The traffic ticket Anthony Valdez went to jail to work off was almost the most expensive of his life.
Valdez entered downtown L.A.'s Men's Central Jail on Monday to do two days for the delinquent ticket, rather than pay the fine. He arrived just as riots between Latino and black inmates were erupting across the jail system.
Since Saturday, riots have exploded at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic and at Men's Central Jail, leaving one man dead, 28 hospitalized and almost 90 injured -- and put the whole system on lockdown and emergency racial segregation.
"I could've been killed in there," the 32-year-old bail bonds employee said Thursday as he stood outside the jail's Twin Towers facility handing out cards for Bad Boys Bail Bonds. "Next time, I'm just going to pay the ticket."
Other inmates leaving Thursday on early release from the county jail's reception center -- the place from which all inmates are discharged -- almost seemed to skip out the door with relief.
Most described jumpy staff and tense relations between Latino and black inmates -- even in areas where there was no fighting.
Television, visiting and canteen privileges were cut off. Armed officers walked the corridors in battle gear.
"It was like a view of the Watts riots," said John Ojeda of the San Fernando Valley, happy Thursday to have finished a seven-month sentence for a parole violation for vehicular hit-and-run. "Everybody's on tactical alert. The hallways are empty. There's no movement."
Others, however, had a different take.
"It was kind of fun," said John Jerez of Van Nuys, who said he took part in the fighting at the Castaic facility, and showed scratches on his back where he said a black inmate had stabbed him with a pencil. "It was something you never expected."
Jerez said he hadn't had many dealings with African Americans in the month he spent in jail for battery. Associating with blacks, he said, was forbidden by the Southsiders -- Southern California Latino gang members who control the activities of Latino inmates.
"We're not supposed to talk to them. Otherwise, we'll get in trouble, made to do push-ups" by Southsider leaders, said Jerez, who wore a football jersey emblazoned with former Ram quarterback Kurt Warner's No. 13 -- also the number of Southern California street gangs affiliated with the Mexican Mafia prison gang.
Over and over, inmates on early release repeated: The races are prevented from interacting by their own gangs.
"You can't associate" with blacks, said a 19-year-old who identified himself only as Manny from the Valley. "If we see them, it's fights right away."
Manny said he harbored no hatred for blacks but that in jail, "we have to" fight them "or else we get beat down by our own people."
The fighting seemed to threaten even areas without racial tensions.
A 19-year-old black inmate who gave his name as Phoenix said his dormitory at the Castaic facility had worked out a peace in the weeks before the riots.
Latinos and blacks "would get together to pray. We shared food. We played cards together. We were a nonpolitic dorm" he said, using the term that refers to the plotting and feuding that goes on within, and between, gangs.
He said black and Latino dorm leaders had even resisted attacking each other several days earlier when inmates were transferred in from a dormitory where racial tensions were high.
Then on Saturday, he said, both sides watched through the windows as the dorm next door exploded in interracial rioting.
"One minute they're playing cards," he said, "the next minute they're at each other's throats."
He said he saw one inmate's head cracked open by a bunk bed thrown from a tier above.
Phoenix said that black and Southsider leaders in his dorm, however, decided they would not follow suit with more violence. The races divided to avoid any physical contact that might ignite fighting, and things remained calm.
But, he said, jail deputies arrived and, misunderstanding the situation, began pushing the two races together, forcing them to get into their bunks, where the races were mixed.
"They thought we were trying to do something, but we had it all under control," he said. "We were trying to keep the peace. They're trying to push something to happen."
Eventually the inmates went to their beds and violence was avoided.
Valdez said he never had to fight during the time he spent in jail for that traffic ticket. He said that on his second day he was transferred to a section where inmates were older, not affiliated with gangs and trying to serve their time in peace.
"I get along with everybody. My boss is African American," he said.
Still, he said, the tragedy of jail life is that even inmates with no race hatred are forced into a temporary racial apartheid under the threat of gang violence.
"If you give your food to a black guy, or a black guy gives his food to a Hispanic, you get beat up by your own people," he said.
"If you're in there, you have to stand up for your race. You may not want to, but there are other guys in there who will beat you down if you don't."