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'Like Living in Hell'

Jails: Racial tension and violence among inmates at county facilities has been a persistent problem. Sheriff Block says many of the factors are beyond his control.

March 27, 1998|DARRYL FEARS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deveron Ratliff's description of the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic is stark, but heartfelt:

"Everybody will tell you that living in the Los Angeles County Jail is like living in hell."

A recent tour of Pitchess East showed why Ratliff feels as he does.

In the corner of a cell they shared with approximately 20 Latinos, about 10 black inmates nervously showered in their undershorts, mindful that the facility's regular black-versus-brown brawls--often involving hundreds of men, many armed with homemade "shank" knives--can start at such vulnerable moments.

"You wonder if some Mexican guy is going to stab you in the back," said Ratliff, 27, a black parolee who served more than a year in the jail and various state prisons after an armed robbery conviction in March 1995. "I asked a deputy, 'Why don't they do more to stop this?'

"He said, 'It's not your business. Stay out of it. Don't ask questions.' "

But, like Ratliff, others are asking why more has not been done to halt race-related brawls at Pitchess, where there have been more than 150 since 1991. It is, in fact, one of the issues being raised by the three candidates opposing Sheriff Sherman Block in the June primary.

Other observers, like American Civil Liberties Union attorney Paul Hoffman, have also expressed concern.

"The worry is that somebody's going to get killed," said Hoffman, who believes that political and civic apathy are part of the problem.

"When we first went into the jails, I said to sheriff's officials, 'Look, you've managed [the interracial brawls] so far. But at some point, if it explodes, you've got Attica.' I don't think anybody can give you any assurance that it's not going to blow up again."

The recurring race riots are not the only problem Block faces in connection with his department's management of the county's jails. Deputies assigned to the Men's Central Jail downtown are being investigated for allegedly encouraging other inmates to beat alleged child molesters, one of whom died, and for allegedly extending special favors to jailed celebrity Robert Downey Jr.

Block's aggressive engagement of these more recent problems contrasts sharply with his handling of the racial brawls. In an interview, the sheriff said that a solution to the jail violence spawned by black and Latino antagonism is much harder to frame.

Block said that the racial problems are caused by factors beyond his control, and that first among them is the chronic overcrowding at Pitchess East and at the county's newest jail, the North County Correctional Facility. Pitchess East, designed to hold 960 inmates, currently holds 1,760, said the facility's commander, Capt. Bob Hoffman. North County has 3,700 inmates living in a facility designed to house 2,064.

The jails' design also is a problem, as Los Angeles County special counsel Merrick Bobb wrote in a 1996 report on conditions there. Inmates at both Pitchess East and the North County facility are housed in college-style dormitories. That design was fine in an era when most prisoners served time in county jails for misdemeanors. Today, a sizable part of the jail's population is made up of inmates--often repeat offenders--awaiting trial for violent crimes like rape, armed robbery and murder.

Bobb's report estimated that the jail system was about 6,000 beds short.

Racial Composition Undergoes Shift

On top of those factors, Block said, is the dramatic change in the jails' racial composition. Latinos now make up 58% of the population at Pitchess; black inmates make up 30%.

The change hasn't gone unnoticed by California prison gangs, particularly the Mexican Mafia.

For members of African American gangs--such as the Black Guerrilla Family, the Crips and the Bloods--which ruled Pitchess through intimidation and fear for nearly two decades, what went around came around in 1988, when Latinos became the majority in the facility. But black prisoners aren't giving up control without a fight.

Jail commanders like Capt. Chuck Jackson of the North County facility and Hoffman of Pitchess East generally agree that many Pitchess brawls are ordered by the Mexican Mafia, which is establishing control in the state prisons and wants to show black gangs that it controls the county jails as well.

Gang leaders allegedly put the word out by telephone. At an appointed time, a prisoner will call a Los Angeles-area home with a phone equipped for three-way calling. That way, a jail inmate can call and be a third party to conversation with a higher-up in the gang.

Latino jail inmates on their way to prison, the jail commanders say, are encouraged to carry the Mexican Mafia's orders out or face isolation and possibly beatings by gang members once they reach prison.

Block has started a program called Operation Safe Jails to combat the problem, and numbers suggest that it has. Major brawls between inmates fell from 61 in 1996 to 25 last year, sheriff's officials say. So far this year there have been two major incidents.

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