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Officials blame racial tensions for California jail riot

Sheriff separates blacks, Latinos

LOS ANGELES -- Correctional officials said a four-hour rampage by 2,000 inmates at a maximum-security jail in Castaic, Calif., was triggered by racial tensions. The riot Saturday left one man dead and nearly 50 others injured.

Sheriff Lee Baca said the 21,000-inmate jail system was locked down, with inmates confined to their cells to head off additional violence.

He also said he began segregating black and Latino prisoners in the facility despite a US Supreme Court ruling prohibiting such practices in the state.

''Human life is more important than appearance," Baca told reporters outside the jail, which has a history of racial violence.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies from throughout the area poured into the North County Correctional Facility after the fighting began Saturday, and authorities fired tear gas and pepper balls into dormitories before order was restored.

The violence erupted about 3:30 p.m. when Latino inmates began throwing bunks and furniture from the upper level of a dormitory onto blacks occupying a lower-level day room, Baca said.

The incident appeared to be retaliation for a stabbing attack two days earlier of a Latino inmate at the downtown men's central jail, the sheriff said.

''It is a carry-over, in our opinion, from what is a feud between gangs in the Los Angeles South Central area," Baca said. ''And that will happen when you bring to jail people who want to continue whatever their war was on the street."

The core of the melee involved about 200 inmates. But it quickly became ''massive chaos," Baca said.

Inmates used fists, parts of beds, shoes, and anything they could grab in the brawl, he said. More than 200 deputies were needed to quell the violence.

The inmate killed was an unidentified 45-year-old black man, who appeared to have died from being beaten, Baca said. He was a registered sex offender, and homicide detectives were investigating his death, officials said.

Twenty inmates with serious injuries were taken to hospitals and 26 more had minor injuries. Television helicopters showed a long line of ambulances and paramedic units lined up outside the prison, and rows of tarps were laid out for the injured.

The disturbance involved part of the North County Correctional Facility, a 34-acre complex 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles that includes five large jail buildings housing 4,000 inmates. Most of the inmates at the North County jail are awaiting trial or being transferred to or from state prison, Baca said.

The Sheriff's Department has hailed the complex, completed in 1990, as a showcase, state-of-the-art jail. It is east of the other lockups on the sprawling Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center, known in law enforcement circles as ''the Ranch."

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