LOS ANGELES – More than 100 inmates were forced to strip naked and had their mattresses removed for a day earlier this month as sheriff's officials tried to quell two weeks of violence in the Los Angeles County jail system, authorities said.
The punishment on Feb. 9 at Pitchess Detention Center was an attempt to calm inmates who had repeatedly attacked each other, even after privileges such as access to mail, television and phones were taken away, Sammy Jones, chief of the custody division, told the Los Angeles Times in Saturday's edition.
Sheriff Lee Baca said he supported the move, as long as it was over a short term. He said keeping inmates naked was at the "outer edge of our core values" but was done to save lives. The inmates had blankets to cover themselves, he said.
The series of jailhouse clashes — largely between black and Hispanic inmates — began Feb. 4 with a riot involving nearly 2,000 inmates at a detention center dorm in Castaic, about 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. The melee left a black inmate dead and almost 100 inmates injured.
Last Sunday, a black prisoner arrested for investigation of drug possession died after fighting with three Hispanic inmates, authorities said. It was unclear whether the violence, which occurred in a six-person cell at the downtown Men's Central Jail, was racially motivated, police said.
More fighting erupted Thursday when about 40 black, white and Hispanic inmates traded punches for 30 minutes. Four suffered minor injuries, authorities said.
Sheriff's officials will ask the district attorney's office next week to file charges against 21 inmates allegedly involved in the violence. Some could face murder charges, authorities said.
Los Angeles County has the largest local jail system in the nation with more than 18,000 inmates spread across eight facilities.
Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the revelations about safety concerns in the dorms, as well as the stripping of inmates as punishment, pointed to a "huge systemic problem."
"They don't have the staffing and the facilities to operate a detention and incarceration system according to professional standards," Rosenbaum said. "These are procedures they're making up as they go along because the staffing and facilities and other professional measures are not in place."