Gangs: A Threat on Streets and in Jail

Times Staff Writer

They favor monikers and identifying colors: red or blue. They communicate with hand signals and a special language of mispronounced words. They are the Crips and the Bloods--Los Angeles-area street gangs--and, according to authorities, they pose as serious a problem inside jail as out of it.

By best estimates, there are about 800 Crips and 540 Bloods among the 7,526 inmates in the county’s Central Jail, a gray, 22-year-old fortress-like structure near Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

Because of the threat of violence, hard-core members of the two black gangs are housed in high-security cell blocks on opposite sides of the jail. Deputies escort them wherever they go.

Street Problem Moves to Jail


“What was once a street problem became a jail problem,” according to James W. Painter, chief of the sheriff’s custody division.

The problem was violently illustrated last Sunday when scores of Crips attempted to barricade part of Module 4800 and refused to re-enter their cells after a row over whether one of them was fully dressed for lunch. Deputies wearing riot gear forcefully removed them one at a time, but 25 prisoners and a dozen deputies suffered injuries, mostly minor, in the confrontation.

Sheriff Sherman Block blamed the disturbance on two problems: severe overcrowding in the jail and the activities of gang members.

Gangs pose a “real management problem,” Painter said, since they require special handling within the jail system, currently swollen with nearly 7,000 inmates above its rated 11,113 capacity.


Last year, 317,000 inmates passed through the county’s eight jail facilities on charges ranging from the petty to the felonious. The jail population includes both the convicted and those waiting for hearings. And crime within the system, among gang members and others, is increasing.

Designed for Movement

“This jail (Central) was essentially designed so that the inmates could move about freely inside of it,” Painter said. “That means we let people out of their cells to go eat, to go to the library, to go to chapel, to get a haircut, to go to see visitors.

“When you have people that are under high security, then whenever they go someplace they have to be escorted, which means that the need for manpower is increased substantially. And, when you talk about large numbers of gang members, then it takes large numbers of officers to handle the security.”


In dealing with violence-prone gangs, Painter said, the Central Jail’s 600 deputies must protect rival gang members from each other while preventing gangs from shaking down and assaulting inmates in the general population.

“In the case of the black gangs, particularly the Bloods and the Crips, we have to keep them separated at all times because they will attack one another no matter what the odds or what the reason, if they are allowed to mingle,” he said.

Color-Coded Jump Suits

To help deputies maintain control, the inmates are color-coded by the jump suits they wear: white for kitchen workers, khaki for trusties, yellow for prisoners with medical or mental problems and blue for regular inmates.


Gang members once wore gray. They now wear the standard blue uniforms.

“The psychology of the gang is that they want to be identified as a gang,” Painter explained. “We changed that because it gave them a special status. “

The Crips favor blue, and the Bloods identify themselves with red, both on the streets and in the jail. Jailers have tried to make this more difficult by banning red and blue bandannas.

Although there are members of dozens of other gangs in Central Jail, Painter said, they are not as troublesome as the Crips and Bloods.


“It’s interesting that we don’t really have the fighting between the Hispanic gangs in jail,” he said. “While they may band together for mutual protection, they are not organized gangs as such inside the jail.”

Identified Early

The process of identifying gang members begins in the mandatory classification process. “If they’re in the Crips,” Painter said, “they don’t want to be put in a module with Bloods because it wouldn’t be safe for them.”

A special jail team of Operation Safe Streets deputies is charged with identifying gang members. The deputies are intimately familiar with the tattoos, hand signs, clothing and nicknames used by gang members, according to Sgt. Chuck Jackson, who heads the team.


After interviews, those considered to be hard-core Crips and Bloods are separated into high-security modules designated for each gang.

“We tried to put them in the general population, but they victimize the other inmates,” Painter said. “The problem is the crime rate goes up. For the same reasons that they are a problem out in the community, they are a problem inside the jail.”

The murder of 24-year-old Clifford Spears in 1983 ended efforts to disperse hard-core black gang members throughout the population of the Central Jail.

“We didn’t realize we had a group of Crips housed in one module,” Painter said. “They had taken over the module. They were charging non-Crips to live in the module.”


Refused to Pay $5 a Week

When he refused to pay $5 a week, Spears, who was serving a six-month sentence for petty theft and battery, was brutally beaten by gang members and either fell or was pushed over a railing, striking his head on concrete 13 feet below. He died without regaining consciousness nine days later. Two gang members were subsequently convicted of second-degree murder in Spears’ death.

Gang members are not the only prisoners singled out for special handling in the jail system, according to Painter. Juveniles, homosexuals, informants, the old, the young, the mentally and physically ill and what deputies call “high power,” or maximum security, inmates are also placed in separate categories.

The fact that the system has a record number of inmates contributes to other internal problems.


Systemwide, authorities reported 2,389 assaults by inmates against other inmates last year, contrasted with 1,866 the year before. There were 327 assaults on deputies in 1984, contrasted with 264 in 1983, and crimes of every category within the jails rose.

In addition, the crowding makes classification that much more difficult.

“We’re being slowly overwhelmed with our ability to classify people,” Painter said. “You get a big load every day, and by the time the next load comes in you still haven’t classified the last load. Because we have so many more inmates than we have places, we are constantly moving inmates around between facilities.”

The crowding exists throughout the system. The Hall of Justice has 792 beds and 1,581 inmates; Biscailuz Center, 976 beds and 1,139 inmates; Mira Loma, 400 beds and 652 inmates.


“And everyone has to get a jump suit. Everyone has to have a medical examination. Everyone has to have a correct housing module,” Painter said. “We have to go back and forth to court. We have to process every one of these papers.

“As a matter of fact, we are struggling mightily just to keep up with the clothing. We make our own clothing, and we keep adding shifts and adding machines. It’s very difficult to keep up.

“It’s a logistical nightmare.”