Prisoner advocates warned against allowing rival gangs to mingle. Now an inmate who was injured is suing.

Yeager Gleave’s lawsuit says prison officials “anticipated, orchestrated and encouraged a gladiator encounter.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Roni Wilcox talks about the situation that lead to the lawsuit filed by her 21-year-old son, Yeager Gleave, a former inmate, who is suing the former head of the Utah Department of Corrections, saying a policy change that allowed rival gangs to share common areas led to him being injured in a fight at the state prison in Gunnison. Thursday, April 1, 2021.

When the Utah Department of Corrections changed a policy in 2019 to allow enemy gangs to mingle in prison, Roni Wilcox said she knew trouble would follow.

“They don’t get along out on the streets, they’re not going to get along in prison,” said Wilcox, whose son, Yeager Gleave, was incarcerated at the time.

Last week, Gleave, 21, sued former Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Michael Haddon, along with other employees who were working at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison when the policy was changed in 2019.

In the lawsuit, filed last Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Utah, Gleave — who claims he was injured by rival gang members in a fight — alleges his Eighth Amendment rights were violated when the state failed to protect him from other prisoners. Gleave declined to speak with The Salt Lake Tribune on the advice of his lawyers; he was released from prison in September 2020.

Starting around 2014, Utah prisons separated rival gang members by allowing members of different gangs access to common areas on alternating days. This policy was dubbed the “A/B schedule” because it separated members of gang “A” from gang “B.”

The department announced in August 2019 that the policy was ending. Relatives of incarcerated people, including Wilcox, objected to the change. Several told The Tribune that they were scared their husbands and children would be injured or killed. Wilcox and her wife sent emails to UDOC in October 2019 warning that they believed inmates would get hurt because of the policy change.

But in November 2019, prison officials began integrating housing units with different gang members, they told The Tribune, and the move was finished later that month.

In a memo to prisoners’ families explaining the policy change, Haddon said the alternating policy was always supposed to be temporary while long-term projects, like policies to allow faster staff responses and conflict resolution training, were put in place to curb violence. He also asked family members to encourage their loved ones to avoid 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 in the memo. “Your help and your influence to effect this positive change will be incredibly powerful.”

But choosing to avoid violence isn’t always possible, according to Shane Severson, communications director for the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network. “Some members of these rival gangs don’t want to fight, but if [the leaders of their gangs] tell them to fight and they don’t, they will do worse to their own or their families,” Severson said.

Wilcox said Gleave was “on edge” in the months leading up to the brawl, because he was afraid of what would happen when the A/B schedule went away.

Gleave, who acknowledges he was in the gang identified as “A,” alleges in his lawsuit that he was injured in a fight on Nov. 6, 2019, after members of the gang identified as “B” were moved into his prison unit.

At 11:15 a.m. that day, a loudspeaker blared, “Gentlemen, A and B Day is now off. You’re on Section Rec,” according to the lawsuit. The cells in the unit were opened, and within seconds, fighting broke out.

Gleave suffered puncture and laceration wounds to his head, neck and back, according to the lawsuit. Fearing that he would be further injured if he “turned the other cheek,” he decided to fight back, he said. Photos, included in the lawsuit, show Gleave with a bloody head and a slash mark on his back.

(Photo courtesy of Yeager Gleave's lawyers) A photo of Yeager Gleave, showing his wounds after a fight in the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, in November 2019. Gleave is suing the former head of the Utah Department of Corrections, over the policy of not separating gang groups in the prison.

“The physical injuries are gone, but I don’t know … at 20 years old when you are forced to defend your life, does that ever really go away?” his mother said in an interview with The Tribune and FOX 13.

Gleave later pleaded guilty to a riot charge, a class A misdemeanor, in connection with his participation in the fight. Wilcox said the charge added five months to her son’s prison stay; Gleave had been serving time for a November 2017 aggravated assault.

The lawsuit claims prison officials “anticipated, orchestrated and encouraged a gladiator encounter” rather than taking preventive measures — such as keeping enemy gang members separate or placing more critical response officers in the area to stop fights.

One indication that prison officials expected a “bloody encounter,” the lawsuit alleges, is that members of the prison’s critical response team were dressed in biohazard suits.

Wilcox said Gleave’s lawyers have obtained a video that shows prison officials watching from behind glass as the doors were opened. However, Gleave’s lawyers declined to let Tribune and FOX 13 reporters view the video and did not comment on it.

Utah Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted said in a statement that the department will not comment on pending litigation. She also declined to answer a question about how gang members are being protected from one another.

“Our operations related to the safety and security of both the incarcerated and our staff is considered protected information,” she said in a statement. “Helping offenders coexist safely within a Corrections environment is an ongoing, critical process.”

Wilcox said she would love for the different gang members to get along, adding that she wasn’t happy when her son joined a gang. But she said it isn’t realistic to try and force different gangs together. She said a stressful situation like prison is not a good place to try and get enemies to make friends.

“All this does is cause guys to pick up extra charges,” Wilcox said of the policy.

Beyond her son seeking justice, Wilcox said another reason for the lawsuit is fear for current inmates who are at risk if the prison decides to put them with rival gang members. “This is so much more than just my son,” she said.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are partners in a content-sharing agreement.