Officials answer questions about reintegration of rival gangs in Utah prisons

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Utah (ABC4 News) — ABC4 has been investigating claims from family members of Utah prison inmates, that inmates have been placed in “dog fight” situations following a September 2019 removal of the A/B schedule.

However, officials from the Utah Department of Corrections say these claims are incorrect.

The Issue

The A/B schedule was temporarily put in place five years ago to decrease violence in the prison system through preventing members of rival gangs from interacting with one another. This schedule was intended to be a temporary solution while prison personnel worked on changes to increase safety in the prisons.

However, now that the prison has lifted the A/B schedule, some relatives of inmates say they are concerned that this has resulted in an increase in gang violence in the prisons.

Sue Steel and Roni Wilcox, citing a letter from their inmate, spoke to ABC4 about instances of prison personnel “popping” doors, meaning specifically opening cells of rival gang members, which they said resulted in dog fights. In January, Steel and Wilcox gathered with other family members and friends of inmates at the Utah Department of Corrections to protest the removal of the schedule, saying they felt ignored by prison officials.

However, according to Jeremy Sharp, Director of Prison Operations at the Utah Department of Corrections, prison officials never set up dog fights and incidents of gang violence have not increased since the removal of the A/B schedule.

The Letter

ABC4 recently received a letter from an organization which received it from the relative of an inmate. The letter described how rival gang members in the prison were being “setup” to fight and pitted against each other since the removal of the A/B schedule:

“… In November there were 3 incidents in Gunnison, 2 in Oquirrhs 3, 1 incident in Uinta 4 and 1 in Oquirrhs 2.  In all of these incidents, people were beaten and stabbed.  Most were 4 on 4 matches set up by officers. One incident Nov 18 in Uinta 4 officers claim they “accidentally” opened the doors of (two rival gangs). Everyone ends up in max with write-ups… Every single person re-integrated is in MAX.  the history between those rival gangs is long. Family members have been killed on the outside and prison officers know that they cannot be together.  The prison is profiting from these setups…”

No one is programming in Maximum security and now the prison has made a new policy that the gang members in max now have to move to section 6 in Uinta 2 and co-exist with the same people they fought before going to max before being released back to population. This will cause a revolving door of violence and will be buried in max.  None of them want to fight but they have to for their own safety…

…The prison claims that it’s to get these men ready for the streets but on the streets, you have a choice to leave a place or not go somewhere to avoid a bad situation. Prison is different.  Everyone wants to be that Alpha Male. Even non-gang members fight daily.  They just want to do their time and go home.  The prison needs to quit setting up matches and forcing fights.  They need to stop putting inmates in the position that they have to defend themselves. If the public knew what was really happening I think they would be disgusted that it is all being kept under wraps…”

The Statistics

Kaitlin Felsted, Public Information Officer at the Utah Department of Corrections, provided the following number of assaults and fights at the Utah State Prison and Central Utah Correctional Facility before and after the removal of the A/B schedule in September:

June 2019: 41

July 2019: 53

August 2019: 44

September 2019: 41

October 2019: 42

November 2019: 51

December 2019: 43

January 2019: 44

According to prison personnel, the statistics don’t demonstrate any particular increase or decrease in violence.

According to Prison Personnel

ABC4 met with Sharp to find out his views on the issues discussed in the inmate’s letter. Sharp explained that prison personnel made the decision to get rid of the A/B schedule and reintegrate the gangs for multiple reasons. One of those reasons was to help inmates step away from their gangs.

“We recognized that we needed to change policies because it’s hard enough for a gang member to step away from their gang just because of all the social pressures involved with that,” he said. “We recognized that we needed to find a way to make that easier for them.”

In addition to integrating the gangs, Sharp said that, unlike many prison systems across the country, Utah prisons are not requiring gang members to disclose all they know about their gang in order to step away from their gang. Sharp said that with the A/B schedule, it was more difficult for gang members to disengage from their gangs because they were still on the same schedule as other members.

“If I decide to step away from my gang, they all know I’m stepping away, but yet I’m still stuck on the same schedule as them and only come out with them, and so I really have no way of getting around that,” Sharp said of conditions in the prison under the A/B schedule.

Sharp also mentioned that under the A/B schedule, those who wanted to leave their gangs would be put in lock-down in order to stay safe, which was counter-productive to influencing people to leave gangs in the first place.

“That’s why we have to change the psychological mindset or the environment which the inmates live in to try to influence better choices on their behalf,” he said. “You can’t control their choices, but you can try to influence their choices. We’re trying to influence their choices by all these changes.”

Sharp explained that lots of preparation have gone into getting the inmates, gang leaders, and prison personnel ready for the reintegration. Some of those changes and preparations included training staff about how to mitigate problems by recognizing dangerous situations before they escalate and to prevent injuries. Another preparation was providing programming to inmates dealing with impulsive behaviors, taking ownership and control of their lives, thinking errors, stress management, and self-esteem. They also implemented infrastructural changes, such as installing “lay down” sirens in the yard which instruct inmates to lay down so officers can handle situations safely.

Sharp said the next step was communicating the changes to the inmates, families, and staff that would be made to help everyone get on the same page. They had a meeting with the gang leaders to explain to them the situation and then allowed gang leaders to speak to one another and work out what they could do to handle the schedule change.

Sharp said that when the prison began integrating housing among the different gangs, there were many different reactions- some inmates fought, while others shook hands and agreed to be civil with one another.

“If people can co-exist in general population, they have all these opportunities- visits, phone calls, being able to program, being able to get work. All those things were being negatively influenced through this particular (A/B) schedule…,” he said. “It was an unsustainable model to begin with; it was only put in place as a band-aid until we could get all these other things to happen.”

Sharp said that he and Felsted have invited concerned family members to meet with them so that they can answer their questions. However, only some have taken them up on the offer.

“It’s hurtful to staff when families say we don’t care, because we really do,” said Felsted.

Sharp also addressed letters from inmates which stated that prison personnel are profiting off of the fights between gang members.

“What do we have to profit off of?” he said. “First of all, the liability associated with this and number two, the amount of work that we are putting in on the front end to try to stop this stuff from happening… five years worth of work just to say, go fight each other?”

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