/ 8 February 2006

‘Terrifying’ crisis in LA jails

Sheriff’s officials said on Tuesday they were working on a computerised plan to identify and isolate the most dangerous jail inmates but warned it would not prevent all future violence in an overcrowded system that exploded into deadly racial riots.

”We think it’s going to be a revolutionary model for our jail and it’s only a few weeks away,” sheriff’s chief Marc Klugman, who oversees the nation’s largest jail system, told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

But in a telephone interview, Klugman said he ”couldn’t even guess” whether such a system would have prevented the violence that occurred over the weekend.

Klugman and other sheriff’s official painted a portrait of a jail system swamped by violent criminals it was never built to hold, and infected by urban gang feuds that are spilling into the state prison system as well.

A riot on Saturday that pitted Hispanic inmates against black inmates killed one man and injured more than 100 others at the Pitchess Detention Centre in Castaic, about 64km northwest of Los Angeles.

It was followed by two other melees on Monday night that caused one minor injury.

Authorities have alleged that gang leaders outside the jail called Hispanic associates inside and directed them to attack blacks as retaliation for a black-on-Hispanic gang assault that took place recently in South Los Angeles.

”This is a carry-over from an all-out war that’s going on in the streets,” assistant sheriff Paul Tanaka said.

The entire 21 000-inmate jail system was locked down after the first attack but all privileges had been restored as of Tuesday.

However, black and Hispanic inmates were segregated at the 4 000-inmate North County Correctional Facility at Pitchess.

A US Supreme Court decision last year said that prisons can segregate inmates by race under ”extraordinary circumstances” and jail officials have said the riots met that standard.

The segregation will last no more than two weeks, Klugman said.

By Thursday night, all prisoners classified as high security risks, such as murderers and particularly active gang members, will be moved from dorms to one-man cells, Klugman said.

”We feel if we can remove that element” it will reduce the chance of further ”high explosiveness,” said Sam Jones, chief of the Sheriff’s Department’s custody operations division.

In the longer run, the Sheriff’s Department has been working since November on a computer program that can track and classify inmates by their security risk. The plan eventually is to identify and move the most dangerous offenders into the maximum-security downtown Twin Towers jail.

Those beds currently house women inmates, who will be moved to a new 1 400-bed facility that opens next month.

At present, inmates with a high security risk are spread throughout the jail population, which is largely composed of people affiliated with gangs, Klugman said.

The jail system originally was designed to house people held on relatively minor charges, Tanaka said.

These days, ”we have 21 000 inmates that are hardcore felons”, he said.

Even non-gang members are pressured to take part in racial brawls or risk beatings.

”They call it regulating,” Tanaka said.

”This is a very terrifying situation,” supervisor Gloria Molina said. ”We have a crisis in our jails.”

Molina said the problem was a lack of supervision in the jails and warned that the problem will get worse because of continuing gang warfare that will put more violent criminals into the jail system.

”I have over 250 gangs alone in my district,” Molina said. ”I’m going to push them out of my neighbourhood as much as I can and they’re going to be on your hands.”

During Saturday’s riot black inmate Wayne Robert Tiznor (45) was beaten to death. The convicted multiple rapist had been jailed since being arrested on January 3 for failing to register as a sex offender, officials said.

However, he had no gang affiliation and ”his charges do not appear to have anything to do with his death”, Klugman said.

”Wrong place, wrong time,” he said.

He was the ninth jail inmate killed in the last two years. – Sapa-AP