L.A. jail violence highlights hardened inmates
LOS ANGELES – Recent violence at Los Angeles County jails that has killed two inmates and injured scores of others highlights a national trend: More hardened criminals are staying in county lockups, in large part because of tougher sentencing guidelines.Laws such as California’s three-strikes rule have led to increasing numbers of high-risk prisoners spending more time in local facilities that once held mostly minor offenders.”As a deputy, we once knew every murder (defendant) in custody,” said San Diego County sheriff’s Cmdr. Brian Roberts, who oversees four jail facilities. “You can’t do that today. There are so many in custody for murder.”Los Angeles County has the largest local jail system in the nation with more than 18,000 inmates spread across eight facilities.Built to house a population with 70 percent misdemeanor offenders, the jail is now crammed with about 80 percent felony suspects – many of whom authorities consider high-security risks, said Mark Klugman, head of the sheriff’s correctional services.In Cook County, Ill., the number of low-level inmates rarely exceeds 500 in a jail population of roughly 10,000, said Charles A. Fasano, of the nonprofit John Howard Association. The group monitors the county’s jail system, which is the nation’s third largest.In Los Angeles County, at least 3,000 beds can be occupied by state parole violators and newly convicted felons. To help break the cycle of violence, authorities added hundreds of prisoners to weekly transfers to state prisons.The series of jailhouse clashes – largely between black and Hispanic inmates – began Feb. 4 with a riot involving nearly 2,000 inmates at a detention center dorm in Castaic, about 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. The melee left a black inmate dead and almost 100 inmates injured.Last Sunday, a black prisoner arrested for investigation of drug possession died after fighting with three Hispanic inmates, Klugman said. Authorities said it’s unclear whether the violence, which occurred in a six-person cell at the downtown Men’s Central Jail, was racially motivated.More fighting erupted Thursday when about 40 black, white and Hispanic inmates traded punches for 30 minutes. Four suffered minor injuries, authorities said.Exacerbating the problem at some jails are group dorms that allow gang members and other troublemakers to move more freely among nonviolent offenders.The department wants to lock up more of the higher-risk inmates in secure cells, but shifting prisoners is not easy. There are too few cells throughout the system. And many of those at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, the county’s most modern high-security lockup, are occupied by women and mentally ill prisoners.Some county jails have as few as one guard for every 50 inmates, Klugman said.Even the best ratio in Los Angeles County is 1-to-10 and trails the nationwide average of roughly 1-to-4.5, said Michael Gennaco, head of the sheriff’s office of independent review.New York City has about one officer for every four inmates, Klugman said.Following the first outbreak of violence, Sheriff Lee Baca said he wanted to hire 1,100 more deputies to add to the department’s force of 8,300 sworn officers. He has $70 million to pay for the extra help, but like law enforcement agencies nationwide, the department has difficulty recruiting candidates fast enough.The department is also enlisting the help of an upgraded computer program to better house inmates according to their security threat, gang affiliation and other variables.