IN RETROSPECT, JENNY OLMEDA says she knew something was wrong last Saturday when she went to visit her husband, Augustin Velasquez, at the North County Correctional Facility. The state-of-the-art jail is part of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s maximum-security complex, located 40 miles northwest of downtown L.A., up the 5 freeway about seven minutes past Magic Mountain. Most of the Sheriff’s deputies call the place by its initials, NCCF. The inmates call it Supermax.
The Supermax waiting area was crowded, and Olmeda, 29, didn’t see Velasquez, also 29, until the last visit of the day. The husband and wife discussed the usual things: the drug case he was fighting, their four kids (the two oldest ones had come with her to see their dad), her battle to pay the bills on a suddenly single mom’s salary, how much he wanted to come home. As they talked, she thought he seemed unusually on edge. “Look, babe,” Velasquez said just before the hour ended. “I probably won’t be able to call you for a few days. There’s a lot of . . .” He searched for a neutral way to say it, “. . . tension here.”
At 3 p.m., the deputies called time, Olmeda and the kids, boys of 12 and 10, said their goodbyes, and she drove home to La Puente feeling extremely uneasy. “The whole visit was weird,” she says. “Nobody was laughing with their family members like they usually do.” Even the Sheriff’s deputies seemed jittery. “They kept walking up and down, up and down. And the guys kept looking behind them, like they expected something.”
When Olmeda arrived home around 4:30 p.m., she flipped on the television and made dinner for all four kids. “And there it was, all over the news,” she says, “this huge riot at Supermax.”
The riot had fractured along racial lines: Latinos on one side, African-Americans on the other. Two thousand inmates battered each other with fists, feet, anything else they could find, most notably metal bunk beds that Latino inmates lobbed from one tier of the facility toward the African-American inmates housed in the tier below. It took 200 deputies more than four hours to subdue the rampaging prisoners. When calm returned, it was found that a 45-year-old African-American inmate named Wayne Tiznor had been beaten to death, and 50 inmates had been injured, 26 of them requiring hospitalization. Olmeda wondered fitfully if her husband was among the wounded.
Within minutes of the riot’s ignition, Sheriff Lee Baca put the 21,000-inmate county system on lockdown, then drove his own car to Castaic and talked to the rioters, one of whom persuaded a deputy to slip the sheriff a hand-printed note that read: “I MEAN NO DISRESPECT. IF BLACKS COME IN THE DORM WE WILL FIGHT . . . PLEASE SEPARATE US RACE BY RACE FOR EVERYONE’S SAFETY . . .” By that time, Baca had already preempted the writer’s advice and had begun segregating, at least the Supermax inmates, by race. “The thing is,” says Baca, “99 percent of the inmates don’t want this nonsense. And so the innocent participants — if you can call them that — are cooperating with us. They’ve told us that this whole thing came out of a conflict between two gangs in South L.A., and was completely and carefully planned.”
On Sunday, back in La Puente, Olmeda hoped for word of her husband. But lockdown meant no visits or phone privileges, so she wasn’t surprised when Velasquez missed his usual collect call to her and the kids. By Sunday afternoon, the lockdown was lifted from most jails, but not Supermax.
And on Sunday night, there was another riot. This time, at Pitchess Detention Center North, another Castaic facility, where 200 people fought, 10 were injured, and nobody was killed.
WITH TWO MAJOR RIOTS DETONATING in as many days, law-enforcement watchers began talking about systemic problems. “In the past five years, the number of sworn officers in the Sheriff’s Department has dropped from 9,100 to around 8,000,” says Merrick Bobb, the special counsel to the Board of Supervisors hired to monitor the Sheriff’s Department. “This means the jails are seriously understaffed.”
The sheriff himself points to a 50-to-1 inmate-to-guard ratio that is the highest in the United States. (The New York City jail system, which houses 15,000 inmates, has 12,000 officers to guard them.) Baca says the shortfall is due to a hiring freeze — brought on by 2002-03 budget shortfalls, from which the department has yet to recover. But Bobb argues that there is also an attrition rate. “We’ve got a huge morale problem among the deputies guarding the jails,” he says. While new deputies were once required to spend 18 months doing jail duty, says Bobb, “now they’re stuck for five and six years, and many don’t want to be there.” Add in an evolving inmate demographic that has become less stable and more violent now that low-level offenders are cycled out as quickly as humanly possible to relieve drastic overcrowding. “Put all that together,” says Bobb, “and you’ve got jails that are at or near a crisis.”
Monday morning, Velasquez again didn’t call home. At around 2 p.m., the phone rang, but it was one of Velasquez’s friends. “Hey, I heard Guty got hurt in that riot,” the friend said. (Guty — short for Augustin — has been Velasquez’s nickname since childhood.) “I don’t know if it’s bad. So I thought I better call you.”
A frantic Olmeda phoned Velasquez’s attorney and pleaded with him to check on her husband. “Augustin’s not a gang member,” she says. “He’s never been to prison. The narcotics case he’s fighting isn’t violent. I mean, my husband’s just a guy who drives a delivery truck for a sheet-metal company.”
By Monday evening, Olmeda still hadn’t heard anything. Late that night, there were two more riots.
All of the county’s jail captains came to a consensus that Sheriff Baca must put every facility on lockdown for the next 10 days. Nope, said the sheriff. He would just lock down the two problem jails, and only for as long as needed.
Back in Jenny Olmeda’s house, worried calls from friends and family flew throughout Tuesday morning. At 2 p.m. Tuesday, the phone rang one more time. It was Augustin Velasquez. He’d been in the riot, he said, but he was fine. “He told me, ‘Everybody has to be part of it,’ ” says Olmeda. “You don’t have a choice. You have to side with your race.” At first Velasquez tried to make light of his experience. “Maybe people thought I was hurt because I was screaming so loud,” he said. But eventually he admitted to fear. “He told me, ‘It was like a nightmare,’ ” says Olmeda. “That there was blood everywhere, and that he’d never seen anything like it in his life.” Like the sheriff, Velasquez maintained that the riots had been carefully planned.
Tuesday night, Olmeda expected to sleep for the first time in three days. And, shuttling between jails, Sheriff Baca remained calm and upbeat. Sure, he needs more deputies, he says. “And we’ll get them. Our recruiting is up. And I’m going to get Amer-I-Can [Jim Brown’s program] back in the jails because it promotes dialogue. People need to talk.” He also has 100 South L.A. ministers coming up to NCCF this week. “I’m very optimistic that we’re going to get to the bottom of this and turn it around,” Baca says, then pauses. “But here’s the truth. There are no magic solutions. And if two guys want to fight, and put in the time to plan it carefully . . . there’s nothing we can do about it.”
As if proving the Sheriff’s words, just after lunch Wednesday at a third Castaic jail, there is another full-scale, four-dorm, 451-inmate riot.