MERCED -- When legendary R&B singer Sam Cooke released his song "Chain Gang" in 1960, the sight of inmates wearing black-and-white striped uniforms, swinging scythes and pick-axes in the blazing Southern sun, was as familiar as Burma Shave signs along American highways.
Today, however, a visit to the laundry room of the Merced County Jail reveals a different mix of colors.
Blue, grey, dark green and Dayglo green are the new black; yellow and red, the new white.
The Merced County Sheriff's Department is among several law enforcement agencies that have adopted an intricate, color-coded system of clothing to classify inmates, based on gang membership, offenses committed, gender and jail job.
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It's a system law enforcement officials say allows correctional officers to quickly identify problem inmates and keep them housed in areas where they pose less risk to the larger jailhouse population.
To critics, however, the system amounts to an institutionalized form of segregation that only legitimizes the old group-think mentality that allows gangs to thrive.
Sheriff's officials acknowledge that rising numbers of two rival street gangs, the Norteños and the Sureños, have prompted the department to assign specific uniform colors to members of those gangs. For example, at the county's main jail, Norteño gang members wear green-and-white striped jumpsuits. Sureños are generally assigned orange and white stripes.
Men at the main jail who decide to drop their gang membership are assigned color-coded clothing, too -- orange jumpsuits with the large letters "VP." They stand for "victim potential," a grim shorthand reminder that those who drop out of gangs probably will be targeted by active gang members.
In Merced County, correctional officers house members of the rival gangs in separate areas.
"You can't mix them. They don't like each other," said Cmdr. Joe Scott, who oversees the John Latorraca Correctional Facility, which houses 571 inmates. The main jail houses about 190 inmates.
Keeping the lid on
In the volatile world of jailhouse politics, where violent conflicts among inmates can erupt at any moment, with or without provocation, Dwain Middleton, the county's lead classification officer, says the system of classifying and isolating inmates is one way of keeping the lid on.
It also makes a safer working environment for correctional officers given the unenviable job of keeping the warring gangs apart.
The color-coding system is particularly helpful for officers when large numbers of inmates are being transported to and from the courthouse.
"You may have 60, 70 or 80 (inmates) in the holding cells getting ready to go to court. And you can't mix them. And we use the color scheme to keep certain people separate. Because they will attack each other," Scott said.
Middleton said the color of the jumpsuit worn by the inmates and where they will be housed inside the jail depend on the offense committed.
In addition, they are assigned cells depending on how they answer a series of questions: Each inmate is asked if he can live in the general population, if he is a member of a gang and if he has any enemies.
Classification officers also must consider the sophistication level of the inmate's crime and his record of behavior while in custody and at other prisons before deciding where he will be housed.
The department began designating different colored outfits to separate rival gang members in about 2003.
"Before, when all (inmates) wore orange, you couldn't ident- ify a guy based on his clothing," Middleton said. "Now, as soon as you see the different jail attire, you'll know who has to be kept apart."
At the county's main jail, Norteño inmates generally are housed in cellblock 1, and Sureño inmates are kept in cellblock 3. Cellblocks 2 and 4 are mainly the dominion of general population inmates. Smaller areas of the jail are used to house high-risk offenders, including gang drop-outs.
The jail's administrative segregation unit holds high-profile inmates, such as convicted police killer Cuitlahuac Tahua "Tao" Rivera, who lived in the unit for about three years until his trial in Colusa County earlier this year.
Child molesters, sexual offenders, those with mental problems or who are too physically weak to survive in the general population usually are given a grey jumpsuit and housed in the protective custody unit at John Latorraca.
Conflicts can force changes
Middleton admits that the color-coding system of separating inmates isn't an exact science. Sometimes when conflicts erupt between the various "sets" within larger gang organizations, officers might have to reshuffle housing arrangements.
At times, officers have to think outside the uniform color code when housing inmates who belong to gangs such as the Fresno Bulldogs, who don't get along with either the Norteños or Sureños.
"I try to sit down and gather as much information as I can, but it is always changing," Middleton said.
There was a time in Merced County when jailhouse uniforms were anything but colorful. More than 30 years ago, the average uniform worn by inmates was a pair of cheap blue coveralls, similar to those worn by old-school auto mechanics, according to Gary Carlson, former Merced County sheriff.
Until about the 1970s, inmates were allowed to wear their own clothes in jail, although they were not allowed to have belts or certain shoelaces, because they could hang themselves, according to Undersheriff Bill Blake.
By the mid-1990s, all the inmates' uniforms were jumpsuits, orange at the main jail and blue at John Latorraca.
Merced County is not the only county that uses color-coded clothes to separate inmates based upon offenses or gang membership.
Stanislaus County is one of several that employ a similar program and, like Merced County, assign Norteño inmates a different colored uniform.
Other hues designate third-strike inmates, maximum secur- ity inmates and inmates involved in "civil" matters, such as failing to pay child support, according to deputy Royjindar Singh, spokesman for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.
The general population in Stanislaus County wears black and white; in San Joaquin County, it's orange.
On the surface, separating inmates on the basis of gang membership may resemble a system of de facto ethnic segregation, because belonging to any gang can be predicated directly upon race.
The Supreme Court ruled in February 2005 that California prisons cannot assign inmates to racially segregated cells when they arrive at a prison, unless the state can otherwise prove that there is no race-neutral way to prevent interracial violence.
Sheriff Mark Pazin said the Supreme Court decision had no effect on Merced County, because the jail system has never used race as a standard to house inmates.
"That is a road that we have not traveled," he insisted.
'Polarizes the population'
Even though sheriff's officials say the classification system has worked well, some critics believe it only makes the problem worse.
Attorney Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, a prison rights organization with headquarters near San Quentin State Prison, said separating the inmates by gang membership is counterproductive.
"It tends to concentrate the gang (members) among each other and it polarizes the population," Specter said.
Sam Rangel, a former gang member turned gang outreach counselor with the Merced Union High School District, said he understands the reasons why sheriff's officers instituted the classification system. But he fears the color-coded uniforms may be seen as a badge of honor by the inmates.
He also believes the system merely substitutes new colors for the red and blue the gangs already flash in the street to indicate group membership.
"It's still contributing to a group mentality. (Gang members) have grown up with colors all of their lives," Rangel said.
If law enforcement officers want to rehabilitate gang members, Rangel suggested, they will have to conjure creative strategies to change gang behavior.
"I would make them wear shirts and ties, so they can start getting out of that (gang) mentality," Rangel said.
"It all starts in the mind."
Middleton said he does not doubt that the inmates could see the color-coded uniforms as a merit badge, although he maintains that the system, while not perfect, helps keep inmates and correctional officers safe.
"There's a lot more positives than negatives," Middleton said.
In the meantime, Middleton said, as the issues surrounding jail classification evolve, the color-coded uniforms probably will do the same.
"As the population changes," he said, "we'll add different colors."
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso contributed to this report.
COLOR CODES FOR MERCED COUNTY JAIL INMATE UNIFORMS
- Norteño gang members: Green and white striped
- Sureño gang members: Orange and white striped
- Gang dropouts: Orange with the letters "VP" (Victim Potential)
- General population: Orange
- Inmate workers: Brown
- Administrative segregation: Grey with the letters "Ad-Seg"
- Security Housing Unit: Red with the letters "SHU"
JOHN LATORRACA CORRECTIONAL FACILITY
- Norteño gang members: Blue and white striped
- Gang dropouts: Blue with letters "VP" (Victim Potential)
- General Population: Blue
- Protective custody: Gray
- Inmates serving sentences: Dark green
- Farm shop crew: Dayglo green
- Male lockdown: Yellow
- Female lockdown: Yellow
- Female yard: Red