CASTAIC — Bracing for more race riots, authorities at the Pitchess Detention Center on Thursday took the unusual step of segregating inmates after three days of brawling between Latino and African American inmates.
Chaplains moved cell to cell, squads of jail guards patrolled the halls, and many black inmates were removed from group dormitories and put in their own facility--something deputies have historically resisted doing, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Cmdr. Steve Day.
"It's quiet right now, but it could be the calm before the storm," Day said. "[Wednesday] was total chaos."
In the day that followed a major disturbance at Pitchess East jail facility, authorities detailed a scene of frenzied violence with inmates swinging bars of soap in socks, orange peels flying through the air, swarms of Latino men jumping blacks and a deafening noise spreading from dorm to dorm.
Most of the 80-plus men injured in the brawls Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were African American inmates, outnumbered 2-1 in the jails, Day said.
A 21-year-old black inmate was in critical condition with a cracked skull Thursday after at least two men smashed his head into the floor during the riot Wednesday evening, Day said. Deputies have identified the suspects and plan to press attempted-murder charges, he added.
Jail authorities have opposed segregating inmates in the past because it enables inmates of the same group to communicate more easily and limits housing options for new prisoners.
But in the wake of three race riots that each involved hundreds of inmates, "it would be foolish to do anything but segregate," said Sheriff's Chief Taylor Moorehead.
"It doesn't make sense to keep these warring populations together," said Moorehead, who is in charge of the sheriff's custody division. He added that the segregation will be temporary.
Sheriff Lee Baca said the disturbances at the north county jails appear to be instigated by "shot callers" from the Mexican Mafia prison gang who are urging gang members in the jails to attack African Americans. The county inmates are attempting to make a name for themselves--a kind of "rite of passage"--before they head to state prison, Baca said.
The disturbances are continuing because "we've been able to prevent the ultimate death of an inmate," Baca added.
Race-related brawling is nothing new at the four jails at the Pitchess compound, which has had more than 150 major disturbances, though no murders, since 1991.
There are racial tensions in every jail, but officials said the Pitchess facilities, with a total of about 10,000 inmates, are the most explosive because inmates are not housed in small cells but in dorms with 60 to 120 inmates to a room. Violence escalates more quickly in the dorms and is harder to quell, officials said.
In addition to tightening security, officials Thursday also planned to soothe tensions with extended privileges. Plans were being made to allow inmates longer TV hours and larger meals.
"Full inmates are happy inmates," Moorehead said. "We're going to do whatever we can to calm inmates down."