The violence that rocked Los Angeles County’s jail system over the last week is the legacy of operating jails on the cheap, with violent inmates living in large, open rooms despite wide agreement nationally that such offenders should be held in cells, the Los Angeles Times reports. Sheriff’s Department officials acknowledge that the practice has exacerbated racially charged disturbances in the jails, where violent incidents have increased significantly since 2003. Officials say they have not had the money or the staffing to shift many of the high-risk inmates to newer, cell-equipped facilities, which require more guards.
The department has 6,500 jail beds with cells designed for high-risk offenders – but they are either empty or used for lower-risk inmates, because the agency says it doesn’t have the deputies to staff those facilities if they housed more dangerous detainees. New York City and Chicago, among places with large jail systems, do it differently – each keeping a large percentage of cells available for maximum-security inmates. Those cities have far more deputies guarding inmates per capita than does the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. “In a dorm situation, it is virtually impossible to quell [violent] activity,” said jail consultant Nancy Insco, former head of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “It’s almost like a wildfire. It’s like a rolling ball of fire that starts in one dorm and it gains momentum and it jumps to other dorms.”