As multi-agency gang task forces succeed in arresting and prosecuting gang members, the transfer of gangs from the streets to the state’s prisons is leading to more violence behind bars.
Gang-affiliated inmates are responsible for 43 percent of all violent crimes in Washington state prisons, according to a study commissioned by the Washington Legislature and released to the public this week.
To address the problem, the Washington Department of Corrections in September opened a new facility at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla intended to house high-security inmates, many of whom are gang members.
“Inmates know if they misbehave they are going to be sent to the West Complex (close supervision unit) where it’s a controlled setting, limited access to classes and other activities, and limited socializing,” said Dan Pacholke, deputy director of the Department of Corrections.
The 792-bed addition, divided into eight 99-man units, was part of a $157 million construction project.
A Crips gang member there, who goes by the name Blue, landed in the penitentiary’s new unit because of a reputation for creating problems with other inmates. His new cell assignment is one way prison officials are dealing with the growing violent gang population.
The new facility has cells on two tiers with solid doors, rather than on three tiers with bars on the doors, allowing prison guards to watch the inmates more closely, officials said.
“I think we are making an impact on the violence,” said Stephen Sinclair, superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary.
The Crips gang is the most-represented in Washington prisons, with 2,385 inmates. Surenos are the next-largest group, with 1,773 inmates. White supremacists are third, with 1,389 inmates, said Joni Aiyeku, Washington State Penitentiary spokeswoman.
The Legislature’s study was conducted by Spokane police Detective Douglas Orr, who is a consultant with Pacific Research & Consulting and also an adjunct Gonzaga University sociology professor. Orr found that the three most populous gangs don’t cause the majority of problems clashing with each other in state prisons. Instead, the Surenos and another Hispanic gang, the Nortenos, cause the most violence, in part because of a “fight on sight” order between the two groups, according to the study.
Last July, officials began separating the rival gang members so they don’t intermingle or even pass each other in a hallway.
The Department of Corrections also is addressing potential conflicts by identifying gang affiliations when deciding where prisoners will serve their sentences, officials said.
After offenders are sentenced they’re sent to the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton for evaluation, officials said. It’s there that authorities try to determine gang affiliations, often by examining prisoners’ tattoos.
New policies regarding violent inmates were in place just six months last year, but there were 200 fewer violent incidents in 2008 than in 2007, Pacholke said.
Inmates experience a lot of pressure from gang-affiliated groups by being in the general prison population, officials said. If they can manage the relationships within their smaller 99-man units, that’s an improvement.
Blue, the Walla Walla inmate who spoke to the media during a recent tour of the new facility, said “the safety level for us here in prison is how we chose to live our day-to-day lives.”
Blue would rather be back in the general population, the former Seattle resident said. “But as with everything in life, you have to get used to change.”