Utah allowed rival gangs to mingle in prison; families say violence followed
OGDEN, Utah — A new bandana adorns Jeffrey Vigil’s grave in Ogden, a recognition of the gang tie that defined much of his life and led to his death at 24 years old in the Utah State Prison.
“He was an active gang member. I’m not going to deny that,” his mother Juanita Martinez said, kissing her hand and touching the stone engraved with Vigil’s portrait. “He’s still a good son and a good person.”
The Utah Department of Corrections settled a lawsuit over her son’s 2016 death with a $450,000 payment to his widow. But Martinez said she’s still waiting for one thing that could help her feel at peace: an announcement of changes at the prison, including some designed to keep violence at bay and shield rival gang members from each other.
But rather than moving to limit gang interactions, prison officials took a step in the other direction three years after Vigil’s death. In 2019, they stopped alternating recreation time for men belonging to two rival gangs, allowing them to mix instead.
More than two years later, some inmates’ families and defense attorneys blame the change for new reports of violence. But the department isn’t tracking the fallout.
The KSL Investigators found there is no formal effort to collect data on the impact of the change. The prison digs into the details of why fights break out – and whether attacks are motivated by gang rivalries – but it hasn’t set out to evaluate the effects of gangs sharing the same space, confirmed Spencer Turley, director of prison operations.
“Do I have a report on my desk that tells me that? No, not necessarily, no,” he said. “I don’t know that that report currently exists.”
Rather, officials evaluate daily logs and take action if they notice an uptick in behavior that causes concern, he said.
“It doesn’t take a report being generated to do that,” Turley continued. “We’re looking at logs every day, trying to make educated decisions saying, ‘this is what we need to be doing.’ ”
But the Utah Department of Corrections wouldn’t talk about specifics of the change, including whether it remains in place, telling KSL it would not do so because of a pending lawsuit.
Martinez is frustrated. She’s learned of other stabbings and fights between known enemies within the prison’s walls, she said, and she believes her son’s death should have served as a warning.
“It’s like the gladiator days,” Martinez said. “They’re opening doors, popping doors, letting them go at each other.”
Her son was sent to prison on a parole violation in 2015 and was later moved from a maximum-security area to a less secure facility, “possibly as a reward to Jeffrey for good behavior,” court documents state.
Vigil, a member of the Ogden Trece gang, told a prison guard on the day of the move and in the days prior that he had concerns about moving to a unit housing members of the rival Titanic Crip Society, according to his family’s lawsuit.
Within hours after the transfer, he was attacked with shanks, choked and stomped on and kicked in the head more than 70 times, court documents say. Ramon Rivera is serving a life sentence for Vigil’s murder.
Vigil’s family alleged it took prison employees too long to notice and respond as employees called off an ambulance and failed to locate less lethal ammunition to break up the fight.
“My son suffered tremendously,” she said.
At the time of Vigil’s death in 2016, the prison kept two main gangs apart during recreation time under a 2014 move to address an uptick in violence. But corrections officials saw it as a temporary solution until other changes were in place, like programming to address conflicts and help gang members work through them without getting violent, according to a 2019 memo from Mike Haddon, then the executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections.
Critics say the move to allow gangs to mingle has stoked violence that resulted in extra criminal convictions of rioting or assault for those involved: Not fighting opens them up to retribution from fellow members of their gangs. And if they don’t defend themselves, they risk serious injury or death.
That was the case for Joe Perales Jr. in a January 2020 fight at the prison’s Draper site, he told a judge in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court in October.
“If I hadn’t acted as I did, I would have been in a hospital or even dead,” said Perales, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge for his role in the confrontation.
And within seconds after the schedule change took effect at the prison’s Gunnison site in 2019, Yeager Gleave says he was stabbed in the head. His lawsuit against Haddon, a deputy warden and other corrections employees is still pending.
He contends an officer announced over the loudspeaker: “Gentlemen, A and B Day is now off. You’re on section rec,” before fights broke out. Corrections officials “anticipated, orchestrated, and encouraged a gladiator encounter,” his lawsuit states.
More recent reports of violence have followed.
Just last month, Guadalupe Cazares was stabbed inside the Draper prison and flown to University Hospital for emergency surgery. His family believes he was attacked by rival gang members. His mother worries Cazares might not survive another attack.
“I’m worried about my son’s life,” Lorna Gallegos said.
Turley said he receives weekly reports on the prison’s drug testing program. But in the year he’s been in his current position, he’s received just one formal report related to violence, and it did not contain data specific to gangs.
That report, provided to KSL, shows officers recorded 345 assaults in 2021, a high during the last four years, and up from a low of 312 a year earlier, according to data provided by the prison. There have been 45 so far this year.
But the department noted not every incident categorized as assault was violent. They range in severity from spitting and horseplay to behavior perceived as threatening, along with physical assaults.
Communications director Kaitlin Felsted acknowledged the department has not identified or developed metrics to meaningfully track trends, writing in an email to KSL, “We do not have a representative number that generally illustrates violence in the prison.”
The prison has determined that 25% of its total population – 5,867 men and women in Draper, Gunnison, and some housed in county jails – are either known or suspected gang members.
“I would tell you that we’re evaluating the gang activity and the other just the other activity within the prison on a daily basis,” Turley said. “We’ll try and make proactive moves to prevent things from happening.”
They can also opt to participate in a program to help people step away from their gangs, but the prison declined to share details about what the program entails or say how many have elected to participate.
Those serving time can also request to be moved – or have someone else moved – for their own safety.
Felsted told the KSL Investigators the department fielded more than 4,300 substantiated “safety concerns” from those requesting housing changes since 2017. About 1 in 5 complaints came from someone the prison determined cannot have direct contact with members of a group, rather than just an individual.
Martinez says that approach failed her son, who raised his concerns to guards, and she’s worried for others still in the prison.
“It just infuriates me that is still so bad in there,” she said.
‘No easy solutions’
Managing gang members, and helping them leave gang associations behind, is a difficult task, and there’s a lack of research in this area, said David Pyrooz, an expert in prison gangs and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. He told KSL there’s no evidence that an A/B schedule is better than intermingling or a different approach.
“If you put two gangs with longstanding conflicts together, you’re eventually going to have a problem,” Pyrooz said. But keeping gangs separate for the long-term isn’t a sustainable option, either, he added. Trying to do so could lead to greater control and greater power in specific units for those gangs.
“There’s no good answer to this, to be sure,” he said. Finding the right approach would require carefully reviewing rates of incident reports.
“That should be up to the Utah prison system to be able to share that information and to be forthright about it, because, you know, it’s their policies that they have to defend,” he said. “I’d want to see data.”
The prison declined KSL’s request to obtain documents related to rates of overall and gang-related violence over the years, saying it did not have records related to that request.
The 2019 move to eliminate the A/B schedule conformed with recommendations made to the Corrections Department by the New York-based Vera Institute, a nonprofit seeking to end solitary confinement and limit housing restrictions in this state’s lockups and others across the country, according to documents KSL’s Cold Podcast team obtained through public records requests.
“The changes that we’ve made now in our restrictive and structured housing program, were, in large part a direct result from their report,” Turley said. He declined to talk further about the group’s work, noting that he was not in his current role when the department partnered with Vera.
The nonprofit issued a wide-ranging report that urged phasing out the A/B schedule for “security threat groups” (STGs) and those who affiliate with them, along with programs to integrate gang members and other steps to reduce animosity.
“Although there may be some challenges with implementing this reform, such as retaliation and conflict between STGs, maintaining the status quo does not appear to be feasible, given the variety of current challenges and complaints cited by both staff members and the incarcerated men Vera spoke with,” the report states.
Prison employees and those incarcerated agreed that “no easy solutions existed” for the “persistent gang culture” in Utah’s prison system or for individual members’ behavior, according to the report.
Vera said the department should use segregation sparingly and only as a last resort, rather than as a preliminary safety measure. A spokeswoman for the Brooklyn-based nonprofit declined to comment on the recommendation to phase out the A/B schedule, saying the employees on the Utah project, which ended in 2018, no longer work there.
Ultimately, Turley said keeping those in the state’s custody safe while also preparing them to re-enter Utah communities is the main goal.
“We’re doing our absolute best to find and strike that proper balance,” he said.
Juanita Martinez notes her son didn’t get that chance.
“They’re still popping doors. They’re still letting them get at each other,” she said. “They got away with it. Why wouldn’t they?”
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