Rival gangs are mingling in Utah prisons, leading to fears of violence

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2015, file photo, a watch tower is seen at the Wasatch facility during a media tour at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool, File)

Draper • The inmate had started writing a letter just before noon on Nov. 6 to ask that an advocacy group add him and his family to their mailing list.

But his tone quickly changed. “Newsflash,” he wrote at the top of the second page before describing a fight he was watching in the common room just outside his cell at the prison in Gunnison.

All inmates had been in their cells, he wrote, then officers opened two doors. Quickly, members from rival gangs, Sureños and Norteños, had started to fight.

“It was a bloodbath,” the man wrote.

Incident reports later written by correction officers didn’t say what had sparked the confrontation — the officers merely describe spotting the four men brawling. What actually happened — and who was harmed — is redacted in the reports released in response to an open records request.

The inmate, whom The Salt Lake Tribune agreed to not identify because of safety concerns, continued in his letter: There were pools of blood by the exercise equipment. More blood near a door. Officers used a flash-bang grenade to break it up.

Corrections officers made no mention of a flash-bang in their write-up of the incident, at least not in any sections that were made public. They wrote that they made the inmates lie on the ground and handcuffed them one-by-one before taking them to get medical care.

Then, the officers mopped up the blood.

“Now, all is quiet,” the inmate wrote. “Very quiet. Makes me wonder, ‘Is [this] the solution? Let four gang members fight it out at a time?”

This fight happened just days after the Utah State Prison implemented a new policy that reintegrated rival gang members after keeping them segregated for the past five years. Back then, the prison implemented an “A/B schedule” — a way to keep Sureños and Norteños members from interacting to quell gang violence.

But the new schedule mixes the two gangs, and it has some Utahns worried for their relatives who are incarcerated in Draper and Gunnison.

Prison officials say those fears have not been realized and that overall violence has gone down since the schedule change.

Roni Wilcox’s loved one was involved in that Nov. 6 fight at Gunnison, and she said he was stabbed nine times. Two weeks went by before she even learned he had been injured. She heard it from another inmate’s wife.

She finally was able to connect with him and he told her about the fight. It lasted three or four minutes, he said. He left covered in blood.

“How is this OK?” she said Friday. “This isn’t a game. These are people’s lives.”

Wilcox said her loved one continues to be worried about his safety, and has written letters with instructions about how to get his affairs in order if he dies behind bars.

If those cell doors open again, he told Wilcox, he doesn’t know if he’ll survive.

Wilcox helped organize a small protest of about a dozen people who stood in front of the Utah Department of Corrections’ administrative office Friday morning. They all had family members who were incarcerated — some are rival gang members — but they came together to wave signs and protest the schedule change.

They say they want people to know what’s going on at the prison. But they are fearful, and some feel that speaking out publicly could bring harm to their loved ones. Most didn’t want to be identified by their full name.

They don’t deny that their husbands and children are gang members. It’s a culture, they say, that most don’t understand. They were born into it. Their fathers and grandfathers were gang members. It’s not easy to walk away, especially from behind bars where gangs are prevalent.

N.M., who asked to be identified only by her initials, said her husband isn’t trying to get in trouble at the prison, but he is part of a gang. Tears streamed down her face Friday as she described how she sees him every two weeks, and spends the days in between worried that he’ll be harmed or killed.

“My heart drops,” she said, every time she hears about a fight.

The “prison wives,” as N.M. calls them, talk to one another. Inmates tell them about fights and stabbings. But when they go to prison officials for information, they are often told nothing happened.

At Friday’s protest, talk of a Monday fight at the Draper prison spread. Prison spokeswoman Kaitlin Feldsted told The Tribune that nothing happened that day.

There was a fight Tuesday, Feldsted said, and an inmate had to be taken to a hospital for treatment.

Then, a fight broke out Friday evening after the women left. This one in the Uintas area, which holds maximum security prisoners and also serves as the intake facility, according to the corrections website.

Feldsted said seven people were injured in the brawl and one had to go to the hospital. No one was critically injured. She said she didn’t know what caused the fight, but said it wasn’t related to the schedule change.

She acknowledged that while altercations still occur in the prison, they’ve been less frequent after officials eliminated the A/B schedule.

Mike Haddon, the Department of Corrections executive director, wrote in an August memo to inmates’ families that the two-track schedule was supposed to be temporary, something put in place five years ago to limit security risks as more longer-term projects were put in place to curb violence.

The prisons have modified structures and policies to try to make it safer for inmates and allow a faster staff response if violence does occur, Haddon wrote. They’ve made it easier for gang members to step away from the gang while incarcerated. They improved security to try to keep contraband and weapons out, he wrote, and offered conflict resolution training to “give a gang-involved inmate constructive tools to work through conflicts without violence.”

The previous schedule that separated the gangs was problematic, Haddon wrote. It targeted only two gangs, he said, and limited inmates’ access to programs, treatment and work opportunities that could affect their release dates.

Haddon acknowledged in the memo that he understood that there were concerns about the change — but advised family members to encourage their loved ones to “disengage from the behaviors associated with inmate violence.”

“Every inmate deserves to live safely within the prison system, whether they are incarcerated for life or until reentering the community and successfully exiting the criminal justice system,” Haddon wrote. “Your help and your influence to effect this positive change will be incredibly powerful.”

Prison officials said that they began integrating the housing units in November, and the move was completed by mid-November.

But many of the inmates’ families worry that these steps aren’t enough to quell disputes between gangs that have a deep and violent rivalry.

Helen, who asked to be identified by her middle name, said her son was also involved in a fight on Nov. 6 — but this one was at the Draper prison. While he wasn’t seriously hurt, he’s been put in a maximum security unit and has had his privileges dramatically limited.

“I’m worried for his life,” she said. “I worry about my son all the damn time. I pray every single night for my son’s safety. You can’t put southsiders and northsiders together. Of course they are going to fight and kill each other. What else are they going to do?”

A.C., who asked to be identified by her initials, said Friday that her husband is just a few months away from being released. She’s concerned he’ll be harmed, or that he’ll get into a fight and face new charges that could keep him behind bars longer.

He was born into a gang, she said, and has tattoos all over his body. He’s a visible target for rivals — but he doesn’t want to fight.

“They just want to come home,” she said. “They want to come home alive.”