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Jail Fights Linked to Racial Power Struggle : Inmates: Officials say a turf battle has resulted at Pitchess Honor Rancho as Latinos rise in number while black percentage declines.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The recent rash of jailhouse fights at the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho springs from a power struggle between Latino and black inmates and is not a string of unrelated incidents as was previously suspected, Los Angeles County jail officials said Thursday.

The four melees at the 8,300-prisoner Saugus facility--two Sunday, one Tuesday and one Wednesday--and three other incidents earlier this summer are linked to rising tensions as Latinos replace blacks as the predominant ethnic group in the county jail population, officials said.

“This is a Latin-versus-black confrontation which has recurred several times out here,” said Cmdr. Michael Nelson, who manages the branches of the Pitchess jail complex where the most recent fights broke out. “The Latins have become more of the population and, when that happens, they start to exert their influence and that is resented by others.”

Sheriff’s spokesmen had earlier blamed overcrowding, the summer heat and a new smoking ban as contributing factors to the surge in violence. On Sunday they said an argument between a black and a Latino inmate over using a telephone in the maximum security section of the facility escalated into the first of the four recent brawls. It quickly polarized along racial lines and involved 92 inmates. They said another telephone dispute sparked the most recent fight on Wednesday evening, involving 41 prisoners at another Pitchess facility.

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But Nelson said the two telephone-related skirmishes are examples of a larger power play by Latinos, who were trying to reserve a bank of pay telephones for Latinos only.

“It’s kind of an ownership thing, like a gang’s turf,” said Cmdr. David Hagthrop, who manages the East Facility, where he said a similar attempt to take over the telephones led to a fight involving 130 inmates on June 19. “We do not tolerate that kind of thing, in fact we absolutely forbid it. . . . But sometimes it’s like trying to be a father present in the bedroom where two kids are fighting all night.”

In the four most recent fights, 47 inmates were sent to the hospital with injuries ranging from broken bones to stab wounds from homemade knives. At least two-thirds of them were black. During the fights earlier in the summer, more Latinos were injured than blacks.

Criminologists described the unrest at Pitchess as the inevitable outcome of a shift in racial dominance. But a few said jail administrators should be able to prevent the violent outbreaks.

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“Obviously racial tension is not just a function of the percentage of racial groups in the jail, but also how well a jail is administered,” said one national crime expert, who asked not to be named. “Some managers know how to deal with that situation and some don’t.”

In the wake of the fights, jail officials moved nearly 500 inmates to other county jails in what are known as “harmony moves.” They increased the presence of prison guards by lengthening their shifts and sending them more frequently into the prisoners’ midst to try to identify conflicts before they erupt. They restricted inmate movement and tried to adjust the racial balance in dormitories.

But maintaining ethnic balance is difficult, Nelson said, because of the transitory nature of the county’s inmates, who stay in jail an average of 22 days while awaiting trial. Most inmates are separated according to their crimes and their potential for violence, not their race, he said. Also, segregation of dormitories by race would not only be unwieldy but is prohibited by federal anti-discrimination laws, sheriff’s spokesmen said.

“I think we’re doing everything we can,” Nelson said.

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County statistics trace a rise in the percentage of Latino inmates from 40% in 1989 to 45% of this year’s 21,000 daily prison population. During those two years, the black inmate population dropped from 37% to 34%. No reliable race statistics are available for earlier years, according to county officials, but Nelson and Hagthrop both said blacks were in the majority until about mid-1988.

Black inmates continue to dominate California’s prison system, according to the state Department of Corrections, but Latinos are gaining and have surpassed blacks at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, one of Southern California’s largest prisons.

Nationwide, the percentage of Latinos in county jails rose from 10.3% in 1978 to 17.4% in 1989, according to surveys by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Daniel Glaser, the past president of the American Society of Criminology and a professor emeritus of sociology at USC, said the racial tensions are likely to continue rising until Latinos reach a significant majority. Glaser said that, with a few exceptions, the country’s newest immigrants have always dominanted jail populations.

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“It was the Irish at the turn of the century, then Italians, Polish, then the blacks immigrated to the cities after World War II, and now the Latinos are coming into the ghettos,” he said. “They quickly become the underclass and some of them get more gratification from crime and drugs then they do from schools or society.”

Once in jail, inmates tend to segregate themselves, Glaser said, leading to racial animosities and the potential for interracial violence.

After each of the fights broke out at Pitchess, sheriff’s spokesmen said they were clearly unrelated because they occurred in different dormitories and different jails within the complex. But on Thursday both jail administrators and criminologists said the incidents were undoubtedly linked, triggered as news of the earlier fights spread through the prison grapevine.

Times staff writer Jim Herron Zamora also contributed to this story.

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