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143 Injured in Brawls at Pitchess Jail; 1,600 Involved

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The largest of a five-year series of racial brawls erupted at the Pitchess jail Wednesday, a 1,600-inmate battle that left scores injured and set off a rolling series of fights that continued into the night.

About 143 inmates were hurt--nine critically--in the four brawls, authorities said. Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, who guard the county jail, suffered only minor injuries.

The Pitchess Detention Center has been plagued by fights between African American and Latino inmates--sometimes several brawls a week--for years. Some spontaneous fights involve seemingly trivial issues such as use of telephones or toilets, but authorities say many are part of an ongoing power struggle between the two ethnic groups for control of prison life.

Wednesday night more than 500 deputies swarmed through the sprawling complex, which was at maximum shutdown, with all prisoners locked in their cells or dormitories, Deputy Angie Prewett said.

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Deputies said the initial fight Wednesday appeared planned, because it started simultaneously about 2 p.m. at 12 of the 13 dormitories in the maximum-security east facility of the jail complex.

It took deputies about an hour to stop the prisoners, who attacked one another with fists, feet, jail-made knives and weapons fashioned from broken urinals, beds and light fixtures in the dormitories, Deputy Matt Bailey said.

With the help of two Sheriff’s Department emergency response teams, deputies quelled the fight, launching a fusillade of “stingball” grenades and non-lethal projectiles, Bailey said. Exploding stingball grenades hurl shrapnel of rubber pellets meant to cause pain but not permanent injury.

When the dust settled, 125 inmates were injured. Some were treated in the jail clinic. One critically hurt inmate was airlifted to Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Newhall and others were driven to Northridge Hospital Medical Center in the San Fernando Valley and UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, deputies said.

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At 3:25 p.m., another brawl broke out in the neighboring north facility, this one involving about 300 inmates, Bailey said. The fight ended after a few minutes with 13 more inmates hurt, Bailey said.

The next eruption came in other dorms of the north facility about 4:55 p.m. This time it took deputies two minutes to halt the fighting, and five inmates were injured.

About 6:30 p.m. it happened again--inmates in three dorms of the east facility restarted their brawl, but were separated within 15 minutes with no injuries, Prewett said.

“It’s getting out of hand,” she said.

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Wednesday’s racial brawls followed one early Tuesday at the north facility involving about 125 inmates.

Although brawls between black and Latino prisoners at Pitchess are common, no recent fight has been as massive as Wednesday’s--which drew in all but about 125 of the 1,770 inmates in the east facility. The largest previous fight, in June 1994, apparently involved about 800 inmates in minimum- and medium-security lockups, caused by a disagreement over stolen money.

The jail, which houses 10,000 prisoners awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than a year, was once a jail farm, where well-behaved prisoners ran a dairy that supplied other county institutions. Over the years, it gradually has been pressed into service for more violent prisoners as other jails grew crowded.


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