Three inmates circled the prisoner at the Spokane County Jail, then pounced on him, pounding him to the ground. A corrections deputy had to threaten to shock the attackers with a Taser before they’d stop.
Scenes like this one – which happened last fall – has become too common, county officials say. Inmate-on-inmate assaults from January through April were nearly twice as common as during the same period in 2007.
Authorities say increasing violence among jailed offenders can be attributed to the higher number of people booked into the jail on violent offenses, inmates spending more time cooped up in their cells because of overcrowding and an bigger gang population.
“It’s an accumulation of a variety of things,” said Sgt. Ted Foster, who classifies inmates to determine if they need mental health services, if they are gang members and what level of security they require.
The sergeant has worked in the jail for 18 years and has watched the violence steadily increase.
About 1998, “when we started putting more people in one cell it started getting bad,” Foster said. “And the gang members used to get along, and they don’t get along anymore.”
The three-on-one attack captured on video in October involved gang members fighting for dominance, authorities said.
Efforts to draw awareness to the worsening violence inside the jail comes as county leaders contemplate when to ask voters to finance a new jail to replace Geiger Corrections Center, a former U.S. Army barracks near Spokane International Airport that’s scheduled to close by 2013.
At any time, 15 percent to 20 percent of inmates are affiliated with gangs, Foster said. On Thursday, 133 of 618 inmates were associated with gangs.
The gang problem has cropped up more in the past couple of years, officials said. Other triggers for jail attacks – locking up inmates in their cells for longer periods and increasingly violent criminals – have been building over the past 10 years, officials say.
Spokane County Jail currently has 25 inmates booked on murder charges – 28 percent more than in 1998, Foster said. More than 30 inmates are jailed on rape charges, and 63 are in for felony assaults.
Originally the jail was intended as a direct supervision facility, which meant that inmates could be out of their cells for nearly eight hours a day supervised by a corrections deputy, Foster said. They could use the phone, take a shower and socialize or watch television.
But when “we have juveniles and mentally ill we have to protect,” as well as fighting among gang members and a population of almost 200 more inmates than the jail was designed for, letting them out of their cells for long periods can be challenging, Foster said.
“We are talking about floors designed to hold 46, and they are occupied by 92,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said. “We are trying to be creative in ways to solve these problems, but it’s an exercise in frustration.”
Spokane County Jail Capt. Jerry Brady said that on June 1 the jail is “going back to a direct supervision system, which means people will be out of their cell for more time.”
To do this, “what we are trying to do is to better classify the inmates, especially those associated with gang members,” Brady said. To help, a member of the gang task force frequently briefs jail staff on what’s going on in the gang world so officials know who to keep separated. Also, more staff will be brought in to monitor the inmates, possibly on overtime.
“We have a duty to protect these inmates,” Knezovich said. “I can’t have a situation where we are putting inmates or corrections officers at risk. So everything the county does to change what’s happening is designed to protect the people inside those walls.”
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