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2 O.C. Jail Fights Stir Safety Debate

October 15, 1994|KEVIN JOHNSON and GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ORANGE — Two race-related melees involving about 220 prisoners at the Theo Lacy Branch Jail Thursday night have raised concerns again about an overcrowded jail populated increasingly by the most serious offenders.

While guards managed to quell both incidents with pepper spray, officials said Friday, they were the latest in a string of incidents at the branch jail that illustrate how the close confines are pressing on racial tensions and other social ills roiling within a risky population.

"If you put too many rats in a cage, they are going to end up killing themselves," said county Supervisor William G. Steiner, whose district includes Orange. "This is caused by a lot of factors, but it isn't helped by the overcrowding."

The violence this week and in recent months is of particular concern to Steiner, who is in sensitive negotiations with the city of Orange involving possible expansion of the branch jail from 1,320 beds to more than 4,000, along with the placement of more maximum-security prisoners there.

Steiner said the recent outbursts also have upset Orange officials, who earlier this year filed a lawsuit against the county seeking to block the transfer of maximum-security prisoners to the jail.

"This is not helpful from a public perception that there might be some risk to the adjacent community," Steiner said. "But everyone has to understand that these are totally self-contained and the disturbances have been controlled very quickly."

Orange City Councilman Fred L. Barrera said, "This rioting is just what we have been afraid of. It's a terrible thing that can get out of hand and cause injuries and possibly fires.

"We have little children right over the wall," he said, referring to the neighboring Orangewood Children's Home.

Thursday's incidents occurred within four hours of each other and authorities believe they may have been related.

Sheriff's Lt. Dan Martini said the first incident erupted just after 5 p.m. in the jail's cafeteria and involved about 150 inmates.

African American inmates were among a group of 50 prisoners waiting in line when Latino prisoners began hurling food trays toward them, Martini said. The situation escalated in a flurry of punches, he said.

Despite the large numbers of inmates involved, order was restored in about five minutes, Martini said.

"It was just incredible how quickly it happened and how quickly the guards were able to put a stop to it," Martini said.

The second fight involved about 70 prisoners and broke out about 9:30 p.m. in one of the jail's housing areas, which was filled to capacity. Martini said some of the African American inmates were assaulted by Latino prisoners.

The fight lasted six to seven minutes, until deputies used pepper spray. But Martini said about 30 African American prisoners had to be removed from the housing unit for their own safety.

The second fight resulted in minor injuries to eight inmates. One required stitches to close a head wound. No deputies were injured in either fracas.

Martini said tensions between the two racial groups had "seemingly resolved themselves" after a series of violent confrontations in August.

At that time, one of the largest fights involved Latino and African American prisoners, again at Theo Lacy, in which 20 inmates were injured.

In the two previous weeks, five other prisoner fights had occurred in Orange County. One of those happened on a bus taking inmates from Municipal Court in Fullerton and was halted by pepper spray. The same day, 40 prisoners scuffled in a cell at Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana, and 13 of them were injured.

Following those incidents, some security precautions were taken, such as limiting the number of prisoners allowed in the cafeteria, in recreation areas, or in substance abuse counseling sessions.

Martini said the Thursday night incidents remained under investigation but that officials planned no special security measures.

"There are tensions between rival gangs and individuals and there are tensions between races," Martini said. "I don't think we can control that any more than in social settings. Our job is to identify the individuals that cause us these problems. We've had success by removing those individuals and isolating them.

"We've got an environment that changes every 12 hours. The best we can do is to have an environment with strict rules and regulations."

In recent years, however, that environment has grown more crowded. In the past 10 years, Orange County officials have seen the total jail population soar far past the system's capacity of 3,203 inmates.

Sheriff's Department officials said daily population numbers hover near 4,700 prisoners.

Because of the bed shortage, authorities have been forced to release prisoners facing less-serious charges early, leaving the jails with only the more serious offenders.

Overcrowding and gang activity were cited just last year in a special study of jail assaults inside the Orange County system.

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