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Orange County Focus

COUNTYWIDE : Explosion of Gangs Spawns Jail Violence

September 17, 1993

The proliferation of street gangs within the Orange County Central Men's Jail has spawned an increase in violence among inmates and assaults against jail guards, according to corrections experts who have toured the facility and have prepared a report on their findings.

"The fundamental characteristic of violence in the jail is ethnic gang activity," said Ray Nelson, a Denver-based corrections consultant who helped prepare the report with the California Board of Corrections. Local authorities are expected to receive the report today.

"In most jails, violence tends to be a result of gambling or stealing property. In this facility, virtually all violence was structured around gangs," Nelson said in an interview.

Although the study's specific findings were not available Thursday, John Pederson, a deputy director with the California Board of Corrections, said that the completed report represents the first state board review of violence within a metropolitan jail system.

The report, the product of a 3 1/2-day inspection last month, was expected to be filed today with U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor and Sheriff Brad Gates. Taylor is overseeing implementation of a federal court order governing local jail operations.

Nelson said inmates maintain telephone contact with associates outside the jail and monitor media accounts of local gang confrontations "to settle scores" within the jail.

"The gang activity in the jail reflects the community, and a tremendous number of gangs have been identified within Orange County," Nelson said.

Overall, Nelson said the review team found that sheriff's deputies performed well in the face of this rising violence. As part of their review, inspectors viewed videotapes of incidents filmed during the course of jail dining sessions.

"We found the sheriff's staff to be well restrained," Nelson said. "They have a violence problem but it is not the makings of the sheriff's structure there."

Both Nelson and Pederson agreed that another cause for the violence has been the local jail's outdated design.

Pederson said the Central Men's Jail is dominated by linear housing wards, making it difficult for guards to monitor inmate actions.

"The jail was designed roughly 20 years ago, but it's probably 200 years old when compared with designs today," Pederson said.

The board official said the review focused on conditions within the maximum-security Central Men's Jail. The action was prompted by the decade-long overcrowding problem and recent clashes between Latino and black inmates.

Inmate population has averaged about 1,400 recently, more than 100 above the number it was designed to hold.

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