By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
AT 6 O’CLOCK LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, around 200 people, most of them African-American, gathered at the Hope for Life Foundation at Manchester and Normandie in South Los Angeles, for what was billed as an urgent town hall meeting about the ongoing jail riots.
By week’s end, the “disturbances,” as they were euphemistically called, had been going on for seven days straight, and even the coolest political heads were starting to freak out. Race-based riots spring up cyclically in various parts of the combined L.A. County jail complex of Pitchess Detention Center and North County Correctional Facility, located just off the 5 freeway, a few exits past Magic Mountain. But this time, the brawls went on so long, it was soon apparent that something bigger and badder was occurring. And no one in a position of authority — from Sheriff Lee Baca on down — seemed to be able to say for sure when and how it could be stopped. The fact that the entire complex was in lockdown status — meaning no phone calls home, no visits, no rec time, no anything but eating and sleeping (and not a lot of the latter, considering the through-the-roof inmate tension) — had not made a damned bit of difference.
Hence the Friday-night town hall meeting.
The night’s agenda — which consisted of a panel presentation by several South L.A. pastors, plus state Senator Gloria Romero, and a grim-looking Sheriff’s Department deputy chief named Ronnie Williams — was hastily organized by Bishop Edward Turner, a pastor himself, and the director of Sheriff Baca’s Clergy Council.
The panelists spoke, one after the other, with earnest concern and passion, but when it came to proposed solutions, no one offered specifics. “We must stand up and make sure we get the staffing, the training, the resources to overcome race conflicts . . .,” said Gloria Romero. “That’s right!” audience members shouted. Minister Tony Muhammad noted the need to address racial imbalances inside the jail dorms, where African-Americans are outnumbered by Latinos at a rate of 2- and 3-to-1, thus guaranteeing their victimization in any racial disturbance.
Interestingly, while many, including Deputy Chief Williams, criticized certain Sheriff’s Department actions, nearly all praised Lee Baca as a law-enforcement figure they respected — and obviously didn’t want to lose come next election. Yet by meeting’s end, it was unclear what precisely had been accomplished, and the crowd dispersed into the parking lot looking energized but slightly bewildered.
The riots — for those who have lost track — began on Saturday, February 4, with a 2,000-person melee that broke out in the maximum-security North County Correctional Facility a few minutes after the day’s visiting hours finished at 3 p.m. For the record, the brawl did not consist of a couple of thousand guys all pounding each other in a single big room or jail yard. NCCF — or Supermax, as the inmates call it — consists of five different modules that are broken down into 90-person dorms. Evidently, the word had been passed for days before the first incident that everything was to start after the 3 p.m. “count” — the four-times-daily moment when prisoners are literally counted to make sure that nobody is . . . say . . . missing. As planned, the various dorms erupted shortly after 3, some simultaneously, some in sequence. Eleven days later, two people were dead and hundreds injured in multiple brawls that bounced daily and unstoppably from facility to facility.
In terms of the riots’ cause, in the beginning the official line was that they were the product of a beef between two gangs in South L.A. — one Latino, the other African-American — that had now migrated to the jail system. But when the disturbances continued unabated, jail watchers admitted that no single gang has the kind of power to persuade that many inmates in that many separate dorms to stage that many coordinated attacks.
None but the EME.
Thus, late last week, those with sources inside California’s state prisons concluded that while some of the smaller fights might be opportunistic brawls with personal agendas, the riots as a whole were the doing of the EME — the Mexican Mafia. A breakdown of what, exactly, the EME had in mind varies slightly, depending on who’s doing the analyzing. But it is pretty much agreed that this was not a simple retaliation, but rather a power move, a massive revenge cycle, an object lesson — meaning that, whatever its purpose, it’s unlikely to go away when this month’s spate of brawls finally comes to an end, either through crackdown or exhaustion.
So what to do?
CRACKDOWNS, LOCKDOWNS AND ATTEMPTS at isolating the shot callers have been the prime strategies used to combat similar problems in the state prisons. It is a policy that has been spectacularly unsuccessful, often creating more trouble than it resolves.
In addition, as most corrections analysts rightly point out, 98 percent of the inmates don’t want riots — not one little bit — and would gratefully decline to participate if they could see any safe way out. “Babe, I don’t have a choice” is what jail inmate Augustin Velasquez told his worried wife, Jenny Olmeda, in the one call he was able to make in the midst of last week’s violence. “If I hadn’t gotten involved, somebody from my own race would have hurt me.”
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