Stopping Race Wars Behind Bars

Living in confined spaces can put a magnifying glass on racial tensions. NPR's Tony Cox talks to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who has had his share of dealing with racial incidents in the county's prison system.

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TONY COX, host:

This is News and Notes. I am Tony Cox. Inmates living in confined spaces can put a magnifying glass on racial tensions. Last month at the Florence Penitentiary in Colorado, two prisoners died in a riot triggered by racial slurs. Reports say a group of white supremacist prisoners sparked the violence after they aimed slurs at some black inmates.

We continue our look at the criminal justice system today with an examination of racial tensions behind bars. In a few moments, we'll talk to two advocates who have seen this issue firsthand in the prison system. But now, we are joined by Lee Baca. He is the sheriff for Los Angeles County, which has long had its share of dealing with racial incidents in its jail system. Welcome, Sheriff.

Sheriff LEE BACA (Los Angeles County, California): Thank you, Tony. Good morning.

COX: You oversaw the deadly racial riots in L.A. jails two years ago in 2006. How big a factor, Sheriff, is race inside the jails and prisons?

Sheriff BACA: It's very substantial, and unfortunately, it's a few inmates that want to foment this kind of behavior, where black inmates, no matter what their status is - they don't even have to be gang members - are being attacked by gang members who are in the county jail, and then these gang members are earning credits. When they go to state prison, they'll be able to be viewed as loyal soldiers to the Mexican-American gangs that are in the state prison system. So, the theory behind what they do is they attack any black inmate. The dorms automatically divide under racial separation and then the big fight is on, and many innocent people get hurt, including Latinos as well.

COX: Going back to 2006, you ordered prisoners to be segregated despite an earlier ruling by the state supreme court that such segregation was unconstitutional. Why did you that? And what were the consequences?

Sheriff BACA: Initially, I did it because it made common sense, and then, of course, inmates, both Latino inmates and African-American inmates, were asking that this be done. What was interesting is that the Latino inmates that were wrapped up in this unwittingly, meaning that they didn't want to do any fighting but knew that the culture there was that if they didn't fight, then other Latino inmates would jump them. They were sending messages to me saying we need to separate each other for a period time until this thing cools down.

COX: You've decried the lack of funding, the overcrowding, the high inmate-to-guard ratio. What's needed now to stop this? Or can it be stopped?

Sheriff BACA: Well, I believe it could be stopped. It needs to be managed properly. We find that the younger inmates who are impulsive and want to carry on orders from state prison gang members to attack, in this case, African-Americans, no matter whom, and these people, the younger ones are more susceptible to that.

So, you've got to segregate them from the older population, and at the same time you have to have stronger supervision so that any slight indication of something about to erupt, you've got to intercept it and prevent it from happening in the first place. And so we have been slow in our county system, where it wouldn't go for months and years without a problem.

But then again, the Southsider group from Los Angeles, which has essentially a lot of Latino members, will try to exercise dominance in the jails as a message to all African-Americans that there's more of us and we can dominate the situation in the jails and we're going to dominate the situations in the street.

COX: We're talking with L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca. Sheriff, is there much difference, as far as racial issues are concerned, between inmates in, let's say, county jail as opposed to state or federal prisons, where the inmates are serving longer terms and there are more of them?

Sheriff BACA: Well, there is a slight difference. You know, the transient nature of the county jails is that inmates have access to each other much easier than in a state prison system, and at the same time, the state prison system is a long-term incarceration and they're more calculated when they're going to do a hit. Whereas in a county jail, they can hit anytime and be spontaneous and virtually disrupt the entire environment in the jail without a real comprehensive plan. Whereas in state prisons, it's more calculated.

COX: Now, in California, particularly in Los Angeles, we have talked a lot about the tensions between Latinos and blacks. We haven't said very much about tensions between blacks and whites or Latinos and whites. How much of that is there?

Sheriff BACA: Well, there is definitely tensions in the gang environment particularly. Now, what's interesting is that 99.999 percent of Latinos and Africans-Americans get along just well. But then, you have this element of gangs fighting for turf on the streets over drugs, and of course, they have their gangs to back up their assertions of power. So, we really are very concerned that the gang shootings on the street are often - not often, but I would say have in the past where certain Latino gang members have shot African-Americans who are not involved with gangs - the prime example is Jamil Shaw, who was one of our star football players at Los Angeles High School.

COX: Final thing before we let you go, Sheriff, is this. Los Angeles gets a great deal of media attention with regard to this issue, but it does happen in other parts of the country. Is it worse here in California than it is, let's say, in the East or in the South or in the Midwest, in terms of racial tension inside prison and jail walls?

Sheriff BACA: Well, I can't speak for the rest of the nation, but I know that California does a lot, the state prisons do quite a bit to manage its population so that this gang conflict erupts - does not erupt into deadly violence. But here in the county jail, we have suffered the most in Los Angeles over racial tensions, but particularly, as I said, precipitated by few gang members who understand prison culture and county jail culture, and they know that they can disrupt the entire living environment and cause for people who don't want to fight with each other have to fight with each other, and thereby, it is a problem.

COX: Sheriff Baca, thank you very much.

Sheriff BACA: Thank you, Tony.

COX: Lee Baca is the sheriff for Los Angeles County.

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