KSL INVESTIGATES

Utah allowed rival gangs to mingle in prison; families say violence followed

Mar 10, 2022, 10:02 PM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 9:30 pm

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.

Juanita Martinez speaks about her son’s death during an interview with KSL TV. (Tanner Siegworth/KSL TV)

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.”

FILE – The Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. (KSL TV)

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.

‘Gladiator days’

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.

Joe Perales Jr. appears via video conference for a hearing in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court in October. (KSL TV)

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.

Utah Department of Corrections memo about gang schedules by LarryDCurtis on Scribd

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.

Yeager Gleave filed a federal lawsuit after he was stabbed several times at the prison’s Gunnison site. (Photo from lawsuit)

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.

Data deficiency

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.

Spencer Turley, director of prison operations at the Utah Department of Corrections, said the prison is constantly evaluating threats posed by gangs. (Ken Fall/KSL TV)

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.

Jeffrey Vigil’s grave in Ogden. (Tanner Siegworth/KSL TV)

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.

The group’s formal report was published in 2020, but records obtained by the Cold Podcast show the institute recommended a series of changes earlier, in 2018.

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?”


Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

KSL Investigates

FILE...
Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage

Get Gephardt: How cybercriminals use social engineering to get us to hand over our sensitive info

You can have the strongest, most secure password in the history of cybersecurity, but the bad guys know there is one weakness they can use to hack into your system - you!
4 months ago
Delric Ellington and Kael Ellington talk about a stray bullet that entered their Salt Lake City hom...
Annie Knox and Daniella Rivera, KSL TV

Amid increase in youth shooting deaths, Utah pediatricians push for tougher gun laws

The number of Utah children and teens killed by gunfire reached a record high in 2020, in part because of a spike in homicides. Two Utah pediatricians are calling on the state to pass what they see as solutions to the troubling trend.
4 months ago
Albee Bostrom and Sissy McDade turned their love of thrift store shopping into a business: Thrift H...
Matt Gephardt

Gephardt Busts Inflation: Second-hand shopping, selling surge as Utahns try to beat rising prices

Data shared with the KSL investigators shows Utahns are trying to bring in more money and reduce spending as they try to bust inflation.
4 months ago
Bry Hansen visits his son's grave in South Jordan. (Tanner Siegworth/KSL TV)...
Annie Knox and Daniella Rivera, KSL TV

The number of Utah kids and teens dying by gunfire hit a record high in 2020

The state hit a devastating milestone in 2020, recording the highest-ever number of shooting deaths among Utahns 18 and younger.
4 months ago
...
Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage

Get Gephardt: What can you do if you pay someone to do work but they disappear with your money?

Imagine paying a deposit only to have them take your money and ghost you.
4 months ago
Photo illustration (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)...
Matt Gephardt

Get Gephardt: Your credit card can up your interest rate without telling you

If your credit card company raises your interest rate even just a little bit, it could have a significant impact on how long it takes you to get out of debt. A relatively new law means your credit card company can do just that and they do not even have to give you the heads up.
4 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Ask these questions before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Cloud storage technology with 3d rendering drawer with files in cloud...
PC Laptops

How backing up your computer can help you relieve stress

Don't wait for something bad to happen before backing up your computer. Learn how to protect your data before disaster strikes.
young woman with stickers on laptop computer...
Les Olson

7 ways print marketing materials can boost your business

Custom print marketing materials are a great way to leave an impression on clients or customers. Read for a few ideas to spread the word about your product or company.
young woman throwing clothes to organize a walk in closet...
Lighting Design

How to organize your walk-in closet | 7 easy tips to streamline your storage today

Read our tips to learn how to organize your walk-in closet for more storage space. These seven easy tips can help you get the most out of your space.
Utah allowed rival gangs to mingle in prison; families say violence followed