Inmates Segregated After L.A. Jail Riots

Black and Latino inmates in two Los Angeles county jails have been segregated indefinitely after two weekend riots that left one prisoner dead and dozens injured.

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In Los Angeles County a jail that was the site of a deadly racial fight over the weekend remains under a state of heightened security. To stop further violence between blacks and Latinos, inmates are being segregated. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

The L.A. County jail system is massive, housing roughly 21,000 prisoners at any given time. The brawls over the weekend occurred at two adjacent jails at a sprawling correctional complex about 40 miles north of downtown. County Sheriff Lee Baca says the violence there was just a continuation of what's happening on the street.

Sheriff LEE BACA (Los Angeles County): There is an ongoing gun battle going on with certain gangs, and the Latinos and the African-Americans have been warring with each other for several years. We've arrested a number of those individuals, they're now in jail. People from the outside are shot calling to the inside to Latinos to start racial disturbances.

JAFFE: The inmates in those two jails are now segregated. Baca says that policy will last as long as it's necessary.

Sheriff BACA: It could be a week, it could be two weeks. We'll have to play it by ear.

JAFFE: The problem, according to the Sheriff, is that there are too many inmates and too few deputies guarding them. At the jails where the violence occurred this past weekend, there was one deputy for every 50 inmates. According to the Sheriff, the national average is one deputy for every 10.

Sheriff BACA: The current dilemma we're having in managing our jail population is the direct result of budget cuts that occurred three years ago.

JAFFE: Nonsense, says L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Mr. ZEV YAROSLAVSKY (Los Angeles County Supervisor): Money is not the problem. The Sheriff's budget has actually gone up in the last decade, from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion. It's almost doubled. His jail budget, it's almost a 75 percent increase in that budget. So it's not a matter of money.

JAFFE: It's a matter, says Yaroslavsky, of the difficulty in recruiting deputies. Right now the department's ranks are down about a thousand officers, and it's tough to recruit new ones when they learn that after they graduate from the Academy they'll have to spend their first few years on the job as jail guards.

Mr. YAROSLAVSKY: That is not what most people come to the Academy to do. They want to be patrol officers. They want to go out there and be on the streets and help people and not be jailers.

JAFFE: And the jailers are working with more violent inmates. About 70 percent of county prisoners are either awaiting trial on felony charges or they have been convicted of felonies and are waiting to be transferred to state prison. Many of the county jails, however, were built to house non-violent misdemeanor convicts. So they don't even have cells. They have dormitories. In the melee that broke out last Saturday, Latinos prisoners in a dormitory threw their beds and other debris on African-American prisoners in a dayroom below. More than 2,000 prisoners were swept up in the violence.

Donald Lovingston(ph), a 35-year old African-American released from that jail not long before the riot, says it's hard to stay out of trouble there.

Mr. DONALD LOVINGSTON (Ex-Prisoner): There's just a lot of racial tension. Everyone is separated. And the slightest little thing can start a riot. And you know, when it happens and you're right there, you have to get involved. If you don't get involved and help your own kind, then your own people discipline you afterwards.

JAFFE: The United States Supreme Court ruled last year that segregating prisoners along racial lines was unconstitutional, unless it was absolutely necessary for safety reasons. But there have more than 30 violent incidents involving large groups of inmates in the past year here, and L.A. County officials seems to agree that segregating prisoners is both necessary and legal.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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