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Violence from Racial Tension and Overcrowding Pervades California Jails, Spreads to Prisons

by Marvin Mentor

Los Angeles (L.A.) County jail prisoners have been locked in interracial gang-controlled violence for the past year, and the unrest has spread to other jails and into California state prisons as prisoners pursue their simmering racially-charged disputes. Future stability seems doubtful. If California's prison system "desegregates," as projected pursuant to Johnson v. California, 125 S.Ct. 1141 (2005) [PLN, April 2006, p.20], the disturbing events described below portend a perpetuation of heated violence extending into an endless "long, hot summer."

November 2005 - L.A. Jail Murder

On November 16, 2005, 35-year-old mentally ill prisoner Chadwick Cochran was brutally beaten for 30 minutes, assaulted with metal trays and finally stomped to death at the L.A. Central Jail in an unsupervised room with 30 other prisoners. Cochran had unwittingly made the mistake of "ethnically out of order" cutting the line for dinner. Sheriff's deputies later acknowledged that it was improper to have placed Cochran in with the hardened prisoners. "He was a fish out of water ... in the shark tank," Sheriff Lee Baca admitted, noting that the prisoners who killed Cochran were young gang-bangers awaiting trial on various assault and murder charges. Cochran was the eighth prisoner murdered at the L.A. County Jail in two years.

Baca could not explain how Cochran, a nonviolent offender who suffered from paranoia and delusions, had been transferred from the Twin Towers mental health facility to the Central Jail's general population. The sheriff opined that Cochran was not murdered because he was mentally ill or had disrespectfully cut the dinner line, or due to racial reasons, but rather was an opportunistic victim of sadistic murderers who took advantage of being in an unsupervised room with a weak victim. The two suspects in the killing, Christian Perez, 18, and Heriberto Rodriguez, 24, may face the death penalty.

Meanwhile, L.A. County faces civil lawsuits. Sheriff Baca's repeated failure to stem the string of murders and beatings in his jails has already resulted in settlements of $1.7 million with the families of two of the eight murder victims mentioned above (including $900,000 to the family of informant Raul Tinajero; see: PLN, Mar. 2006, p.10). The other six wrongful death suits are pending. Baca complains that he doesn't have the staff to watch everyone all the time, but County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky retorted, "It's not good enough ... to say 'stuff happens' and 'people are going to get murdered in our jails.' We're talking about human beings, whether they are criminals or suspects being held." Fourteen prisoners have been murdered in L.A. County lockups since 2000.

January 2006 - Prison Murders and Unrest

Jesse Sosa, 26, was found murdered in his cell at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) on New Year's Day, 2006. His cellmate, Michael Olivo, 25, was the prime suspect in the strangulation death. Sosa's death was the second in-cell murder at PBSP in four months, following the September 6, 2005 killing of 36-year-old Lloyd Avery. Both Sosa and Olivo were associated with L.A. street gangs.

Dying at PBSP is apparently a significant hazard. Since the facility opened in 1989, 18 prisoners have been murdered, five shot by staff, two killed accidentally, 21 died as a result of suicide, and 22 succumbed to "natural causes" (including inadequate healthcare, which is another major problem in California prisons).

Two days after Sosa's untimely death, 37-year-old rapist Allen Benti was allegedly murdered in his Salinas Valley State Prison cell by Richard Mingus, a murderer serving life without parole. And on January 9, 2006, life-prisoner Heng Bong Kang was killed at the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) at Soledad, but California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials did not release details.

January 13, a Friday, lived up to its bad-luck reputation at San Quentin State Prison, when 23 prisoners and two guards were injured during a 7 p.m. riot in the Badger Section dining hall, occupied at the time by 260 Reception Center prisoners. The guards suffered punches and a sprained knee. One prisoner was taken to an outside hospital with a broken jaw; six others were slashed. A search of the area turned up nine plastic weapons with sharp points or imbedded razor blades, according to CDCR spokesman Sgt. Eric Messick. An investigation determined that Hispanic perpetrators had attacked black, white and other Hispanic prisoners over an unspecified "act of disrespect."

On January 25, 2006, San Quentin Death Row prisoner Richard Penunuri, 27, slashed the arm of a guard who was uncuffing him. The deep gash, "nearly down to the bone," took 30 stitches to close. The planned attack was reportedly in retaliation for earlier actions taken by guards against members of the Cole Street Gang. CDCR was concerned how Penunuri could have obtained such a weapon while housed in the maximum-security Adjustment Center (AC) part of Death Row. The answer became more apparent after the AC was searched and other weapons were discovered, as well as a stash of dope in a bag of potato chips in one of the guard's lockers. The guard was escorted out of the facility.

The California State Prison (Los Angeles) at Lancaster had its second in-cell murder of 2006 on January 24. Richard Ponton, a 36-year-old white prisoner serving life without parole in the protective custody tier of unit C-4, was found stuffed under his bunk, his throat slashed. This was the same area where on January 2, arsonist Robert Painter, 59, was found beaten to death and wrapped in a sheet by his cellmate, Michael Andrews. A support group headed by Cayenne Bird, mother of a previously-murdered prisoner, blamed the killings on overcrowding. "They're carelessly double-celling the mentally ill with regular inmates," she said. But Lancaster officials have no plans to change their screening process for double-celling, stated prison spokesman Ken Lewis.

February 2006 - Escalating Violence

After only a three-week lull, ethnic rioting broke out again at San Quentin on February 2, when 83 black and Hispanic prisoners attacked each other in the Reception Center dining hall. Twenty-seven were injured; six black prisoners had puncture or slash wounds. Prison officials confiscated 36 homemade weapons, including a 6" ice-pick, indicating the violence was planned. Spokesman Messick recounted an earlier brawl on August 8, 2005 where 39 of 70 rioting white and Hispanic prisoners were injured. "I think that whatever the original issue was, it's long gone, and one problem begets another," he opined.

On February 4, 2006, a black-Hispanic melee in the maximum security Castaic North County (L.A.) jail resulted in one death and more than 100 prisoners injured (with 20 hospitalized, nine in critical condition). The four-hour-long fight involved 2,000 prisoners in two dorms - approximately 200 of whom were "seriously involved." Wayne Tiznor, a black 45-year-old prisoner jailed for failing to register as a sex offender, died from blunt head injuries. Two days earlier a Hispanic had been stabbed by a black prisoner at the Main Jail in a continuing South Central L.A. gang feud; Sheriff Baca suspected the new melee was in retaliation for that attack. Castaic's population is about 60% Hispanic and 30% black.

Two hundred sheriff's deputies plus highway patrol officers responded to the race riot with tear gas, pepper ball guns and flash-bang grenades. Later, a note sent by an anonymous prisoner requested that the men be segregated by race, which Sheriff Baca obliged. "Me and the ACLU can sit down and have a long talk," he said, adding, "Human life is more important than appearance."

Later, Ramona Ripston of the ACLU agreed that in the short term, "under these conditions people need to be kept separate." Deterrent techniques used for one day at Castaic included suspension of all privileges, and stripping 100 prisoners naked with only a blanket to cover themselves and no mattress to lie on.

Rather than quelling the simmering feud, the next day violence re-erupted at Pitchess Detention Center North, involving 35 blacks and 170 Hispanics who fought along racial lines. With only 77 deputies to guard 4,000 prisoners at North County, Sheriff Baca claimed $150 million in budget cuts for the 18,000-prisoner county jail system was the root cause of the unrest due to the resultant overcrowding. It took 18 hours to segregate the combatants by tier. Warring prisoners then took the day off and watched the Super Bowl. But the following day a third brawl broke out involving 90 prisoners that resulted in one injury.

Marc Klugman, the Sheriff's Dept.'s Correctional Services Chief, announced that they were working on a computerized plan to identify and isolate the most dangerous jail prisoners in the newer Twin Towers jail. However, he admitted that the plan would not avert all violence, because the jail's atmosphere is "a carry-over from an all-out war that's going on in the streets." Indeed, deputies are aware that some of the inside riots have been directed by gang members on the outside. It is estimated that around 25% of L.A jail prisoners are gang-affiliated. Sociologists tie the strife ultimately to a demographic shift whereby the increasing Hispanic population in Los Angeles is displacing a declining resident black community, with the two groups struggling over turf. "They have been clashing in schools, on the streets, in the workplace and in hospitals," said radio talk-show host Earl Hutchinson.

On February 8, 2006, two more fights broke out at Castaic, involving 300 prisoners and injuring 22. And again, on February 9, more prisoners rioted after 70 members of the clergy and news media came in to talk to them and hopefully ameliorate the tension. But the riot orders had come from Mexican Mafia gang leaders, sheriff's deputies claimed, who were not interested in "talking." Najee Ali, of Project Islamic Hope, said that black prisoners were asking for help and wanted to be segregated and protected.

County officials weren't too hopeful about the future. L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina stated, "[The violence] is gang on gang. Black gangs and Latino gangs. It will absolutely spill out. I hope that's not the case. It will be very dangerous for L.A." Sheriff Baca added, "Their goal is intimidation. Their goal is to carry into our jails a message that the Latinos are in greater numbers than the African-Americans and you can't stop us from attacking you. ... This comes from two South Central gangs that are at war out in the streets and also the Mexican Mafia taking advantage of Latinos who are going to state prison." L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Burke opined, "If this violence escalates to a greater level, it will be just horrible. It has the potential to bring the whole community down." County health officials told the grand jury that they fear violence will spread to hospital wards where prisoners are mixed without regard to security level.

The Violence Spreads

On February 8, hundreds of black, white and Hispanic prisoners rioted at the Correctional Training Facility (Soledad) state prison. Four prisoners were hurt in the North Facility B-Yard brawl.

Two days later in neighboring San Bernardino County, 14 jail prisoners were injured in a fight that broke out on a bus taking them to court. The fight began when numerous prisoners pulled out razor blades and began slashing. Another prisoner was cut in a courthouse holding cell. Although the fights were between blacks and Hispanics, Sheriff's Lt. Mike Stansell stated he had no intention of isolating the prisoners based on ethnicity. Stansell indicated he believed the violence was a carryover from the L.A. County jail violence. On February 14, similar fights broke out on two more of the court-bound prisoner buses.

Despite a continuing lockdown of all L.A. County jail prisoners, 86 black and Hispanic prisoners rioted again on February 10 at the Castaic facility, the third fight in three days. Eight went to the hospital. A majority of L.A. County jail beds are in 100-man dorms, so "lockdown" status does little to stem the violence.

Two days later, L.A. County jails recorded their second murder in two weeks. Sean Anthony Thompson, 38, a 6'4" 300 lb. black prisoner held on drug possession charges who was known to suffer from high blood pressure, collapsed and died after a fight defending another black detainee against four highly violent Hispanics at the Men's Central Jail. The fight was allegedly ordered by Mexican Mafia prison gang leaders. That same day, 90 more prisoners fought at the Castaic facility.

Gang violence is not isolated to southern California. Terry Jungel, past president of the National Sheriffs Association, said, "The explosions of violence we are seeing in Los Angeles are systemic statewide." Even the Merced County Jail, in Northern California, was placed on lockdown in May 2006 after repeated fights between rival gang members. Ultimately, Jungel stated, the problems can be traced to overcrowding in the jails and prisons, a widely-accepted belief.

Visiting outsiders from the African-American community, however, found that there were gross disparities in how the racial groups were treated. They found that Hispanics received cleaning supplies to keep their living areas clean, while blacks lived surrounded by spoiled food and garbage. Hispanics complained that their bags of carrots were outdated by three years. These issues served only to fuel the tinder-box of animosity between the racially-divided groups. Sheriff Baca noted that there are 500 gang-related murders committed every year on the streets of Los Angeles, many of which are "solved" by warring prisoners in the jails. The recent Castaic jail murders have resulted in 21 prisoners being charged with various crimes.

But the problem is also related to classification; i.e., mixing prisoners who have disparate levels of dangerousness. In overcrowded conditions, weaker non-gang affiliated detainees are placed in vulnerable situations when they are indiscriminately housed with known violent predators. L.A. County Correctional Services Chief Klugman acknowledged that they were working on preventing such mixing as a top priority. A proposed radio-tag prisoner tracking system for the jail is estimated to cost $20 million, Klugman told County supervisors.

On February 13, 2006, the behind-bars battleground moved to California's central valley, when 28 black and Hispanic prisoners were injured in a major riot at the 6,000-bed Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) state prison. The fight stemmed from a "disrespect issue" in the 1,100-man medium security Tuolomne Unit yard. Prisoner Primitivo Hernandez was stabbed and then set on fire after he fell on a smoke canister, used by guards to disburse the combatants.

Nonetheless, the segregation of prisoners by race at the Castaic jail was lifted two weeks after it had been imposed. "We will do this as tensions allow," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. Some communities in the L.A. basin that had been hard hit with racial violence saw crime actually decrease after sweeps to arrest known troublemakers. "The problem in the jails may be partly due to knuckleheads who usually strike out on the streets and are now mostly in the jails," suggested Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger of the L.A. police's South Bureau.

Rather, it might be the opposite that occurs. Two unnamed Guatemalan immigrants suggested that fighting in the jails might spill out into local neighborhoods. "Latinos are becoming the biggest group, and I think many blacks resent that," said one. He noted that blacks were outnumbered by Hispanics in the jails, but not on the streets - a factor that could lead to freeworld reprisals.

Still, whereas in 1980 Hispanics composed 19% and blacks composed 7.7% of California's population, today the numbers are 33% and 6.7%, respectively, with greater disproportion in southern California due to its proximity to the Mexican border. Sheriff's Deputy Tim Brennan, with 20 years experience working the gang-infested Compton district, was surprised to recently find two members of warring black gangs - the Bloods and the Crips - riding in the same car while wearing their red and blue gang colors. "What are you doing," he asked, "Going to get the Mexicans?" At the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a top-rated school in L.A. County, black students skip school on Cinco de Mayo, under threats from Hispanic gangs that they will be shot if they attend classes that day.

As expected, the Castaic jail suffered six more injured prisoners when fighting between blacks and Hispanics broke out once again on February 17, 2006.

Solutions Prove Elusive

While "overcrowding" is the oft-cited and generally-accepted mantra for jail violence, real solutions are hard to find. Sheriff Baca wants to hire 1,100 more deputies and has $70 million to meet that goal. But his jails are packed and no new ones are planned. L.A. County enjoys compensation from the CDCR for housing 1,200 state prisoners awaiting prison beds, and could relieve its jail overcrowding by moving those prisoners out. However, the $27 million-per-year state revenue stream is hard to give up. On the other hand, the cost of lawsuits resulting from deaths and injuries provides a financial incentive to build more jails. The most obvious solution: sentencing reform and bail reform, are politically unacceptable. One of the solutions currently being contemplated involves computerized classification of violent prisoners to properly isolate them from more vulnerable ones. But this begs the question of the underlying racial conflict that is growing demographically in the streets and festering in the lockups. And if Sheriff Baca is correct, the problem is really one of drugs and turf - for which policing and enforcement seems to be a losing battle across the nation.

Another potential contributing factor to the number of jail deaths, riots and injuries is the dearth of discipline meted out to guards whose negligence or incompetence caused such incidents. L.A. County jail deputies cited for misconduct often receive little more than written reprimands or brief suspensions. When they appeal such punishment it is often reduced. For example, the guards who left Chadwick Cochran with dozens of violent prisoners in an unsupervised room, where he was beaten to death, were not subjected to any form of discipline.

Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Sheriff's Office of Independent Review (OIR), admitted that employee disciplinary actions were "sometimes watered down without justification," and Correctional Services Chief Klugman stated that sanctions are often reduced after jail employees "promise to learn from their mistakes." Unfortunately, prisoners like Cochran don't have the same luxury.

Further, on December 6, 2006, the Office of Independent Review issued a report stating that it took the L.A. County Sheriff's Department longer than a year on average, and sometimes several years, to review the deaths of jail prisoners as required by state law. According to OIR chief attorney Gennaco, some reviews have taken as long as 600 days to complete - long enough to let the statute of limitations lapse, which precludes disciplining or filing charges against jail staff who may have been at fault.

In the state prison system, CDCR has utilized "peacekeepers" in an attempt to reduce racial violence. The questionable practice involves the use of "shot-callers," prisoners who are given greater freedom to move among the population to negotiate solutions to problems non-violently on behalf of prison administrators. However, it was precisely this practice that led to the January 10, 2005 murder of a guard at Chino State Prison by a prisoner with "peacekeeper" status. Guard Manuel Gonzalez was stabbed to death by Jon Christopher Blaylock, a Crips member who had been let out of his cell to assist with the peaceful re-integration of fellow prisoners following a race riot. [See: PLN, Nov. 2006, p.18].

The Race War - A Myth?

Maria Luisa Tucker, a staff writer for Alternet, interviewed J.R., a savvy but saddened former gang member who has spent 12 of his 28 years behind bars. J.R. was in the L.A. County jail, but not as a prisoner. He was a motivational speaker for Homies Industries, a cornerstone of L.A.'s community gang intervention programs. His rehabilitation came not from "the system" but from a combination of parenthood, religion and the ultimate realization that gang life led inextricably to prison or death. Kids are more likely to listen to tattooed ex-cons than cops or teachers, and J.R. is hell-bent on getting out his message. Other organizations like Unity One, Unity T.H.R.E.E., Homies Unidos, Amer-I-Can and NO GUNS provide valuable intervention services such as negotiating gang ceasefires, tattoo removal, job training and life skills classes. The empirical experience of these mentors, gleaned from the trenches, gives them both cachet in the eyes of their students as well as credibility.

Father Greg Boyle, who founded Homies Industries, said he believes prison fights are not really about race but are about simple things of the moment like who decides which TV show to watch in a dorm. Any minor affront behind bars is fraught with the possibility of violence. "It's a little bit like rape. Rape has nothing to do with sex. It has to do with power," Father Boyle observed. "What fuels the fights is the tension in the jails."

Bo Taylor, founder of Unity One, believes that society, not the sheriff, should be blamed. "We allowed this to happen," he said. Taylor makes the connection between violence and the low academic level of prisoners - most have only a 6th or 7th grade education. "They have no tools to figure things out. People can't use the same phones, or use the same toilets. Someone has implemented a system based on racism." A recent parolee added his comments on the state prison system's policy of racially-segregating prisoners for 60 days during reception: "It's hard to say if it would be better without segregation. It's been etched into prison life." Taylor believes it is appropriate now but contends that it has been used unfairly as a scapegoat. The real problem, and hence the solution, lies within each individual, he believes.

A large part of what gang intervention workers do is control false rumors to calm tensions and prevent retaliation. Quelling plans for vengeance is central to Taylor's jail violence prevention program. Still, reality eventually sets in, J.R. stated disgustedly. "California's answer to gangs is 25-to-life for teenagers. You can rape a woman or molest a kid and be out in a few years. That's messed up." As for jail riots, he lamented, "I don't see no color lines. I see struggle and pain."

Prison and jail officials in California, and other states, have long used racial divisions as a means of ensuring a compliant and malleable prisoner population. Attempts at prisoner unity run asunder the rocks of state sanctioned racism.

March 2006 - More Violence in Prisons and Jails

San Quentin State Prison (SQ) is California's showcase for prison rehabilitation programs. Located in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area, SQ has some 3,000 qualified "brown card" volunteers approved to work with prisoners, as opposed to perhaps 150 at the average California prison. There are religious-based programs, college classes, art groups, intramural baseball and basketball games, and a wide range of youth-intervention programs bringing throngs of troubled youth inside the walls to both see what prison is like and to work with seasoned prisoner mentors to help convince them to stay out.

Nonetheless, San Quentin is not immune from racial unrest. During an annual cultural event, Black History Month, when community members bring in musicians, dancers and art exhibits for the general population on the lower yard, some Northern Hispanic prisoners seized the moment to launch an attack on black prisoners crowded around the performers' grandstand.
Four weapons were recovered and the prison was placed on lockdown. A small number of the Northern Hispanics remained on lockdown four months later. The brawl followed earlier black-Hispanic fights in dining halls the previous month, when 16 prisoners were injured among the 80 involved.

At about the same time, 94 prisoners at Castaic fought each other again, with 14 injuries. This followed a 40-man fight in two dorms between blacks and Hispanics in the new-detainee area the night before.

Even juvenile facilities are experiencing gang violence, with L.A. County reporting a 25% increase in such incidents over the past three years. In the last decade, violence has spawned four audits, three lawsuits and a federal investigation of the juvenile halls and camps that house over 4,000 youths in L.A. County. Increasingly, violent youths have caused a sharp increase in the numbers of juveniles remanded to the state prison system. Skirmishes in camp bathrooms or kitchens have grown to riot scale in some cases.

In October 2005, black and Hispanic juveniles rampaged for an hour at Camp Glenn Rockey in the hills above San Dimas, ransacking dormitories and even the staff quarters. The probation officers' union filed two lawsuits alleging understaffing of youth facilities. A corollary concern is that the staff shortage results in mentally ill and suicidal youths being simply locked in restraints for days at a time, according to one documented six-week period. The Board of Supervisors agreed in May 2006 to provide funding for 240 new guards and mental health staff at L.A. County's Juvenile Hall.

A Lack of Problem-Solving Leadership

From the state prison system to county jail management to community intervention programs, there is a lack of leadership in terms of meaningfully changing the status quo. Not that there hasn't been change, especially among high-level officials. In February 2006, state Secretary of Corrections Roderick Hickman resigned after admitting that he couldn't rein in the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the powerful guards union. He also demonstrated that CDCR was unable to operate its healthcare system so as to meet Eighth Amendment standards, resulting in takeover of CDCR's medical care by the federal courts. [See: PLN, March 2006, p.1].

Two months later, on April 21, 2006, former CDCR Undersecretary Jeanne Woodford, who had been temporarily elevated to fill the Secretary position, similarly resigned to resume her previous duties pending her retirement in July. Many other high-level CDCR career executives have also announced their retirements, leaving the upper ranks of the state prison system in disarray. Governor Schwarzenegger filled the vacant Secretary position with James E. Tilton, a 13-year CDCR veteran employee who more recently had worked in the state's Department of Finance.

Meanwhile, the Legislature, knowing that voters would continue to reject prison bond construction measures, nonetheless proceeded hastily to enact "lease revenue" bonds to force two new prisons down the public's throat. The prison-building plan was part of Gov. Schwarzenegger's hug-the-CCPOA policy, intended to curry favor with the union for the upcoming November gubernatorial campaign. Indeed, the CCPOA raised its dues $30 per month for three months to add to the lard they spread on favored political candidates. The CCPOA was also negotiating its new contract with the state; as of mid-November 2006, however, the union was still without a labor agreement.

The state hired consultant Dennis Batcheldor, to the expensive tune of $100,000/year, as its contract negotiator. In 2005 the CCPOA successfully killed nascent CDCR rehabilitation programs for drug offenders, which had been enacted to reduce the prison population. The CCPOA also keeps the prison population up by funding victims rights groups to lobby indiscriminately against the parole of every eligible life-sentenced prisoner. As a carrot, the CCPOA has suggested relieving CDCR's chronic overcrowding by releasing non-violent prisoners 30 days early. But the union's parole agents would then just violate them and have them re-incarcerated (bed-vacancy-driven "recidivism").

In November 2006, likely to bring pressure on the state in connection with the union's contract negotiations, the CCPOA aired attack ads against Gov. Schwarzenegger, blaming him for increased prison violence and an ineffectual legislative session on prison reform.

As for jails, in March 2006 the L.A. County Supervisors decided to proceed with a $300 million initiative to improve the county's jails - $200 million of which would be used to reopen the shuttered Sybil Brand facility in Monterey Park to house female prisoners. Additionally, this would free up high-security beds at the Twin Towers jail, which would provide needed protection for vulnerable detainees. Rebuilding the aging Central Jail, however, is projected to be a $1 billion project, which is unlikely to gain support. The Central Jail has been described as a "dark, depressing box that is home to hundreds of violent inmates. The cells are sealed with old-fashioned, hand-crank operated steel gates [reminiscent of] Alcatraz. The escalators don't work. It's impossible for guards to see into all of the cells. Pepper spray drifts through the ventilation system and causes sore eyes and burning lungs throughout the building." 

And this doesn't even begin to describe the mental torment of being caged in such a soul-wrenching lockup.

L.A. County jails have released many prisoners after they serve as little as 10% of their sentences. An exception exists for prostitutes (mostly black) and certain gang members, who are forced to do 100% of their time, according to a recent complaint filed by the ACLU. In November 2006, Sheriff Baca and District Attorney Steve Cooley announced a new early release policy that requires all jail prisoners to serve a minimum 25% of their sentences; the policy is expected to be in effect by the end of the year. Another scourge related to overcrowding is tuberculosis. In early 2006, the sheriff in San Diego admitted that up to 1,500 prisoners recently released to the community had been exposed to an active case of TB at the jail.

On May 10, 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Dean D. Pregerson visited the Central Jail for three hours at the urging of the ACLU, which was seeking court-ordered limitations on overcrowding. He was appalled at the conditions he saw, which were "not consistent with basic human values." Upon observing six men in a three-man cell, he opined, "There is not enough room for all six inmates to stand up or take a pace or two. That is not a situation that I think should be permitted to exist in the future." 

On June 19, 2006, Judge Pregerson ordered the creation of a panel to oversee reforms at the jail; on October 27 he issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) that barring the L.A. County Sheriff's office from placing more than 20 prisoners in holding cells at the Inmate Reception Center. The TRO also prohibited keeping prisoners in such temporary cells for more than 24 hours before moving them to permanent housing.

"Inmates, particularly pretrial detainees who are imbued with presumption of innocence, deserve better than to be housed in a system which has defaulted to the lowest permissible standard of care," Pregerson noted. The judge "sent a message to the county and to the sheriff that they can't play a shell game with these detainees, that they can't improve conditions in one facility and create shocking, unthinkable conditions in another," stated ACLU senior counsel Melinda Bird. The TRO was renewed by Judge Pregerson on Dec. 10, 2006 after a heated debate between jail officials and ACLU staff attorneys. L.A. County Correctional Services Chief Klugman admitted that the ACLU's access to the jail had been restricted after the civil liberties group had allegedly made "inaccurate" statements to the media.

Sheriff Baca has announced that he intends to relocate "less acute" mentally ill prisoners to Castaic, opening up high-security cells elsewhere in the jail system as part of his $143 million eight-phase housing and security plan to gain 984 high-security beds. His bed-space reallocation plan initially included ending the county's $27 million contract with CDCR to house 1,200 state prisoners in L.A. County jails. However, although the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the removal of state prisoners, Baca had second thoughts and pleaded to keep the lucrative contract for financial reasons.

Meanwhile, it's business as usual. On March 2, 2006, Eric Wilson was apparently murdered in a dayroom by another prisoner at the California Men's Colony state prison. On May 3, 2006, several prisoners and deputies were injured in renewed rioting at the L.A. Central Jail. A July 13, 2006 riot at the Pitchess Detention Center's east facility involved 1,275 black and Hispanic prisoners, according to jail officials, and left 40 injured. Guards used tear gas, stingballs and pepperballs; still, it took 20 minutes to stop the fighting. Earlier that day, 339 prisoners had battled at the jail's north facility. Five were hospitalized with "moderate injuries."

Alex Paul Valdez, 43, housed at the Castaic jail, was beaten to death in a unit holding 64 Hispanic gang members on Dec. 4, 2006. Ironically, the prisoners had been segregated to forestall racially-motivated fights.

Prisoners aren't the only ones who are turning to violence. According to L.A. County Sheriff's Department reports, the use of significant force by jail staff rose 60% between 2000 and 2005; use-of-force incidents in which prisoners were hospitalized or injured by guards increased from 186 to 339 over the same time period.

As of December 6, 2006, there have been three murders, 37 major disturbances and 75 minor disturbances involving prisoners at L.A. County's eight jail facilities since the beginning of the year. Sheriff Baca was defensive about the level of violence. "The problems in the jails, in my opinion, are 100% bred by the prisoners," he remarked. "We'll never be singled out for the murders we have prevented." In the absence of any meaningful oversight or accountability, Baca has little reason to fear being "singled out" for anything in a position to bring about a solution.

That is, perhaps, because it is more practical to take note of the killings, riots, injuries, racial strife, chronic overcrowding and abysmal conditions of confinement, which are too obvious to ignore.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Monterey Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Valley Press, Merced Sun-Star, The Signal, Press Telegram, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, LA Daily News,,,, The Californian, San Jose Mercury News, New York Times, Fresno Bee, San Diego Union-Tribune

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