For the fourth time this year, a Los Angeles County jail inmate has been slain in custody, this time beaten to death in a dormitory at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, officials said Monday.
The toll is the most for any year this decade and comes more than two years after a string of homicides prompted a call for reforms in the way the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department operates what is the nation's largest jail system.
The most recent slaying occurred a week ago in a unit that housed 64 inmates, all of them Latino gang members segregated from the general jail population in an effort to stem the kind of race-related violence that erupted in the jails early this year.
Sheriff's Capt. Greg Johnson, who supervises the facility, said segregating the inmates had led to a significant reduction in violence during the last several months.
Alex Paul Valdez died Dec. 4, but sheriff's officials did not categorize his death as a homicide until an autopsy revealed that the 43-year-old inmate had died from blows to his abdomen, injuries probably resulting from punching or kicking.
Sheriff's officials had initially speculated that Valdez could have died from natural causes because he had a history of seizures and no visible injuries, said Sheriff's Capt. Ray Peavy. Valdez, jailed for a suspected parole violation, had been in frail health and his medical problems probably contributed to his death, Peavy said.
Authorities have not arrested or charged anyone in connection with the killing, but detectives are "making some progress" in the investigation, Peavy said, declining to elaborate.
Six deputies who were assigned to the wing where Valdez was slain did not hear or see anything unusual until other inmates cried out "man down" and asked them to assist Valdez, authorities said. The inmate was conscious when deputies arrived; he died later at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia.
The six deputies were responsible for observing about 260 inmates in four dormitories, a ratio of more than 40 inmates per deputy. Johnson said he did not believe staffing levels played a role in the killing, though he acknowledged it would be nice if the department could afford to assign more deputies to the jail.
"The amount we have now, does it make it unsafe? It doesn't. There's always places somebody could go in a dorm and punch somebody," Johnson said. "Things can still happen."
Valdez is the second inmate to be slain in a dormitory at the North County Correctional Facility this year. In February, Wayne Tiznor, an African American, was beaten to death on the first of several days of rioting at Los Angeles County jail facilities that left two others dead and more than 100 injured.
Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the sheriff's Office of Independent Review, said he believes the department may need to examine whether it's appropriate to house violent gang members in dormitory settings.
Dormitory 728, where Valdez was slain, is a two-level room filled with rows of bunk beds, showers and toilets. There are no video cameras.
"You have a whole bunch of people with violent pasts put into one setting where they can have free access to each other," Gennaco said. "I just think it presents a challenge, whether you have six or 60 deputies."
Given the large number of gang members in custody, it might be difficult for authorities to find a different way to house them, Gennaco said. "I don't know what choice they have," he said.
Johnson said inmate-against-inmate violence is down nearly 50% since the department started housing the gang members separately from the rest of the jail population. He blamed Latino gang members for the February violence in which black inmates were targeted.
More than 1,000 Latino gang members are now housed in dormitories apart from the rest of the jail population, Johnson said. He said inmate attacks on staff, use of force by deputies and inmate complaints about housing have decreased significantly since the segregation was begun.
In addition to the two dormitory slayings this year, two inmates have been killed in their downtown Los Angeles cells by other inmates.
Sean Anthony Thompson was killed a few days after Tiznor during a fight with four other inmates in his cell at Men's Central Jail.
And last month a 51-year-old mentally ill inmate was beaten to death in his cell at Twin Towers Correctional Facility by a younger, stronger inmate who had trained in the martial arts. After that killing, Gennaco said he was concerned that the department had chosen to house together inmates of such disparate ages.