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That Powder Keg at Castaic : Remedies must be found at strife-plagued Pitchess jail before it is too late

February 04, 1996

Just what is it going to take for elected officials, law enforcement, corrections officers and citizens to realize that the Pitchess jail in Castaic is a monumental disaster in waiting?

Do we have to wait for a riot so massive that the inmates seize control? Do we have to wait until a mass escape is mounted during the next huge brawl?

This is not hyperbole. The facts speak for themselves.

January through May 1994: 52 melees at the Pitchess jail involving up to 1,000 inmates at a time. January 1994 through December 1994: separate brawls involving 350 prisoners, then 800, then 400, 300, 140 and finally 200.

January through March 1995: four melees involving 300 inmates.

April 1995: It becomes known that prisoners used the cover of rioting to plan and execute escape attempts. Fourteen escaped through a hole in a roof opened during an earlier brawl.

May through August 1995: six brawls.

September 1995: The word "honor" is removed from the jail's name.

October 1995 through Jan. 16, 1996: four melees involving up to 124 inmates at a time. It was prelude to the worst yet: five straight days of practically uncontrollable rioting and brawling involving 5,300 prisoners late last month.

It takes us nowhere to repeat, for the umpteenth time, that these riots have their origins in a rivalry be- tween Latino and African American prisoners. It is absurd to use these serious incidents to launch another broadside at the problem of illegal immigration. ("These attacks on Americans of African descent would not be happening if the federal government had secured our borders," says a Sherman Oaks-based anti-illegal-immigration group.)

Nor is this a budget-time ploy from Sheriff Sherman Block. You can add all the razor wire, fencing and surveillance cameras you want along the perimeter of Pitchess but it would not address the central problem there.

The aging Pitchess facility was an honor farm for low-risk inmates that is now partly, wrongly and perilously being used for dangerous criminals awaiting imprisonment or facing trial. Its huge, overburdened dormitories exacerbate tensions and discourage close scrutiny by guards.

It is unacceptable to suggest that nothing can be done until a new jail is built. Internal order must be restored at Pitchess. If it takes transferring personnel from other lightly staffed but calmer facilities, it must be done. If the Sheriff's Department needs to request outside help, perhaps from the state, it must be done. A shift in funding priorities from an already cash-strapped county government also must be considered.

Pitchess is a powder keg, and the problem must be addressed soon.

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