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"Green Light" on Asians Continues in Jail System

By Ryan Masaaki Yokota

* Names of inmates and ex-inmates have been changed to protect anonymity.

When police mistakenly arrested Carlos, a 30-year old Filipino American, for a 7-year old parole violation that he had already cleared up, he knew that things would be bad.

His friends had told him rumors about the "green light," the street term referring to the directive that had given Latino gang members license to indiscriminately attack Asians in jail, yet he wasn't sure how true these rumors were.

But when prison authorities mistakenly labeled the Filipino youth as a Hispanic and placed him in general population in the L. A. County Jail, he soon found out that the "green light" was a brutal reality. "As soon as I got in, the Chicanos started messing with me," Carlos said, "There were a couple of occasions in there where I had to face off against about 5 to 10 Chicanos from two to three different gangs. They threatened me and said they would get me later on that evening."

Luckily, before he got jumped, one of the trustees (inmates who help the prison officials) found out about the mistake and helped transfer Carlos to the recently formed Asian module, a race-segregated jail block.

Others have not been so lucky. When Ken, a hapa Japanese American, was put into the County Jail facility, a number of Latinos attacked him while he was in general population, and beat him and another Japanese American inmate up.

As he related, "They beat the other guy up so bad that they knocked some of his teeth out. He was an older man, and was probably in there for some really petty charges, too."

Deputy Doug Murakami, of the Safe Jails Office of the L. A. County Jail facility stated that he first heard of the green light in 1991.

"It grew out of a war between Hispanic and Asian gangs in Long Beach, between the Tiny Rascals Gang, who are Asian, and the Eastside and Westside Longos, who are Latino. From there it developed into the green light. I've seen attacks on Asians in L. A. County Jails since 1992, and this escalated drastically in 1994 until the present."

Yet the "green light" hasn't been limited to the county jail system either. Jimmy, a Japanese American gang member, recently got out of state prison and reported that the "green light" is operating there as well.

"In the state system, they have all the Asians together, and when something happens, they all throw down together. Then [the authorities] will move all the Asians from one state pen to another, to cool out the situation. . .It's all racial. If you're Asian, the Mexicans will try to f--- with you. If you're Mexican, we'll beat them down. If you're an Asian from a Mexican clique, they'll try to beat the Asian down, and so will we."

Law enforcement officials in the L. A. County Jail system, however, have responded to the "green light" with the 1995 creation of an Asian module for general population inmates. This is in addition to the module that already existed for identified Asian gang members.

As Sergeant Roger Ross of the L. A. County Jail Investigation Unit stated, "Because Asians were being beaten up, we had to set up a segregated area. It has cooled off lately, though."

Yet even with the creation of a segregated module, inmates still deal with a great deal of harassment. Jimmy, for example, talked about the way in which Latinos will harass the Asians in the county jail system every time they move them around.

Even further, there are reports that some Asians have not been placed in the Asian module, despite statements from the police that Asians are supposed to be segregated from the general population the moment they get inside County Jail.

Ken, for instance, talked about how he was denied transfer by the police, after getting jumped by Latinos.

"There was a Japanese American sheriff inside County, and when I went to him to get transferred to the Asian module, he told me he wouldn't transfer me. He said I deserved everything I got in there."

Sergeant Ross has noted the dramatic increase in the Asian prison population over the last six years, and attributes this increase to the number of Asian gangs that have emerged in the Asian community and the response by law enforcement to make more arrests.

Because of the increasing numbers of Asians in prison, many fear that the "green light" situation could escalate in coming years and filter out into the streets.

As Carlos said, "There's a real possibility that if it spills over to the outside, then a lot of these guys who are coming from the inside -- since they were indiscriminately harassed or beat up -- they're gonna take that attitude towards Chicanos on the street. It could foster a whole new conflict blowing up all over the city."

In some sense, though, Carlos has pointed out the way in which the "green light" has had an effect in making ties tighter amongst Asian gangsters and other inmates in prison.

"Because of the green light a lot of the gangsters inside are cool because we're all locked up together. Inside it doesn't matter [where you're from]. You're all Asian or you're all Pinoy, so if we can do it in there how come we can't do it out here? . .Even the hardcore separatists want to unite. They see that they can't [deal with the green light] alone, and there was even some talk about extending that unity to the outside."

Yet even beyond Asian unity, Carlos hopes that Asians and Latinos can move forward from this and work toward developing better ties amongst themselves. Even further, he hopes Asians and Latinos can use community discussion about the "green light" to raise issues about the root socio-economic causes of crime, the increasing incarceration of youth, and the growing prison industry.

"Hopefully, we can counter the negative circumstances that people have been going through and educate people to fight the real enemies. No matter what, though, it's gonna be a long and hard process."

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