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Critics of Jails Voice Alarm

A Baca ally and black leaders join the call for changes in how inmates are housed. The sheriff says the latest racial violence is sporadic.

February 14, 2006|Megan Garvey and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department came under growing criticism Monday for its ineffectiveness in halting violence in the county jails that has left two inmates dead and more than 100 injured during nine days of racially charged fighting.

Sheriff Lee Baca, who said Friday that the worst of the violence was over, repeated that assertion Monday. As of late Monday, sheriff's officials had reported no new disturbances.

Baca called the death of a black inmate Sunday after a fight between black and Latino inmates an "isolated incident" and said the most recent fights over the weekend involved relatively small numbers of inmates.

"These are now small, sporadic outbreaks of violence," he said.

But Baca's management of the jail system came under increased criticism from several directions.

County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who has been a strong supporter of the Sheriff's Department, called the recent disturbances "a breakdown in management." He said the department should have done more to protect blacks, who have been the predominant victims of the attacks.

"The department knew violence was going to occur. They failed to separate inmates. They continue to have a hostile environment," he said, adding that black inmates are suffering because of violence and intimidation directed by Mexican Mafia prison gang leaders.

Antonovich was particularly critical of the department's practice of housing high-security inmates in dormitories, rather than in secure cells.

"The current environment of mixing gang members with non-gang members is equivalent to giving matches to a child. Hard-core gang members shouldn't be in a dormitory environment," he said.

Merrick Bobb, who monitors the Sheriff's Department for the Board of Supervisors, said he believed that the "Sheriff's Department lacks an ability to plan for known risks and contingencies."

Once violence first broke out at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic on Feb. 4, the department should have moved quickly to transfer the most violent inmates -- those ranked either level 8 or level 9 security risks -- out of dormitories and into secure cells, Bobb said. About 3,400 of the jails' roughly 17,000 inmates are ranked level 8 or 9.

Sheriff's Department officials have moved a smaller number of so-called troublemakers at Pitchess out of the general population into cells. They declined to say how many.

"The jails are the stepchild of the system," Bobb said. "Jail inmates and their plight do not attract great public sympathy."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Monday said that he remained very concerned about "the impact of this conflict on our community."

And black community leaders called for the immediate segregation of all black inmates at Pitchess until a solution to the violence could be found.

"We have seen that the violence has continued against African American inmates," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. "Sheriff Lee Baca said we're going to do everything we can to remove the violence-prone inmates from attacking the African American inmates. Well, it hasn't worked."

Right now, only one jail -- North County Correctional Facility -- at the sprawling Pitchess complex is segregated, which is legally permitted in emergencies. The county system, which averages about 21,000 inmates a day but now has about 17,000, was on full lockdown Monday, meaning no phone privileges, visits, court appearances, newspapers, televisions or radios. Today jail officials plan to remain on modified lockdown to allow transfers of inmates to court and visits with attorneys.

Sheriff's investigators believe that racial tensions have driven much of the violence.

Although the focus has been on Latino inmates attacking blacks, the first killing in the current wave of violence, that of Wayne Tiznor, 45, was instigated largely by white inmates, Baca said Monday.

"We are charging seven people with murder," Baca said. "Three or four of those inmates are white and one was black. Racial epitaphs were yelled during the killing. It was a hate crime. These were white guys proving a point to other inmates."

Jail officials initially described the beating death of Tiznor as being more directly related to an attack by Latino inmates on blacks that they said was ordered by Mexican Mafia prison gang leaders. Tiznor, a convicted rapist, was in jail on a parole violation for failing to register as a sex offender.

Sheriff's officials responded to that unrest, which began with a fight involving 2,000 inmates at Pitchess, by locking down dormitory rooms and temporarily segregating portions of the jail where Latino and black inmates have clashed.

As deputies struggled to gain control of the jail situation, Sheriff's Department officials said they were trying to move hundreds of inmates in county jail on parole violations to state prisons. Officials also want to speed the transfer of inmates recently sentenced to state prison out of the system -- both moves that they hope will ease tensions.

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