L.A. Officials Hope Transfer of Inmates Will Stop Riots

Race riots in Los Angeles County jails have left two inmates dead, and authorities can't stop the riots or keep gang leaders from communicating with jailed followers. Authorities hope to end the violence by transferring inmates from riot-heavy jails to an underutilized jail in downtown Los Angeles.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Nearly two weeks of race riots in the Los Angeles County jails have left two inmates dead and scores injured. The latest violence happened just last night. Now, the Sheriff's Department has a plan it hopes will break the cycle. It's going to start transferring hardcore inmates from the outlying jails where riots have occurred to a huge jail in downtown LA.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco has the story.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: In the shadow of Los Angeles' downtown skyscrapers, there's also a high-rise jail. Twin Towers was built to house the worst of the worst, but for nearly a decade, this state of the art facility hasn't lived up to its promise.

The LA County Sheriff hasn't had enough deputies to staff what's billed as America's largest county jail, so instead, one tower became a lockup for mentally ill men while the other houses female prisoners of all kinds. That left the toughest, most violent male inmates, many of them gang members, housed elsewhere in dormitory style jails.

Now, the plan is to finally move the women out of the Twin Towers and move the hardcore men in.

Inside tower two, deputies David Parker and Don Jamison demonstrate what makes this jail unique. The prisoners are in pods, not dormitories, and the jailers are in the middle behind heavy glass walls.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAIL NOISES)

DEL BARCO: From here you can see almost 180 degrees what's going on around you.

Unidentified Man: Exactly. We keep track of all our clients, all the inmates.

MARC KLUGMAN: They'll all be high security inmates. They've probably been convicted of a very serious felony, may have escape risks. They have violence toward each other or toward deputies. It's just the bad of the bad, so to speak.

DEL BARCO: Until the violent inmates can be moved to Twin Towers, some will be moved to state prisons, says Marc Klugman, the man in charge of L.A. County's jail.

KLUGMAN: That is part of what we intend to do when we start shuffling the deck and re-housing the entire jail population. Those high security inmates are going to be kept isolated.

DEL BARCO: Isolating inmates according to their level of violence will be a big change from what's been happening recently in L.A. County. Racially inspired riots prompted the separation of some black and Latino inmates, even though Klugman says racial segregation is not a long-term solution.

But some African-American activists in Los Angeles argue that segregation is the answer, at least temporarily. They demanded that black inmates be taken out of the jail dormitories to a safe location.

Leta Herron is with Mothers on the March, a group largely made up of women whose children are incarcerated.

LETA HERRON: None of them were sentenced to capital punishment, but there have been two, at least, who have suffered that consequence at the hands of their fellow inmates. We have to be concerned about that.

DEL BARCO: But others say the problems go beyond race relations.

JODY KENT: The inmates are not safe, and the deputies just are constantly outnumbered, and it creates an environment that is just explosive.

Jody Kent is coordinator of the Southern California ACLU Jails Project. She notes it's been difficult to recruit enough deputies to work in the grueling jail conditions.

KENT: They're filthy, they're demoralizing, they're overcrowded. Inmates in these settings are going to be tense. And until we address the problems dealing with overcrowding and understaffing, and inmates being locked down 24-hours a day, I'm convinced it will continue.

DEL BARCO: In an effort to prevent further violence, all inmates in Los Angeles County jails remain on lockdown, with no telephone or TV privileges or visitations. That includes the women in tower two.

Inmates Valerie Barrone (ph) and Huba Shendilly (ph) say the women here are more apt to fight over a sandwich than any racial turf. But they say conditions, even at Twin Towers, can lead to tension.

HUBA SHENDILLY: Now I'm going to be bluntly honest, we've got water, it's freezing cold. There's not no hot water. Out of that bottom bunk right there? That's leaking out, and that's all toilet water.

DEL BARCO: On the floor?

SHENDILLY: On the floor. And people are slipping on it.

VALERIE BARRONE: The bed, it has a bad smell, and people sleeping in it. Yeah. The conditions is bad.

SHENDILLY: I recommend before they bring the men here that they do what they got to do with the plumbing, with the water, with the everything. Because it's not, I mean, them men, the way the men are, you think the riots are bad right now? Nah, not if the men come and they, then you're going to have issues.

DEL BARCO: The latest incidents in the LA County Jail could be an indication the Sheriff still hasn't found a solution to the violence. And fears that the riots may spread may have been realized today when violence broke out in neighboring San Bernardino jails. Authorities there say black and Latino inmates battled with fists and razor blades.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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