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Policy Change Leads to Gang Riot at Utah Prison

by Kevin W. Bliss

On January 11, 2020, a group of about a dozen protesters gathered outside the administrative offices of the the Utah Department of Corrections (UDOC) in Draper. They were there to express their anger over a policy change, one that ended a five-year-old effort to segregate members of the rival Sureño and Norteño gangs in the state prison system and resulted in a bloody riot at Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) on November 6, 2019.

Roni Wilcox helped to organize the protesters, all of whom are related to prisoners at the Gunnison facility. After the November riot left her loved one stabbed nine times, she and Sue Steel, the wife of another prisoner, reached out to 30 politicians to discuss the policy change that put prisoners’ lives in jeopardy. Of the 30, only UDOC Public Information Officer Kaitlin Feldsted responded, issuing a statement that said UDOC constantly works to increase the security and safety of prisoners while helping them move away from gang activity and toward successful reentry.

Feldsted’s statement included a list of measurements to be implemented, which included new conflict resolution programs and new security equipment for better contraband and weapons controls. But Wilcox and Steel said even the guards at the Gunnison facility were concerned because the measures listed in the statement were not to be implemented until after the schedule change occurred.

“I’m scared for my officers,” Wilcox recalled one sergeant said to her. “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 and Steel readily admit that their loved ones incarcerated at the prison are gang members. But this is not so much a matter of choice for these men as it is an accident of birth: They were born into gangs that their fathers and grandfathers also belonged to. Walking away from that is not as easy as it sounds, they stress.

On the day of the November riot, without any precautionary measures yet in place, cell doors opened and a violent confrontation between four gang members ensued. A CUCF prisoner was able to report details of the aftermath in a letter he was writing: armed guards in bio-hazard suits, prisoners lying in pools of blood, and crowd-control grenade burn marks on the floors.

“It’s never acceptable to put human beings in a situation knowing that they’re going to assault each other and stand back and watch. That’s not OK,” said Wilcox, who added that the prisoner related to her was stabbed nine times the morning of the riot.

Two years earlier at the state prison in Draper, another gang fight occurred in a similar situation that left three prisoners critically wounded from homemade shanks.

“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,” wrote UDOC director Mike Haddon in a letter to prisoners’ families.

The segregated schedule for the two gangs was never intended to be permanent, he said, but rather designed to buy time for UDOC to put other measures in place: improved security to keep contraband and weapons from entering prisons, faster response to altercations by guards, as well as training to “give a gang-involved inmate constructive tools to work through conflicts without violence.”

Moreover, the old policy had limitations that Haddon called “problematic”: It separated members of just two gangs, and it limited their access to programs, treatment and work opportunities, which could delay their release dates. As a result, he urged family members to get behind the new policy and encourage their incarcerated loved ones to “disengage from the behaviors associated with inmate violence.”

At the protest, prisoners’ loved ones shared news of a fight at the Draper facility five days earlier on January 6, 2020. UDOC’s Feldsted denied that a fight had taken place that day, though there was a fight the next day, January 7, 2020, which put a prisoner in the hospital.

Then, after protesters left, another brawl broke out on January 11, 2020, which left seven Draper prisoners injured and another in the hospital. Feldsted said the cause – though unknown – was unrelated to the schedule change. In fact, she insisted, while altercations continue to occur in the prison, their frequency has declined since the new policy ended the old segregated schedule. 



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