Prison gangs on the rise in Utah
What inmates see as survival can spill out onto the streets
Quentin Hurlich, convicted of attempted murder, says he'll do whatever it takes to defend himself if he's sent back to the Utah State Prison in Draper.
"I'm not going to let someone come in and beat me down whether I get a new 1-to-15 or a new murder charge or whatever," Hurlich said. "I'm not going to let someone kill me."
Hurlich's attitude is one shared by many inmates at the prison after a recent string of gang-related stabbings highlighted some underlying issues facing the Utah Department of Corrections.
With Utah's prison population expected to grow by 324 inmates next year alone, prison officials are scrambling to head off weapons problems and possible gang retaliations while trying to deal with limited bed space and resources.
It's still unclear how much an effect a three-week lockdown, detailed search of each cell and new get-tough policies on gang activity and weapons will have at the prison. Some inmates say white supremacist gangs, which make up a large part of the gangs in Utah's prison system, are planning another attack, possibly toward the end of the summer.
"The mood right now is retaliation," one inmate said. "They're waiting to pick the time. . . . I think it's going to be a lot bigger this time than it was the last."
"Right now, there is a lot of tension," concurred Hurlich, who said the Latino and white supremacist gangs have been feuding for a while.
While prison officials downplay the possibility of continued violence, they do acknowledge the lingering hostility.
"There still seems to be some animosity between the two rival gangs," Draper Warden Clint Friel said. "Until we can feel like these two gangs have had enough and want to continue with their prison experience, we'll have them in lockdown."
That means no phone calls, visits or recreational activities.
But amazingly, the more ingenious inmates always seem to find ways around the system.
It's that ingenuity that some say is now spilling out of the prison onto the streets. White supremacist gangs are popping up in Davis County, with the majority of their recruits coming from the prison, according to Davis County sheriff's detective Ty Berger. (See related story on A1.)
"It doesn't necessarily end at the prison or begin at the prison or on the streets," Friel said. "It moves over."
Gang officials are also noticing a new trend: Inmates join a gang in prison and stick with that gang after their release, said Adult Probation and Parole agent Roberta Hansen. In the past, inmates would return to their old gangs once they were released, said Hansen, who's worked for AP&P since 1987.
Some of those gangs were born and bred in the prison. And still-incarcerated inmates seem to be calling the shots for other gang members outside the prison, Hansen said.
Many inmates, especially the younger ones, join gangs in prison for protection, Hansen said.
"I don't think everyone who joins a white supremacist gang is a neo-Nazi," she said. "Some do it for survival."
And those who aren't in gangs say the increasing dangers at the prison might force some into such affiliations just to keep from being hurt.
"If the prison keeps going the way it is, I may have to join a gang," said one inmate, who says he's been jumped in the past by both white supremacist and Hispanic gang members.
Prison gangs are usually divided by race, one gang official told the Deseret News. For example, it's not uncommon for members of Latino gangs that are rivals on the outside to become partners in prison for survival, he said.
Prison officials tend to come down hard on gang leaders who recruit in prison, but in reality, keeping inmates from joining gangs is virtually impossible.
"We could have anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of our population involved in some sort of a gang or another," Friel said. "It's not illegal to belong to a gang. The only time it becomes a problem is if that gang disrupts the institution."
The recent stabbing of six white supremacist gang members by a Hispanic gang is an example. The stabbing was in retaliation for another Hispanic gang member being stabbed earlier at the prison. And in the past few weeks, a white supremacist gang member tried to bite a Hispanic gang member on the head while the two were in the prison's infirmary. Both men were shackled at the ankles and wrists, Friel said.
Short of locking the entire prison down, Friel said, it's difficult to prevent all gang activity.
"They have their own social rules," he said. "All the stuff that is done is done away from us. It's not out in the open. It's not something that they want us to know about."
Low wages and high turnover among corrections officers also mean many inmates have spent more time at the prison than their watchmen.
Even if inmates aren't in a gang, most keep or have access to weapons.
"Someone knowing that you've got it available keeps people from messing with you," one inmate told the Deseret News.
Before he was transferred to the Salt Lake County Jail in August 2000 to await federal weapons charges, Hurlich said weapons in the prison were "a dime a dozen."
Hurlich, who had already served time in prison in 1991, was sentenced again in 1999 for shooting a Murray police officer during a forgery. He likely will serve his time in federal prison.
"I'd prefer to go to federal prison," said Hurlich, who isn't scheduled to have a parole hearing on his state charges until 2011.
But if Hurlich was returned to the Utah State Prison, he said no penalty could deter him from keeping a weapon."I'm in for five (years) to life. Getting one to 15 (more) years for a weapon is not going to affect me at all."
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