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Jailhouse Hope

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.”

By the same token, it’s acknowledged that the main troublemakers should be removed from the general population, just as one would do in the case ofchildren fighting on a playground. Thus, last week, Sheriff Baca reiterated plans to shift Castaic’s most violent inmates to the more controllable Twin Towers facility — a move that has long been talked about, yet not previously affordable.

“But unless you want to duplicate a [federal] prison like Marion, with lockdown all the time,” says Mike Gennaco, the chief attorney who independently reviews L.A. Sheriff’s Department’s actions, “we’ve got to do a lot more.” Gennaco and the Board of Supervisors’ jail monitor, Merrick Bobb, have emphasized the need for an all-hands-on-deck push to step up deputy recruitment, possibly including bonuses for those working the jails. “Too few deputies guarding too many inmates,” says Gennaco, results in a reliance on a command-and-control model that is never healthy, either for prisoners or for those guarding them.

Jail watchers, ranging from Gennaco and ACLU Jails Project coordinator Jody Kent to community activists like Bishop Turner, all underscore that merely managing the “bad” inmates will not solve anything in the long term. For real change to take place, they say, the emotional health of the rest of the inmates must be fortified through the use of various programs like GED classes, anger-management groups, Amer-I-Can “life skills” courses, plus lesser-known strategies like the innovative, prison-incubated 12-step program, CGA — Criminals and Gangsters Anonymous.

“We’ve seen some real success stories work on a smaller scale that we should use as models,” says Gennaco. “For example, the veterans have a treatment program for vet inmates that’s been excellent.”

“But here’s the thing,” says Kent, “we have to make these programs available to more than just a few hundred inmates. Then, I guarantee you’ll see the stress level inside jail drop, and the problems diminish.”

Sheriff Baca, who sounds understandably tired these days, says he’s not against any of it, that in fact he welcomes any and all creative ideas. “But there is no magic. And most of it takes money,” he says. “It’s all about the almighty dollar.”

“The most daunting challenge,” adds Gennaco, “is that just when we’ve agreed on solutions, the public’s attention will have moved on.”

And along with it, the will and the money needed to prevent the next explosion.

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