It was a Saturday afternoon and the teen-age inmates were playing cards in a sparsely furnished housing unit at Ventura County's juvenile hall, the Clifton Tatum Center.
Suddenly, one gang member accused another of cheating and the pair began throwing punches.
Paul Pena, a 240-pound corrections officer, hit the panic alarm and threw his arms around one flailing inmate. As his partner, Rudy Lopez, pried the other away, one youth crashed against Pena's right hand, breaking his wrist and thumb.
"After that, my hand swelled up like a big balloon," said Pena, 25. "It got black and blue and I didn't return to work for four months."
Corrections officials say they don't know how much such injuries at the Clifton Tatum Center in Ventura are costing the county, but the number has jumped sharply over the past year. Those who have been hurt say the injuries are a sign that the teen-agers they work with are growing more violent and less fearful of being punished for misconduct.
Workers at juvenile hall have reported 51 injuries this year, where only 26 were reported in 1992. Before that, there were 23 in 1991 and 21 in 1990.
That rise is also reflected in the total number of medical claims from employees of the Corrections Services Agency, which runs juvenile hall, along with the probation department and other facilities.
In the 1992-'93 fiscal year, the department had 24 cases that required significant medical care, at a cost of $44,592--up from nine claims the year before. And already since July 1, there have been 17 claims costing $28,996 in medical bills and time off.
As evidence of how seriously corrections officials are taking the problem, they have hired a private consultant to teach self-defense to both full- and part-time officers at juvenile hall. And, for the first time, they have authorized the staff there to use a cayenne pepper-based spray to disable violent inmates.
"What we're hoping is to quell even the start of these fights," said Frank Woodson, director of the county Corrections Services Agency.
The majority of injuries inside juvenile hall, officials say, occur as guards try to break up fights sparked by allegiance to gangs, or occasionally by racial comments.
Raymond DeLosSantos, who has been in juvenile hall 13 times since the age of 13, said fights can start, unpredictably, from nothing more than eye contact between rival gang members. Other times, it is more difficult to pin down the trigger.
"Sometimes they'll, like, look at each other weird--mad-dogging," he said. "Maybe if they see each other on the outs . . . maybe they saw each other and maybe they didn't like each other."
DeLosSantos, who is 18 and lives in Ventura, said fights inside the hall can boost a gang member's reputation.
"Maybe these guys would be happy this person is fighting. They'll be like, 'He's all cool.' Everybody will talk about it in there," he said.
The most common injuries occur when corrections officers wrench their shoulders and knees as they crash to the linoleum-covered floor wrestling with minors. And although many injuries are less serious--a bruised shin, a strained back, a sore jaw--four employees have had to undergo surgery and spend several months off work.
Chuck Walker, 25, had part of his shoulder removed and the bone shaved down to keep his nerves from being pinched. Walker suffered his injury in May while breaking up a fight between three gang members. Twice during the scuffle, his shoulder was slammed against a stone wall.
Walker said he hopes to return to work in late January or early February. "Right now, it's just kind of wait and see."
And Pena still has a scar on his right hand where he had surgery. Even before he hears a weather forecast, an ache in his thumb tells him it's about to pour.
Despite the growing risks of their jobs, corrections officers at juvenile hall say the county has not done all it could to protect them. They say the facility itself is outdated and staffed at minimum levels, and that they have not been given proper training and equipment.
"If we'd had O.C. (pepper spray) a year ago--when all the other institutions (across the state) were starting to incorporate it--we wouldn't have the amount of staff injuries we have," Walker said.
"I think we need to be viewed more as peace officers in the institution and not baby sitters or group supervisors or counselors of a sort," he added.
But administrators of the Corrections Services Agency defend the department's training programs, saying officers have had courses in self-defense along with instruction on first aid, counseling and gang awareness. Administrators also say that when the injuries began to increase, they took steps to protect the staff and juveniles.
"I think we moved on that as soon as we realized there was a problem," said Cal Remington, deputy director of the county corrections department. "When we have people incarcerated, one of our goals is to provide a safe place for people to be."