Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials met with academics, clergymen and human relations experts Tuesday morning to discuss ways to stem the recent rash of racial violence in county jails, particularly at the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho.
In a statement released after the closed-door meeting, the Sheriff’s Information Bureau reported that although no decisions had been reached, some of the solutions discussed included hiring more guards, keeping closer tabs on troublemakers as they are moved around the jail system, and providing more education, work and counseling programs for inmates.
Several of those who attended the meeting at the Central Jail in Los Angeles said the sheriff’s officials also seemed intrigued by less-traditional suggestions aimed at improving inmate morale: giving inmates a greater say in jail operations and rewarding good behavior instead of merely punishing misdeeds.
“I think they’re very open about trying to deal with it,” said Lionel Martinez, assistant director of the county Human Relations Commission.
During the last six months, at least 17 racial brawls have been reported at the Pitchess complex in Castaic, most of them involving whole dormitories and pitting blacks against Latinos. At the meeting, sheriff’s officials reported that there have 25 total disturbances since April, including several at the Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and one at the Mira Loma facility in Lancaster.
The Sheriff’s Department organized Tuesday’s meeting after none of deputies’ usual responses to jail violence--such as moving the instigators to other jails--seemed to be working. In recommending such a meeting last month, Assistant Sheriff Richard Foreman said, “We have basically a cop focus on this and maybe we need to get another point of view.”
Causes for the melees have ranged from arguments over the use of telephones to disputes over the sale of potato chips, but many jail officials believe that the underlying problems are the tension and resentment bred by the shift in dominant jail population from black to Latino.
Currently, the more than 21,000 county jail inmates, more than 9,000 of whom are housed at Pitchess, are about 45% Latino and 34% black. Before 1988, there were more blacks than Latinos.
Martinez said he and several others recommended that the jails form inmate councils to expose and develop solutions to day-to-day problems.
“The idea is that if you have a smoother-running facility, there’s a greater chance you’ll have less confrontations,” he said. “If you let inmates have some formal say-so in what may occur, they may be more reticent to get into full-scale riots.”
However, the rapid turnover of inmates at Pitchess might thwart the success of inmate councils, said another participant. Many of those housed among Pitchess’ five facilities are there only a few weeks while awaiting trial or a transfer to the state prison system.
“It’s a good idea, but . . . for that sort of setup to work, you need a constant set of people devoted to the council,” said Lise Anderson, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Another idea raised Tuesday, and one which is among those embraced by prison-rights advocates, was to provide incentives--such as extra food or additional telephone time--for good behavior.
Officials at the Pitchess jail already have established some incentive programs for such things as clean dormitories. But they said that at least one of the brawls was prompted by a struggle among inmates for control of telephones during an extra hour of telephone time they won for having a clean dorm.
A USC professor who attended the meeting, but declined to be identified by name, said he was still at a loss as to how the difficult problems at Pitchess might be solved.
“I hope I’m going to be able to meet with them again . . . to try to figure this out,” he said.
No additional meetings have been scheduled, although several of those involved--including the professor--said they planned to meet individually with sheriff’s officials in the coming weeks.