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Working on the Inside : Law enforcement: Prison guards face an ever-threatening environment as they try to maintain order at Pitchess Honor Rancho.


On any given day or night at the East Facility of the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho in Castaic, prisoners outnumber guards about 35 to 1.

Just ask Michael Webb. In 1983, Webb, a guard, was beaten by an inmate during a weapons search.

"He just went off," said Webb, 33, who suffered neck and back injuries severe enough to place him on disability leave for a year. According to Webb, the inmate told the court "he was just having a bad day."

Webb returned to Pitchess, and still displays a tough, nonchalant attitude about the dangers of custody duty. But such outward poise, guards say, is the only way to survive in a maximum-security jail.

"Deputies don't want to show their vulnerability," said Sgt. Merlyn Poppleton, head of the jail's gang unit, "because if you do that, you show you may not be in control, so we hide things like that. But there's not a person in here who isn't scared or intimidated, even if they won't tell you."

Recently, there has been good reason to be scared. Earlier this week a brawl involving 400 Latino and black inmates left eight prisoners wounded. Last week, there were two other incidents, one involving 29 prisoners that also left eight injured; the other a fight in which an inmate was stabbed 13 times in the chest by another prisoner with a handmade knife. These are among nearly 30 fights that have erupted since June at the 2,800-acre prison east of the Golden State Freeway. Most are racial brawls that leave several injured. Often sparked by quarrels over such simple matters as playing cards or potato chips, tensions rapidly escalate, as black and Latino gangs fight for control.

According to Poppleton, no statistics of confrontations were kept before last summer. "We really weren't having that kind of trouble then," he said.

With rising crime rates sending more hardened offenders to prison and gang warfare escalating even inside jailhouse walls, the job of prison guard grows more dangerous. One might wonder why anyone would want to do this work.

Sheriff deputies at Pitchess guard murderers, rapists and other felons or suspects awaiting trial or sentencing for similar offenses. Many prisoners have little to lose by starting a fight or injuring a guard.

"They may not like you," said James Duran, a former Pitchess deputy who was recently assigned to patrol duty. "They don't like cops. And what about the guy who may be headed to prison for 44 years? What does he have to lose for taking out one of us?"

Duran, like most graduates of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy in Whittier, was assigned to serve two years as a Pitchess prison guard in preparation for street patrol as a sheriff's deputy. Prison duty is thought to help them fine-tune their communication skills and examine criminal behavior in a more structured environment. Some deputies prefer custody duty and come back to Pitchess after years of service on the streets.

In interviews at the jail's maximum-security East Facility--Pitchess has five branches varying in levels of security, totaling about 9,000 inmates--deputies said their first assignment in law enforcement offers an accurate preview of the mental and physical demands they will face on the street.

Aspiring deputies must be accepted into the sheriff's academy following rigorous physical and mental exams and a thorough background investigation.

"They talk to your neighbors and former fellow employees," Duran said. "They want to see if you get along with people."

The application process takes about six months. Once accepted, recruits undergo 21 weeks of training, including a wide range of physical and psychological exercises designed to prepare them for police duty.

"We tell them how to handle themselves in stressful situations," said Sgt. Rufus Tamayo, one of the officers in charge of recruitment. "We also bring in their families to explain to them the stress their loved ones are going to face."

To graduate, recruits must pass 30 of 36 physical endurance tests and demonstrate thorough knowledge of police techniques and strategies. Last year, 674 of the 875 recruits graduated.

But the academy can't prepare deputies for everything, as Duran quickly discovered. In his first year at Pitchess, Duran asked an inmate to turn around, but the prisoner wouldn't budge. The prisoner then swung at Duran, who had to use force to subdue him. The incident was relatively minor, but it stunned him.

"I realized that this is what I do, that people are threatening your life merely because you're doing your job," he said. "I was confused. I felt that I did something wrong because I let it get to the point where we had to fight."

He notified his supervisor to make sure he acted properly, but, he later realized that "sometimes there are just no other ways."

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