Thirty-six inmates were injured at the crowded San Diego County Jail in El Cajon in a riot apparently triggered when a group of Latino prisoners attacked a group of black prisoners, officials said Thursday.
The melee lasted about 20 minutes Wednesday night as sheriff’s deputies stood by, ordering the more than 100 fighting prisoners to return to their cells while awaiting the arrival of trained jail SWAT teams in riot gear.
When the inmates finally returned voluntarily to their cells and order was restored, deputies found blood smeared along the pink-tile corridor and the cement jail-house floor. Blankets and mattresses were upturned. Playing cards, piles of food and papers were strewn about. In the debris was an assortment of rough-hewn weapons, including mop handles, broom handles and a plastic paper cup holder melted down into the shape of a shiv.
Two inmates were taken by Life Flight to the UC San Diego Medical Center, one with a slashed throat and the other suffering a head injury after being kicked down a flight of stairs.
Seventeen other inmates were taken by ambulance to the medical center, where they were treated for a wide range of injuries, including cuts, head injuries and possible broken bones and noses.
Another 17 inmates were treated at the jail hospital for minor cuts and bruises.
None of the inmates injured or involved in the fight were identified, but officials said all of those taken to the medical center were expected to return to one of three county jails by Thursday night.
Officials also said 68 inmates, including many of those involved in the riot, were transferred to the downtown and South Bay jails. Those remaining in the El Cajon jail were placed in total lock-down Thursday, meaning that all jail visits and inmate recreation and exercise sessions were canceled.
No guards were injured, and Capt. Benny McLaughlin said jail personnel did not try to break up the riot because jail policy strictly prohibits such measures.
“No way would we send any men in there,” he said.
Waited Out the Riot
Instead, he said, the guards stood by and waited out the fracas.
“You tire out easy in that kind of fighting situation,” he said of the inmates. “You can only swing and fight and take that kind of abuse for so long. You tire out. You burn out. You get injured. And then you just quit fighting.”
One deputy, Michael J. Munsey, said the riot apparently started when a black inmate was stabbed in the neck.
“People just went crazy, just beating each other, picking up whatever they could to use as weapons,” the deputy said. “People were running for cover. It was incredible. To tell you the truth, I was scared to death.”
Munsey said the deputies, carrying plastic shields and wearing riot helmets, waited behind a glass partition. He said they saw bleeding men they couldn’t help.
Compounded the Problem
Finally, he said, deputies were able to shout above the sounds of the fight to persuade the men to lock themselves down so medical attention could be provided the injured.
McLaughlin, the jail commander, said another group of inmates, housed nearby but still in lock-down, further compounded the problem. He said this group yelled taunts and tried frantically to get out of their cell area to join in the fight.
“They banged on the bars, they pulled on the doors, they broke out a window,” McLaughlin said. “They wanted desperately out. They were doing all kinds of things to get out.”
Officials said the riot began about 8:15 p.m. along cellblock 7A, where 2 dozen cells built for one man apiece were housing up to seven inmates each. The cellblock was built to handle 24 inmates; Wednesday night there were about 175 there.
In fact, the crowding has been so bad, officials said, that the entire jail--first occupied in December, 1983--was housing 780 on Wednesday despite the overall rated capacity of only 120 inmates.
“There are three bunks in those cells,” McLaughlin said. “So that means a lot of men are sleeping on the floor, under the bunks and in and around the toilets. And that kind of atmosphere, that kind of overcrowding, certainly breeds hostile tensions.”
Alex Landon, a public defense attorney who has worked with the local American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit to ease the crowding, said he was not surprised that racial fighting erupted.
“When you cram people in there, people are going to become touchy and tensions will rise and people will go off,” he said. “You cannot ignore the fact that, in a crowded correctional facility there are going to be racial tensions.”
McLaughlin said tensions among the Latino and black inmates have been running high in recent weeks for several reasons. He noted the crowding, but he also mentioned that some inmates are members of rival gangs, and others go to jail with built-in biases nurtured out on the streets.
He said a team of jail officials assembled to investigate the cause of the riot now believes that a group of Latino inmates had been plotting to attack black inmates for some time.
McLaughlin declined to elaborate, but he did say that criminal charges may be filed against some inmates.
“If the case warrants it,” he said, “we will recommend to the district attorney that charges be filed against any inmates involved in the riot.”
Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this report.