Black, Latino Inmates Separated

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

Corrections officers are separating black and Latino detainees in the lockdown unit of the Prince George's County Detention Center in Upper Marlboro to try to prevent violence between members of the two groups, according to an internal memo and jail officials.

Escalating tensions between the detainees prompted the March 6 memo, which directed officers to keep Latinos' recreation time separate from that of other detainees. The memo, written by Acting Lt. Col. Jerome R. Smith, chief of security at the detention center, said a "recent escalation of gang violence" prompted the changes.

"Special precautions are to be taken when inmates are out for interviews," Smith wrote. "If a Latino inmate is being interviewed, no other inmates are to be out."

The lockdown unit is for detainees who are accused of an infraction -- such as fighting -- in other parts of the facility. Inmates in the unit are confined to their cells 23 hours a day. It is designed for 96 detainees and typically holds 50 to 60 inmates.

The separation is unusual inss Washington area jails. D.C. and Montgomery and Fairfax County corrections officials said this week that they do not separate their inmates by ethnicity or race.

The memo said nothing about whether black and Latino detainees should not be assigned to the same cell. However, corrections officers in the lockdown unit are assigning black and Latino detainees to separate cells, said a supervisor at the detention center, who asked not to be identified because he had not been given permission to be interviewed.

"There's too much conflict and fighting," the supervisor said. He said officers in the unit are adhering to "jailhouse law" -- assigning black detainees to the same cells as other blacks, Latinos with Latinos, and whites with whites. "It's nothing written, but you try to keep the calm," the supervisor said.

Vicki D. Duncan, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Corrections, confirmed the authenticity of the memo. She said corrections officers consider several factors when assigning cellmates, including tensions along racial or ethnic lines.

Douglas T. Lansing, a correctional consultant and former federal Bureau of Prisons official, said keeping detainees separate temporarily could be the right thing to do in the short term. "If there is something happening that threatens the safety of inmates, it may be a smart move," he said, emphasizing that he did not know the details in Prince George's.

But he added that officials who separate detainees by race must tread carefully. "Generally, you try not to give any one group recognition that gives it authority over another group, real or imagined," Lansing said. "You have to be careful to avoid the appearance of favoring or punishing any group."

The Prince George's detention facility is designed for 1,500 detainees and is often at capacity or overcrowded. About 80 percent of the inmates are awaiting trial; most of the rest are waiting for sentencing.

About 10 to 12 percent of the detainees in the jail are Latino. Almost all the rest are black, with a sprinkling of non-Latino whites, Asians and detainees of other ethnicities rounding out the population.

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