Behind L.A. jail clashes: rising pressures

Violence in nation's largest jail system mirrors overcrowding and gang problems in many US jails.

Riots that rocked Los Angeles County jails this month can be attributed to overcrowding, say some criminal-justice analysts. Other observers cite rising gang conflicts between blacks and Hispanics throughout the L.A. area, which they say are increasingly spilling into a jail system ill-equipped to deal with it. To still others, blame lies with a society eager to punish wayward young men harshly, with little thought to the fact that they will one day be released to walk the streets.

Whichever explanation hits closest to the truth, the violence in the nation's largest jail system - which has involved 2,000 inmates and resulted in two deaths and nearly 100 serious injuries - points to rising pressures inside the jails and the challenges of containing them. On Monday, jail authorities, who have come under fire for not quelling the violence, began transferring hundreds of county jail inmates to state prisons in a bid to separate the most violent offenders from the general jail population.

The riots, which began Feb. 4 at a correctional facility 40 miles north of Los Angeles in Castaic, involved dormitories of more than 100 men, who attacked one another in succession and tossed beds from balconies. Inmates beat a black prisoner to death at Castaic's biggest jail, Pitchess Detention Center. Fighting broke out last week at the two smaller jails at Pitchess. Despite lockdowns of facilities across the county - meaning restricted movement inside and limited visitation - similar incidents followed. A second inmate died Sunday after a racially motivated fight at Men's Central Jail.

Investigators initially said nonjailed members of the Mexican mafia ordered Latino inmates to attack black prisoners in retaliation for an earlier attack, outside of jail, on a Latino by black gang members in Los Angeles. Inmate-on-inmate attacks at the Castaic facility have nearly doubled since 2003, officials said. Violence between blacks and Latinos has tripled on the streets since the 1990s, as the Latino population has increased and moved into black neighborhoods.

Overcrowding: a national problem

Though the Los Angeles County system is the one now under the microscope, law-enforcement officials say rising violence and overcrowding in prisons and jails are a national problem.

"The explosions of violence we are seeing in Los Angeles are systemic nationwide," says Terry Jungel, past president of the National Sheriffs Association. Years of get-tough-on-crime policies have emphasized rhetoric over funding, and strict confinement instead of programs to address prisoner problems or conditions, he says. "You are taking the troublemakers and rule-breakers of society all together in a confined space with close contact in an environment that was not designed for more violent criminals or for long periods of incarceration."

What might help ease tensions are programs that provide outlets for prisoners under stress - from more exercise time to anger-management classes - and for greater help for prisoners upon release from jail, some say.

"No one really knows yet exactly how this started, but it is clear that this is an opportunity to do everything we can to keep it from happening again," says Lita Herron, director of Mothers on the March, a community-based group that addresses crime and punishment issues in L.A. "There's no question this city has turned its back on incarcerated youth and turned our jails into a byproduct of such neglect. Now, we've seen the consequences of what happens if we continue to do nothing about it."

Possible solutions

In recent years, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca twice tried, unsuccessfully, to get voters to approve sales-tax increases to upgrade facilities and staff.

Others suggest jail officials should segregate inmates by their proclivity toward violence, instead of by race or gang affiliation. And they say voluntary and state-funded counseling programs can help prisoners overcome the problems that landed them in jail, including drugs and domestic violence. Physical activities can keep inmates from going stir-crazy.

"There are places in L.A. County jails where people of all races and security risk are housed in dorms and getting along just fine," says Jody Kent, coordinator of the Jails Project at the ACLU of Southern California. "What is the difference? There are physical fitness programs to keep them from remaining in a tight space that would agitate anyone and ... educational programs that don't necessarily require extra staffing or supervision."

The public, however, is more concerned about punishing offenders than rehabilitating them, say Mr. Jungel and others.

"It is always hard to define the line between social retribution and meeting the needs of the inmate without appearing to have the comfort of a country club," says Jungel. "We are finding that incarceration costs more than Americans are currently willing to pay. But we are also finding that if we don't pay for the price of security, the price of no security is even higher."

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