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Segregation Won't Work in Jail or Out

Pitchess: The targeting of blacks by Latinos presents a dilemma for the sheriff's office.

May 04, 2000|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Disappearance of Black Leadership," published this month by Middle Passage Press. E-mail:

At a press conference Tuesday, a tearful mother shook with rage as she recounted the shock at seeing her 19-year-old son's badly mangled face. Her son was one of 80 inmates, most of whom were black, injured during the three days of brawls last week between black and Latino inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.

Racial battles are hardly new within L.A. County jails. Since 1991, there have been more than 150 racially motivated fights, mostly between black and Latino inmates, at the four jails on the Pitchess compound. In the past, the battles between inmates were blamed on turf wars, renewal of gang rivalries and the ancient prison ritual of making a "rep" as a tough guy.

But this time, there was an even more frightening motive for the violence: race. The black inmates, it seems, were targeted by other inmates solely because they were black. Latino inmates outnumber blacks 2 to 1 at the Pitchess Center. This means that these young black men are now at double risk.

The first risk to them is our racially disfigured criminal justice system. One out of three young black men is in prison or on parole or probation. They are ensnared by poverty, a failed education system and the racially biased disparities in the drug sentencing laws. They are further trapped by a glaring double standard in how punishment is meted out. The recent report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a Washington-based think tank, confirmed that a young black is six times more likely to be incarcerated than is a white youth, even when charged with similar crimes and when neither offender has a record.

Many young blacks who are in jail don't wind up there for rape, violent assaults, murder or armed robbery. Most are jailed for nonviolent crimes such as petty theft or drug possession. Most have been incarcerated for less than two months. A parent of one of the young men injured at Pitchess said her son was jailed for receiving stolen property. Worse, many of them have yet to be tried, let alone convicted.

The problem of how to prevent further violence presents an embarrassing dilemma for the sheriff's office. Community activists, parents of the injured inmates and a group of attorneys led by O.J. Simpson prosecutor Chris Darden have demanded that black inmates be permanently housed in separate dorms to ensure their safety. This is a blatant return to segregation, and it doesn't make it any less troubling that this demand comes from blacks. Calling segregation a viable method to muffle racial and ethnic conflict is tantamount to throwing in the towel on a half-century of struggle to achieve racial harmony. Sadly, this is the only thing that sheriff's officials and the black activists have been able to come up with to deal with the problem. But even this may prove to be an illusion.

If segregation does temporarily stem the violence, it still is only a temporary crisis measure that does nothing to deal with the deep-seated social causes of the violence. The violence at the L.A. County jails should be a wake-up call for black and Latino community activists, religious leaders, elected officials and educators to intensify their efforts to prod public officials to provide more money for youth service, counseling and gang mediation and for job and skills training and to increase efforts to curb the high dropout rate among both black and Latino students.

At the same press conference with the parents of those injured in the attacks, Darden correctly noted that these young men are sons, brothers and fathers, most of whom will return to our neighborhoods. The violence that they are now turning on each other could end up back in our neighborhoods. This would be a steep price to pay for ignoring their plight.

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