In rioting triggered by racial tensions, more than 2,000 inmates went on a four-hour rampage Saturday at a maximum-security jail in Castaic, leaving one prisoner dead and nearly 50 others injured.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies from throughout the area poured into the North County Correctional Facility, and authorities fired tear gas and pepper balls into dormitories before order was restored.
Sheriff Lee Baca said the entire 21,000-inmate jail system was locked down, with inmates confined to their cells to head off additional violence.
He also said he has begun segregating African American and Latino prisoners in the facility despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting such practices in the state.
“Human life is more important than appearance,” Baca told reporters outside the jail, which has a history of racial violence.
The melee erupted about 3:30 p.m. when Latino inmates began throwing bunks and furniture from the upper level of a dormitory onto blacks occupying a lower-level day room, Baca said.
The incident appeared to be retaliation for a stabbing attack two days earlier on a Latino inmate at the downtown Men’s Central Jail, the sheriff said.
The core of the melee involved about 200 inmates. But it quickly became “massive chaos,” Baca said.
Inmates used fists, parts of beds, shoes and anything they could grab in the brawl, he said. More than 200 deputies were needed to quell the violence.
The man killed was identified as Wayne Tiznor, a 45-year-old African American, who appeared to have died from being beaten, Baca said. He was convicted last month of failing to register as a sex offender, officials said. Homicide detectives were investigating the incident.
Twenty inmates with serious injuries were taken to hospitals, and 26 more suffered minor injuries. No deputies were injured. Television helicopters showed a long line of ambulances and paramedic units lined up outside the jail, and rows of tarps were laid out for the injured.
“It is a carry-over, in our opinion, from what is a feud between gangs in the Los Angeles South-Central area,” Baca said.
“And that will happen when you bring to jail people who want to continue whatever their war was on the street.... It is essentially a brown-on-black incident today which led to the fighting that occurred in these dorms.”
The disturbance involved part of the North County Correctional Facility, a sprawling, 34-acre complex 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles that includes five large jail buildings housing 4,000 inmates.
Most of the inmates at the North County jail are awaiting trial or being transferred to or from state prison, Baca said.
The Sheriff’s Department has hailed the complex, completed in 1990, as a showcase state-of-the-art jail. It is located east of other lockups at the Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center, known in law enforcement circles as “The Ranch.”
Saturday’s riot was the latest in a system long plagued by racially motivated violence.
In 2000, in one of the worst incidents, more than 80 inmates, most of them black, were injured and one man was beaten into a coma during several days of violence at the Pitchess Detention Center. As a result, Baca segregated black and Latino inmates for several weeks to try to control the racially motivated violence. But the violence quickly resumed. More than 20 men were hurt, two seriously, in a surge of well-coordinated attacks that came shorty after the black and Latino inmates were re-integrated.
Last year, the department reported 33 major inmate disturbances, including 19 at the North County Correctional Facility.
Saturday’s violence was the seventh major incident in the county jail system involving multiple inmates in the last two months, records show.
In the most recent incident Jan. 13, three inmates were hospitalized following a melee at the North County facility that pitted black and Latino inmates against each other, according to a Sheriff’s Department report.
On Dec. 27, 62 black and Latino inmates fought at the North County facility. At least six inmates needed medical treatment after the disturbance. The injuries included puncture wounds, head injuries and a dislocated shoulder.
On Dec. 4, 162 black and Latino inmates squared off at the East Facility at the Pitchess center, and 22 inmates suffered minor injuries, according to the Sheriff’s Department report.
Twelve inmates were injured Dec. 7 during a fight among black and Latino inmates at the same facility. That disturbance involved 117 inmates.
As is true elsewhere in the jails, Latinos far outnumber black inmates at the North County lockup. Systemwide, the inmate population is 60% Latino and 30% black, Baca said. A racial breakdown for the North County facility was not available.
Baca released a copy of a note he said had been given to him by a Latino inmate at the North County jail after Saturday’s riot. While claiming “no disrespect,” it warned that “if blacks come into the dorms we will fight.... Please separate us race by race for everyone’s safety.”
The sheriff decided to begin separating black and Latino inmates at the North County facility after consulting with county attorneys, officials said. It was unclear how long the segregation would last.
The move could face legal problems. In February 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the California Department of Corrections must stop segregating inmates by race unless it was the only way to maintain security in the prisons.
Citing security concerns and a long history of racial violence in the nation’s largest state prison system, California prison officials had at least briefly housed new inmates in cells with inmates of the same race or national heritage. Outside of their cells -- at mealtimes, on jobs and in the recreation areas -- prisoners mix without regard to race.
In its 5-3 decision, the court ruled that California’s policy came dangerously close to violating the Constitution’s ban on racial segregation by the government. An official with the American Civil Liberties Union said Saturday that the conditions in the Los Angeles County jails are so bad that they create tension that leads to violence.
“There isn’t enough opportunity for the inmates to do productive things, and that allows for the tensions to rise,” said Jody Kent, jails project coordinator for the ACLU of Southern California.
“As a result of that, fights will often break out. If there is more opportunity for the inmates to participate in productive activities, the tension will go down.”
Specifically, Kent said, inmates at the jails often are not allowed to exercise as often as they should.
“It’s imperative they get every opportunity to have some release from the conditions they’re living in and the stress they’re under on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
But Baca said that racial violence in the jails “is impossible to prevent.”
“They will divide on racial lines,” he said. “There is a code of race. [You] are required to defend your race.”
Times staff writer Peter Y. Hong contributed to this report.