Sheriff Blames Lack of Staff for Jail Riot

Prisoner violence has risen amid budget cuts. New fighting erupts as Baca considers expanding inmate segregation by race.

By Stuart Pfeifer and Jessica Garrison
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

February 6, 2006

As county jail administrators have struggled with a staffing shortage and funding crisis, violence among prisoners has nearly doubled in the past three years at the North County Correctional Facility, the site of a weekend riot that left one inmate dead and dozens injured.

Inmate-on-inmate assaults at the Castaic facility rose from 351 in 2003 to 614 last year. Most of the incidents were racially motivated, including Saturday’s riot by more than 2,000 black and Latino inmates, sheriff’s officials said.

Violence broke out again late Sunday, this time at the Pitchess Detention Center North, a jail adjacent to the North County facility where prisoners rioted on Saturday.

A sheriff’s spokeswoman, Deputy Alba Yates, said 10 inmates were injured in the violence that broke out just before 10:30 p.m. at Pitchess.

Yates said the incident involved approximately 170 Latino and 35 black inmates who “divided on racial lines and fought.” The melee was broken up by deputies using pellet weapons called “sting ball grenades.”

She said inmates at the 1,500-inmate Pitchess facility had not been on lockdown status.

On Sunday, investigators sought to learn why inmate Wayne Tiznor, a convicted sex offender who was beaten to death in the earlier riot, was housed among violent gang members in the North County facility. Tiznor had been arrested and accused of failing to register with local police as a sex offender, which he was required to do because of a prior conviction.

Sheriff Lee Baca put much of the 21,000-inmate county jail system on lockdown Sunday, creating an unusual sense of emptiness and calm outside the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles.

“We are on full lockdown!!!” read a sign posted on the door of the jail. “There will be no visiting today Feb. 5 and tomorrow Feb. 6.”

The riots bring to the fore the question of inadequate staffing at the jails.

“It may reflect that the Sheriff’s Department simply does not have the personnel to adequately staff the jails,” said Merrick Bobb, a Los Angeles lawyer hired by the Board of Supervisors to monitor the Sheriff’s Department.

“Too few deputies are being called upon to do too much,” said Bobb, who called the system’s ratio of deputies to prisoners “impossibly high.”

On a typical Saturday night, 77 deputies are scheduled to watch the 4,000 prisoners at the North County facility in Castaic, sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Waldman said this weekend. That ratio of about 50 inmates for every deputy is the highest in the country, Baca said.

As a result of Saturday’s melee, which took four hours to quell, the Sheriff’s Department on Sunday segregated black and Latino inmates at the facility in Castaic. Most inmates spent Sunday afternoon watching the Super Bowl on jail cell televisions.

It took deputies nearly 18 hours to segregate inmates at the North County facility, said Waldman, a watch commander at the prison. Blacks were housed on one floor of the jail while Latinos were housed on the other, Waldman said.

Baca is considering expanding the segregation of black and Latino inmates to other jail facilities because of the long history of violence between the ethnic groups, which he said takes place both on the streets and in county jail facilities.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court said prison officials cannot segregate inmates by race except under extraordinary circumstances in which segregation is the only way to maintain inmate safety. Baca said he believes the county is justified in separating the two groups because of their history of violence.

Sheriff’s officials said some of the injuries were caused when inmates hurled metal beds from one level to another. Six inmates injured in Saturday’s violence remained hospitalized Sunday afternoon, guarded by sheriff’s deputies. Their conditions ranged from critical to stable.

Baca said the increasing violence at the North County facility is attributable to his decision a few years ago to close jails and concentrate inmates in the remaining jail facilities — a move he said was caused by more than $150 million in budget cuts. Also as a result of the cuts, most nonviolent criminals are released early, serving about 10% of their sentences and leaving a more violent population in the jails.

Those inmates who remain in jail are part of the highest inmate-to-guard ratio of any major county jail system in the United States, Baca said. In some instances, inmates outnumber deputies 100 to 1, the sheriff said.

New York City, for example, has a local jail population of about 15,000 and a staff of 12,000 to watch them. Los Angeles County has more than 20,000 inmates and a staff of 5,000, Baca said.

Baca said an ideal staffing level would be one deputy for every six inmates, but the department lacks the resources.

“The more you crowd a facility, the more difficult it is to prevent violence,” Baca said.

The sheriff said that Saturday’s attack was so well-planned and coordinated that it would have been difficult to prevent. Latino inmates waited until after visiting hours, when many inmates were out of their cells, to launch their attack, Baca said. The inmates apparently planned the attack as retaliation for an assault by black inmates on a Latino inmate at the downtown Men’s Central Jail, the sheriff said.

“What’s remarkable is that we don’t have more of this,” Baca said. “This was definitely a planned attack that met its objective.”

Hundreds of law enforcement officers from throughout Southern California were brought to the jail to try to restore order. Deputies dragged some inmates to safety and used tear gas and pepper bombs to try to stop the violence. A core group of about 200 led the attack, but the melee involved more than 2,000 inmates.

Baca said that budget cuts forced him to stop hiring new deputies for about two years, creating a shortage of more than 1,000 deputies. Despite a recruitment effort and media campaign, the department has been unable to reduce that number, instead struggling to keep above near-record attrition. Nearly 500 deputies left the department in 2005, many of them unhappy with long assignments in the jails and the high cost of housing in Los Angeles County.

Baca said he will not pull deputies off the streets and send them to the jails to quell the violence because that would mean fewer officers out protecting the general public.

“You do that and you’ve cut both sides of your neck,” he said.

In a report to the Board of Supervisors last year, Bobb suggested that the department start hiring a second tier of deputies, those who agree to work only in the jails. He said a program like that has been well-received in San Diego and leads to a staff and management who are experienced dealing with inmates.

Another issue that could surface in Saturday’s violence is whether victim Tiznor should have been in the facility in the first place. Many sex offenders are housed separately because they are among the most vulnerable inmates.

“We’re looking into that,” Baca said. “Why was he in there, co-mingled with gang members?” If Tiznor was inappropriately housed, it would mark the second time in three months that an inmate has been killed in the jails after he was placed with more dangerous inmates. Tiznor was the ninth inmate killed by other inmates in the county jails in the past 2 1/2 years.

In November, 35-year-old Chadwick Shane Cochran was slain in the downtown Men’s Central Jail by two gang members who beat and stomped on his head for 10 to 15 minutes while he and the other prisoners were locked in a room with no deputy watching them.

The inmates attacked Cochran, who was mentally ill, because they incorrectly believed he was a police informant, authorities said.

After the Cochran slaying, county supervisors asked the department to do more to make sure gang members were not able to mingle with more vulnerable inmates.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich said Sunday he was distressed to learn that a classification issue may have contributed to another inmate’s death.

“The sheriff must recognize the failure of mixing gang member inmates with non-gang and rival gang inmates,” Antonovich said.

*

Times staff writers Scott Glover, Jean Guccione, Matt Lait, Mitchell Landsberg and Sara Lin contributed to this report.

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