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Gang Rivalry, Drugs Multiply Problems of Overcrowded Jails

February 21, 1988|BILL BLANNING | United Press International

The seriousness of Los Angeles County's jail overcrowding is reflected in more than the acute space crunch that sometimes requires cramming seven or eight inmates into a 9-by-12 1/2-foot cell.

It's reflected in the sheer size of the inmate population, which is expected to grow another 50%, from 22,000 to 34,000, by 1992.

For the Sheriff's Department, which runs the jails, the crisis is compounded by the fact that today's inmates are tougher and more violent than they were two decades ago and that nine out of 10 come into the system with drug problems.

"The management of the special populations and keeping everyone safe becomes very difficult," said Cmdr. Robert Ripley of the department's custody division. "Our county jails today are more like a state prison."

Homosexuals, gang members, handicapped inmates and other unique jail populations pose management problems of their own, which add to the task of handling the thousands of defiant inmates.

A decade ago the county's jail population numbered only 8,000. But since 1980 the numbers have grown at a rate of 10% to 12% a year.

Today, the County Jail system is larger than the state prison populations in 46 states, according to John Hagar, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who has been point man in an ongoing legal battle to relieve overcrowding and remedy jail conditions.

58% Awaiting Trial

Of the system's 22,000 inmates, 58% are awaiting trial, mostly on felony offenses, Ripley said.

"As overcrowding has increased there has been a concurrent increase in the number of younger, more violent inmates," Hagar said. The problem grows even worse when an estimated 95% of inmates coming into the system have drug problems, he said.

"All of this combines for a more violent jail atmosphere," Hagar said.

On the management end, it means administrative nightmares as inmates routinely defy the most basic of jail rules.

For example, inmates waiting in a holding area for transport to a court hearing sometimes refuse to answer when deputies call their names in hopes of avoiding court, said Lt. Larry Waldie of the custody division.

Fire drills required by the state take longer because of uncooperative prisoners.

But an even bigger problem for jail officials is keeping violent prisoners from hurting each other.

The problem is most serious at the mammoth Men's Central Jail, which housed 7,457 inmates on one recent week, well above the 6,800 cap sought by the ACLU.

Groups Segregated

Rival gang members, those with suicidal tendencies and other groups are segregated so that they will not harm each other or are kept safe from the violent ones.

But keeping thousands of people apart when they are confined to one facility is tricky, especially on weekdays when there is constant movement of inmates.

More than 1,000 inmates are transported daily to court from the Men's Central Jail, and thousands of others move through the facility to go to meals, the recreation yard and the visiting room, Ripley said.

Jail officials must carefully plan and time the movements of individuals or groups of inmates so as to avoid potentially violent confrontations.

Gang rivalries are especially worrisome. A special team of deputies who are experts on gangs and the often intricate rivalries between subgroups are careful to keep enemies apart.

But despite the difficult circumstances, the Sheriff's Department has managed to keep the lid on a volatile situation, Hagar said.

"If you go up (to Men's Central) and watch (the daily operation), you're amazed at how well it runs," Hagar said.

The dovetailing of inmate schedules is so delicately timed that at moments the flow of humanity through sections of the jail almost appears choreographed, he said. "It's kind of like a ballet."

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