‘They’re all in imminent danger’: Video shows violence after Utah prison allowed gangs to mingle
Sep 21, 2022, 10:15 PM | Updated: Oct 10, 2022, 11:43 am
DRAPER, Utah – Grainy video captured by surveillance cameras inside the former state prison in Draper shows cell doors pop open. Seconds later, the fighting starts.
Utah’s Department of Corrections refused to hand over the surveillance video in response to a public records request, but KSL was rolling when portions of the footage were shown in open court.
Footage from Jan. 7, 2020 shows a brawl between eight men belonging to two rival gangs. Later, men on both sides of the fight would blame the state for putting them in that situation and claim they acted in self-defense.
“If I hadn’t acted as I did, I would have been in a hospital or even dead,” Joe Perales Jr. later told a judge.
Surveillance video of another fight between gang members the following month captured a similar scene.
The videos show instances of violence that occurred after a 2019 decision by prison officials to end their practice of keeping two rival gangs apart.
While the department won’t talk about that decision – citing pending litigation – corrections officers did talk about it in court.
During an evidentiary hearing for Oscar Bermejo, one of the men involved in the Jan. 7 riot, corrections officers testified that opening the cell doors was part of the department’s plan to get the two gangs to get along.
“That wasn’t a general practice prior to this day,” said corrections officer Brook Nuttall.
Previously, they’d followed an A/B schedule that allowed for alternating recreation days for the two groups. The riot on Jan. 7 was not the first time an integration effort resulted in violence.
According to a pending lawsuit, former prisoner Yeager Gleave claims two months earlier, he was stabbed in the head when guards released rival gang members in his unit on Nov. 6, 2019.
“This was about a three-month process, and during the last month was the final stages of integration of the two gangs,” Nuttall testified. “Each day, one of the [housing units] was integrating [the two gangs] and sometimes they fought, and sometimes they didn’t.”
Nuttall said on Jan. 7, he was under the impression the men would “work out their differences through talking,” but instead, “within one or two seconds, they squared off and started attacking each other.”
The department’s practice to regain control, he testified, involves using pepper balls and pepper spray.
“If there’s an officer in the section and his life’s in jeopardy, that’s when were authorized to go into the section and literally, physically lay hands on and stuff, you know, make the situation safe,” Nuttall explained. “But if there’s not an officer in the section, then they stay at the section door and apply force from the section door.”
A month later, on Feb. 13, 2020, Bermejo was involved in another fight.
Former corrections Sgt. Brian Tervort testified that he opened the wrong cell door, which led to a fight between four men and rival gang members. He called it a mistake, for which he was sanctioned. He testified he wasn’t eligible for a promotion for a year due to the incident.
“I just accidentally grabbed the wrong knob,” he said.
That mistake is not mentioned in charging documents for two of the men who faced new criminal charges and longer sentences following the Feb. 13 incident.
Dr. Jesse De La Cruz, a prison gang expert who once served time himself, testified during Bermejo’s hearing that the violence shown in the surveillance videos is no surprise. He said gang members are expected to be ready at any moment to fight. If they get the chance to act and hesitate, they could face violent punishment at the hands of their own gang.
“They’re not going to wait around for someone to hurt them,” said De La Cruz, “they’re going to hurt first if they can. So, they’re all in imminent danger.”
In a phone call with the KSL Investigators in March, Perales said he’s no longer a gang member, but still paying for his involvement in the Jan. 7 riot.
“I’m doing three years, you know. I feel it’s unfair,” he said.
When asked if he felt he was put in a position where he had to defend himself and then punished for it, Perales said, “I was put in a position to defend myself. I don’t ‘feel’ like it, I was. We all were.”
Tracking Prison Gang Violence
In March, the KSL Investigators asked to see the data and trends corrections officials used to make decisions about managing gang members. The department said it’s something they look at daily, but they did not have a metric to meaningfully track violence inside the prison system over time. And long-term reports specific to gang violence did not exist.
In response to KSL’s public records request, the department compiled data on fights and assaults involving gang members from Jan. 2018 through Feb. 2022. The data does show a spike in violence among members of rival gangs around the time the department was ending segregation. But it also shows they were dealing with steady levels of gang assaults before the change, and again after.
Sgt. James Demkov, the department’s security threat group coordinator, said gang violence is unpredictable and challenging to manage and prevent.
“We’re doing everything we can,” he said. “We’re constantly reevaluating processes.”
The department has a policy that allows any inmate to share safety concerns with guards if they feel they’re in danger and need protection. Despite stereotypes related to gang members and “snitching,” Demkov insists that incarcerated gang members take advantage of the policy daily.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Offenders take advantage of that policy constantly. And they’re well aware of it.”
Anecdotally, Demkov said he doesn’t believe the level of gang violence in Utah prisons has changed much in the last three years.
“I wouldn’t say it’s increased at all,” he said. “It’s just kind of, unfortunately, something that we have to deal with.”
In response to a public records request, the department also provided initial contact reports for incidents of violence involving two or more gang members during the same four-year time period. The one-page reports included redactions of information the department deemed private or a risk to security.
The reports describe homemade weapons, gashes, slashes, puncture wounds, a broken jaw, hospitalizations, and inmates found covered in blood as guards reviewed security camera footage to find out what happened.
“We go through, and we check all the offenders’ hands and then we have them take their shirt off and check their torso for any scratches, abrasions, any signs of fighting,” said Demkov, describing what corrections officials refer to as a “knuckle and torso check,” a tool used to determine who might have been involved in an incident.
While the prison system does not rely on a long-term metric to track violence, officials do use other data.
In a statement emailed to the KSL Investigators, Utah Department of Corrections communications director Kaitlin Felsted wrote, “Prisons Operations leadership consults daily logs, STG management personnel, the Law Enforcement Bureau and other intelligence resources on a daily basis to track STG-related violence trends in our facilities.”
Security threat groups, or STG, is how the department refers to the estimated 25% of the prison population with known or suspected gang affiliations.
“… our investigations team is also in the process of acquiring technology-based options to facilitate a more data-based preventative approach to violence in our facilities, and we are building outcome measures into our strategic plan to provide a more aggregated, longitudinal synopsis of these efforts, along with a variety of others,” Felsted wrote.
Surviving the Sentence
Demkov said the layout of the state’s new prison in Salt Lake City changes the way they supervise inmates there and he’s hopeful it will help deter fights.
“With the direct supervision, we now have an officer present in the section with the offenders at all times,” he said.
But even the new facility has seen violence. Earlier this month, on Sept. 10, a fight involving 11 men sent several to the hospital. All had returned to the prison by Sept. 12, according to Felsted.
Alex Veloz told the KSL Investigators he believes his son, who is serving time for a gang-related murder he committed at 19, was one of the inmates hospitalized.
“Let him pay his debt to society,” Veloz said, “and let him come back.”
He said prison officials didn’t notify his family, but they got word from another inmate that his son was attacked by rival gang members. When he initially heard there had been a violent incident, he immediately feared his son had been killed.
“Those are the fears I live with every day,” Veloz said.
He hopes his son can survive his sentence, and he joins other families who tell KSL they want to see the state do more to protect their incarcerated loved ones.
“To be convicted for a crime,” said Veloz, “that doesn’t say that you have to die or get hurt.”
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Editor’s Note: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that Yeager Gleave required hospitalization and emergency surgery. This has been corrected.