance with this other group? How can we help you resolve it?"
Pitchess has been the scene of more than 150 fights in the past 15 years, most often racially or gang motivated.
Ironically, Klugman said the latest violence has caused some gangs to put aside their rivalries as black inmates, who are outnumbered by Hispanics two to one, join ranks.