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D.A.'s Office to Investigate Melee at Jail : Corrections: Blacks involved in last week’s fight say a guard’s racism led to the confrontation with Latino inmates.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A recent melee in the Ventura County Jail in which about a dozen Latino inmates fought with three black prisoners has been turned over to the district attorney’s office for investigation, sheriff’s officials said Wednesday.

Black inmates alleged in interviews that the fight was racially motivated and sparked by the actions of a civilian jail employee who allowed a group of Latino inmates into a section of the institution that was off-limits to them.

But Sheriff’s Lt. Bruce McDowell, a jail supervisor, called the Aug. 6 incident “a typical fight between two groups of friends” that can happen among inmates. He said the Sheriff’s Department, which supervises and staffs the jail, completed an investigation of the incident and concluded that the racial charges were blatantly untrue.

“We don’t believe there were racial reasons for the fight,” he said.

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McDowell confirmed, however, that a civilian employee in a guard booth on the jail’s fourth floor, where the fight occurred, mistakenly allowed four Latino inmates into a locked area where they did not belong. After they entered, a fight immediately broke out.

Two of the black inmates involved said they sustained cuts and bruises but no broken bones. Four Latino inmates believed to have participated in the fight refused to talk with a reporter.

The jail, completed in the Ventura County Government Center in 1981, currently has 970 inmates, approximately 185 more than its intended capacity.

Many of the prisoners are awaiting trial on charges ranging from misdemeanors to felonies such as robbery and murder. Some already have been convicted for lesser crimes and are serving sentences there rather than being transferred to other institutions.

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By all accounts, the four-story jail is considered by law enforcement officials throughout California as a state-of-the-art facility in terms of its security and the manner in which prisoners are housed.

“We probably have some of the best jail conditions in the country,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Gary Cook, another jail official.

As a result, large-scale fights among inmates, such as the one that occurred last week, are rare, jail officials said.

The district attorney’s office will have to decide what charges, if any, to file in the wake of the fight. Sheriff’s officials said they could not comment on their just-completed investigation of the incident.

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The violence occurred on the fourth floor in what is called Quad G, which contains cells and a day room for eating and recreation. There are 96 inmates in the quad, but no more than 12 inmates are supposed to be in the day room at any time.

All of the participants in the fight wore red wrist bands, which alerts guards that they have a potential for violent behavior.

Sheriff’s deputies and civilian personnel monitor the inmates from a booth, which has emergency alarms and controls allowing the guards to unlock doors to the cell-recreation areas.

According to sheriff’s officials, about 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 6, four Latino inmates had finished lifting weights in a nearby physical fitness room and were walking back to their lockup area.

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But, according to deputy and prisoner accounts, instead of returning to their assigned section in the quad, they lined up to enter an adjacent section off-limits to them.

Apparently, a Latino inmate in that section had signaled to them that he was having difficulties with some of the black prisoners, sources said.

Both investigating deputies and inmates said that a female civilian employee in the guard booth had unlocked the section door by remote control, allowing the Latino prisoners to enter the section where the fight broke out.

But their accounts of what motivated her to unlock the door differed.

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“There was a mistake,” Cook said. “The inmates lined up like they were supposed to go in.”

But one of the blacks, Ronnie Bruner, 30, of Oxnard, said that the jail employee had a habit of making racial slurs toward black inmates. He said he believed she purposely unlocked the door in an effort to trigger a fight.

Bruner, who said he was a plumber awaiting arraignment on a drug-possession charge, alleged blacks “do not feel safe” with the woman and have asked for her removal.

The civilian guard could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Another black inmate involved in the fight, Walter Washington, 31, of Inglewood, said he too has had difficulty with the civilian guard.

Washington, who said he is awaiting trial on an attempted kidnaping charge, accused her and other guards of frequently using racial epithets in their communication with black inmates.

McDowell is constrained from refuting such allegations because of the pending investigation by the district attorney’s office.

Asked to comment, he said, “I don’t believe there is an ethnicity problem here.”

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