Schedule change at Utah state prisons resulted in ‘dog fights,’ according to inmate’s family

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GUNNISON (ABC4 News) – Armed correctional officers in tactical gear and bio-hazard suits. Inmates laying in blood. Burn marks on the prison floor from grenade explosions meant to break up fights.

This sounds like a scene from a prison movie or television show, but this is how a letter from an inmate described the events at Central Utah Correctional Facility on November 6, 2019.

“Someone has to be held responsible for this,” said Roni Wilcox, a relative of the inmate who wrote the letter referenced above.

A move away from the A/B schedule implemented in Utah state prisons for the last five years is allowing members from rival gangs to interact with one another. According to Wilcox, the schedule change has forced inmates into “dog fight” situations.

The Utah Department of Corrections posted a letter to their website explaining that the A/B schedule was put in place five years ago when the department experienced an increase in violence between two specific gangs.

The schedule was developed as a way to temporarily decrease contact between the two gangs by giving them separate recreation days, while the department worked on implementing long-term projects to ensure the safety of staff and inmates, according to the letter.

The letter also stated that the A/B schedule took opportunities from inmates.

“… it has created negative impacts on inmates such as limiting access to programming, treatment, housing and work opportunities that can affect board hearings and prison releases.”

However, Roni Wilcox and Sue Steel believe the removal of the A/B schedule was premature and placed their inmate in danger. Wilcox said their inmate, who is incarcerated in Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, was stabbed four times when correctional officers opened cell doors and inmates encountered members from rival gangs.

“It is never acceptable to put human beings in a situation knowing that they’re going to assault each other and stand back and watch,” Wilcox said. “That’s not OK.”

Wilcox said she knows that members from rival gangs need to learn how to get along, especially because the A/B schedule prevented inmates from taking part in education courses, but she thinks the way in which the prison is making that happen by taking away the A/B schedule before placing every possible safety net in place is the wrong way to go about fixing that.

“Making them fight each other and stab each other- that’s not an option,” she said.

ABC4 News reached out to Kaitlin Felsted, Public Information Officer at the Utah Department of Corrections. She offered the following statement about the schedule change:

“Our department consistently works to improve our processes to increase security and safety for those we supervise, while also presenting them with opportunities to successfully exit the criminal justice system. 

We are currently implementing a change within our Department to help offenders move away from their gangs and make positive progress towards a successful prison release…

We work diligently with concerned family and friends of offenders to be transparent and responsive with them without compromising the security of our operations or the privacy of offenders.”

However, Wilcox said the staff was nervous about the schedule change.

“When we were visiting, we spoke with a sergeant that was in charge that day, and he verbally said to us, ‘I’m scared for my officers. I’m scared for what is going to happen to the inmates and the officers. We know how bad this could be. We don’t want this to happen,'” Wilcox said.

The letter available on Utah Department of Corrections’ website includes a list of adjustments and changes that the department implemented to decrease gang violence in the wake of the schedule change.

The list included measures such as: “Improving processes related to contraband control, which includes the addition of new security equipment, in order to minimize the presence of weapons, drugs and other items” and “Implementing evidence-based programming to address conflict resolution, anger management, effective communications, etc., to give a gang involved inmate constructive tools to work through conflicts without violence.”

Click here to see the full letter and list of adjustments.

However, Steel and Wilcox said they had not previously heard about any of the listed policies being put in place in preparation for the removal of the A/B schedule on November 6, 2019. Concerned, they wrote a letter to the Department of Corrections requesting an explanation of what had been done to implement the adjustments and policies.

Steel said they received no response to the letter. Furthermore, they said the inmates had not been notified by the staff of the schedule changes.

Wilcox tearfully expressed her concern for her inmate’s safety.

“Hours and hours and hours of sitting back and thinking about how terrifying it would be to know that the people that are supposed to be keeping you safe while you’re serving your time- they are not concerned about it… and know that there’s literally nothing you can do, it almost feels like if your [inmate] were to be taken into a foreign prison,” she said. “What do you do? You sit back and you just hope- that’s all you can do.”

Wilcox said she and Steel contacted 30 politicians and Utah prison personnel, but the only response they received was from Felsted, who sent the letter posted on the Utah Department of Corrections website. They said they also heard back from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“There are other choices. Just throwing people to the wolves is not the answer,” Steel said. “These are human beings.”

Steel and Wilcox said that the gang culture in prison means that inmates don’t have a choice but to fight rival gang members.

“If everyone isn’t under some unspoken agreement that they’re not going to, they have to fight or they’re dead,” said Steel. “I mean, there’s just no way getting around that.”

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