Violent outbreak raises concerns at Merced county jail

An inmate fight that broke out at the John Latorraca Correctional Center on Sunday left three correctional officers injured and many wondering if the episode could've been avoided.

Administrators say the fight could have happened anywhere.

The confrontation is the second of the month that's resulted in injuries to officers.

The fight broke out at about 2:30 a.m. when a group of six inmate workers were delivering milk to one of the jail's dorms, according to Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman.

When a correctional officer opened the door to the dorm, a group of inmates rushed out and assaulted two of the inmate workers. At least one of them belongs to a rival gang, MacKenzie said.

The three officers and two assaulted inmates suffered minor injuries, but some say the ordeal is the second reminder this month that recent actions by Sheriff Mark Pazin with the approval of the Board of Supervisors to rearrange jail functions is a dangerous gamble.

Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Merced County Sheriff's Employee Association, said the incident came as no surprise. "There's no sugar-coating it -- we were lucky," he said. "It is exactly what we said would happen when the Norteño gang members were moved from the downtown jail facility and were placed in the less-secure JLCC facility."

Because of the board's approval of Pazin's plan to deal with funding cuts, the corrections division is "crippled" and the community is less safe, Miller added.

"This is a crystal-clear example of what happens when decisions are made by amateurs with a political agenda and not the experts, who were ignored," he said. "Under the current staffing conditions, it's only a matter of time before our luck runs out and we lose."

Another correctional officer was injured Aug. 4 when authorities say a suspect, who Merced police arrested on suspicion of public intoxication, attacked him during the booking process at the Latorraca facility. The officer suffered a cracked rib.

That injury was the result of lowered staffing levels, said Rudy Gonzalez, a Teamsters law enforcement league representative affiliated with the local sheriff's department workers union.

Cmdr. James Buttrey, who oversees corrections for the sheriff's department, said inmates are secure in Latorraca, but the style of housing isn't an effective way to hold them.

"This is the reality of corrections right now," said Buttrey, who added that half of the Main Jail had to be closed to reduce hours and staffing. The number of inmates also has to be kept at a lowered level to meet the county's reductions.

Buttrey couldn't draw the conclusion that Sunday's fight was because of recent jail rearrangements. "It could have happened at the Main Jail," he said.

County administrators will meet with sheriff's department management today, in part, to discuss how 12 recently reinstated correctional positions will affect jail staffing levels and the booking process.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsun-star.com.