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.
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 in 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.
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.
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.
Black and Latino detainees have found themselves in conflict over relatively minor issues.
For example, on March 3, two black detainees and two Latino detainees in a medium- to maximum-security section of the jail had a shouting match over the use of a television. Two hours a day are allotted for detainees to watch Spanish-language programs, and the conflict started when black detainees who were watching videos brushed off a request by the two Latino detainees to watch a program in Spanish, the supervisor said.
In October, a dozen detainees—six black, six Latino—were sent to the lockdown unit after brawling. That fight began when a Latino detainee accused a black detainee of stealing food.
Although the number of Latino detainees is small, some of them—specifically members of the violent street gang MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha—are well-organized, the detention facility supervisor said. Made up of immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and other Latin American countries, MS-13 is believed to be responsible for dozens of homicides and other attacks in the Washington region in recent years.
Violent clashes between black and Latino detainees have broken out elsewhere in the United States.