California Prisons on Alert After Weekend Violence

The massive Los Angeles County jail system is mostly in lockdown after two weekend race riots that left one prisoner dead and dozens injured. Black and Latino inmates have been segregated at the two facilities where the riots broke out to prevent further violence.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. The massive Los Angeles County jail system is mostly in lockdown today. That's after two weekend race riots that left one prisoner dead and dozens injured. Black and Latino inmates have been segregated at the two facilities where the riots broke out to prevent further violence. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE, reporting:

The riots broke out at two separate jails in a complex forty miles north of downtown Los Angeles. L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said the first and largest of the two outbreaks was premeditated, possibly a retaliation for a stabbing that took place a couple of days earlier in the central jail downtown.

Sheriff LEE BACA (Los Angeles County): This is a street warfare going on between a number of gangs that are Latino and black and they're continuing the feud in the jail environment. The inmates themselves don't want it, but there is a code of racial affiliation whenever a fight breaks out that if you don't join in on your race or your ethnicity then you in turn will be the subject of an attack.

JAFFE: The Saturday melee began with around 200 inmates. Latinos in an upstairs dormitory began throwing bunk beds and other objects onto black prisoners in a lower level day room. Eventually 2000 prisoners were swept up in the violence. 20 inmates were taken to the hospital. One was taken to the morgue. Wayne Tiznor, a 45 year-old black man who'd been arrested for allegedly failing to register as a sex offender was beaten to death. The department has opened an investigation to find out why Tiznor was housed with more violent prisoners. Yesterday, 170 Latino inmates and 35 blacks at an adjacent jail were involved in a brawl that left several with minor injuries. Sheriff Baca says segregation is the only solution, at least for now.

Sheriff BACA: The inmates themselves have called for it and I'm heeding that call and I have to assert my control and I am.

JAFFE: A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year said racial segregation in jails and prisons was unconstitutional, unless it was absolutely necessary for security reasons. But Ramona Ripston, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, says that the situation in L.A. County jails is serious enough to meet that test.

Ms. RAMONA RIPSTON (Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union): If the situation remains fraught with danger, danger not only to inmates but to deputies, then they need to be kept separate. Our prime responsibility is to see that every inmate is kept safe.

JAFFE: That's been increasingly difficult to do. L.A. County jails have seen eight violent incidents involving large groups of inmates in the past two months, 33 in the past year. Merrick Bobb is an attorney who monitors the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for the county Board of Supervisors. He says the ratio of deputies to inmates may be the lowest in the nation. Over the weekend at the North County jail facilities there was one deputy to 50 inmates.

Mr. MERRICK BOBB (Attorney, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors): That ratio is impossibly low. At worst you should have one deputy to about six inmates.

JAFFE: And the jails have become more difficult to police. One of the reasons says Bobb is that there's a higher concentration of violent inmates than there used to be. That's because the nonviolent misdemeanor convicts are generally released early now to alleviate overcrowding.

Mr. BOBB: Upwards of 70 percent of the inmates are either felons awaiting trial, or prisoners awaiting to be transported to the state prison system. And that change in the demographic of the jail leads to a more difficult population to control.

JAFFE: So segregation right now seems the only option and may be extended to some other county jails. Sheriff Baca showed reporters a letter from Latino prisoners. No disrespect, it said, but if blacks come in the dorms we will fight. We do not want to go against the sheriffs. Please separate us race by race for everyone's safety. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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