L.A. County Gang Invasion Part II: Inside Men's Central Prison

Published: Oct. 31, 2008 at 10:31 PM EDT|Updated: Nov. 24, 2008 at 10:10 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - National reports show Hispanic gang members are moving to Charlotte from southern California.  Anchor Molly Grantham traveled to Los Angeles to investigate why they're moving to our area, and what proactive means we as a city can make to help cut back on gang crime.  Her special report aired Thursday night at 11

This is a follow up.  Molly's taking us from the streets, to the inside of a gang-infested L.A. County prison.


Security is high in downtown Los Angeles's Men's Central Prison.  An estimated 85-90 percent of inmates are documented gang members.

"When they come to jail, it's like they're going to college in gangland," says Deputy Larry Swanson, an L.A. County Sheriff Gang Deputy.  He's one of five deputies who work in this prison.  He's trained to gain gang intelligence from the prisoners.  It's considered an elite job.

"What happens on the streets leads into here," he says.  "Gang members aren't thinking.  They're out there shooting, just trying to kill someone, just trying to boost their status."

Approval for this tour is hard-to-come-by.  We eventually get access because the deputies say they want to show a North Carolina television crew what a system looks like when virtually all bad guys are gangbangers.  They say they know Hispanic gang members in their area are heading east to Washington D.C., Atlanta and yes, the Charlotte-area.

"They'll go where their families are," Swanson says.  "They'll say, 'Hey, you know what? My homeboy has got family in North Carolina. I think I'll go live with him. He's having fun out there.' Next thing you know, you have all these little cliques that are picking up and moving."

Over 5-thousand inmates are housed here.  I'm told many of your "average gangsters" stay in general population modules.  A module has eight rows, with about a dozen cells on each row.

Swanson says he'll escort us down a row.  We have to go through more security before that can happen.  While waiting at a checkpoint, I ask what gangs are represented by the inmates we'll see.

"All of them," he says.  "It's a mix.  Like a cocktail."

Swanson then opens the doors to the module.  Inmates see us -- one has a homemade mirror he uses to look down the row.  We're not even near them yet, but quick!  A gang sign is flashed.

More signs start following.

We start walking down the row, just out of arm's reach of inmates in their cells.  The prisoners start talking directly to our camera.

"You don't want me to tell it," a man yells.  "They'll close the place down if I tell it."

Signs start flashing in almost every cell.  These guys are very intent about showing off their gang affiliations.  Seeing this is more telling than any words Swanson could use to explain.

Spanish counting starts in a cell at the end of the row.  A couple inmates in other cells join in.

"What's going on?" I ask.

Swanson says it's roll call.  Southside roll call.  A big jail gang chant.

"It's time to go," he says.  "They're getting riled up."

We head back down the row, out the gates and back into the florescent light of the quiet hallways.  I ask Swanson what he'd say to people who think gangs are only in certain pockets of Charlotte.

"Well you may think it's only in certain pockets now," he answers, "but give it a couple years and it'll be right next door to you. It's going to be the same schools as your children, which it probably already is and you probably don't even know it.  You can be oblivious to it now but pretty soon you're going to be affected by gang violence in some way or the other."

How can we help fight them?  One thing Swanson quotes as a great tool are Gang Enhancement Laws.  (That's the same thing deputies in Thursday night's story said was effective.)  Gang enhancement charges give longer sentences to gang members who commit crimes.  So, for instance says Swanson, if it can be proven in court that it was a gang member who shot up a house... then that gang member will have extra years tacked on simply because he's in a gang.

"It works," says Swanson.  "We're actually now seeing people more reluctant to put tattoos on themselves because the tattoos show they're in a gang.  If they get caught committing a crime, they'll be punished more if we know they're a member.

"Look into the laws," he adds.  "Strike hard now.  Hit 'em hard as they start to come up.  Hit 'em hard now, before they get too big.  Before they start really outnumbering police.  If the police and citizens team up, they'll have very little choice but to stop."