- Associated Press - Saturday, May 14, 2016

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) - Street gangs - primarily the Bloods - have permeated the Luzerne County Correctional Facility, and keeping tabs on their plots and rivalries has become a consuming mission, prison officials say.

Interim County Correctional Services Division Head James Larson said the prison gang population is “growing in leaps and bounds,” and options to separate gang members are limited because the facility has been at or over its 505-inmate capacity in recent years.

“This area’s been flooded with gang members, and they intimidate and dominate in their own way. These activities aren’t necessarily overt,” Larson said. “It’s all underneath the surface.”

He used a sports analogy to capture the state of affairs: “It’s our park, but it’s their game.”

This “game” often involves paper messages written in coded symbols. Known as “kites,” these folded-up communications are passed through inmates or hidden under a bush or in the dirt of the prison yard, he said.

“They hide them all over the jail. Once they realize we found where they’re hiding them, they change the hiding place,” Larson said. “It’s a constant battle. We have to search every day.”

Prison officials can’t tell if these messages are a sign of brewing trouble unless the code is cracked.

Gangs keep developing new codes as the old ones are compromised by prison and law enforcement, Larson said.

“There are many more codes,” he said. “Some we know about. Some we don’t.”

Symbols marking gang affiliation also have cropped up on inmates’ cell walls. Larson said such markings are photographed for evidence and then painted over to keep inmates from claiming any particular territory.

Toilet talking

Oral messages also are passed through air vents and commodes when water is drained out of the toilet traps by inmates.

This commode communication, which has been called “toilet talking,” or using a “bowl phone,” is common in multistory prisons with stainless steel toilets. The county prison is five stories tall.

“I know of a couple of other jails where they have a similar problem,” Larson said.

The prison has a choppy layout due to its age and design, which adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere inside.

Inmates are housed either in the original castle-like building, constructed in 1868, or in the multistory addition constructed in 1987. The interior of the original building was renovated when the addition was built, Larson said.

If there’s a conflict between two rival gang members, one may be moved to a block on another floor. However, there are gang members on every block, the worker said. Others on the block where the inmate is relocated will know his identity and history within minutes due to toilet communication, the worker said.

Clashes between gang members on the streets often continue inside the prison, the prison officials said.

“A lot of times we don’t even know what the beefs are outside, but they know,” Larson said. “They don’t just go away because they’re in jail.”

Coded kites may spread the word that someone is cooperating with police on a case, marking that inmate as a snitch, he said.

Nearly 400 new inmates were lodged in the county prison in April alone, while about the same number were released or transferred to other prisons or programs.

Among the inmates, the gang leaders with the highest ranking in their organizations usually end up calling the shots behind bars, such as an “Original Gangster,” or OG, in the Bloods, Larson said.

“Anything - whether it be an assault, a contract on another inmate, a drug operation - almost always has to be sanctioned by the OG who is in charge,” Larson said.

These gang leaders usually are polite, and sometimes model inmates, Larson said. The prison is prime gang recruiting ground, he and another worker said.

New inmates who had no prior gang connections usually align with or join a gang “to be protected by someone” while incarcerated, they said.

Lurking danger

Larson acknowledged inmate assaults and fighting have increased, and he’s confident there are more he doesn’t know about because inmates stay silent.

“There are lots. I’d say we have about 10 a month, to different degrees of seriousness,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where we need a full-time investigation team.”

The recent severe inmate injury was “not the norm,” he said.

“Only a small percentage of the assaults require hospitalization,” he said, citing several broken jaws or cuts requiring stitches. “Most of the time, guards break fights up before they get serious.”

The investigations sometimes reveal more information about gang activity, which results in inmates being separated as much as possible, Larson said.

Larson estimated there have been about 50 cases of inmates assaulting corrections officers or damaging prison property in the last five or six years, at least some gang-related.

Inmates caught committing an assault or other misconduct in prison get a hearing and may be locked in the first-floor restrictive housing unit, or “RHU.”

Inmates in this unit are locked in single cells 23 hours per day with one hour of exercise time five days a week, Larson said. They have restricted phone and commissary privileges, no television or radio and are allowed only one visit per week.

The problem: Only 13 cells are available in this unit, far less than the demand, which leads to inmates sometimes released back into the general population sooner than preferred, he said.

“We may have to let someone out a few days early to get some punishment in a more serious case,” Larson said. “A lot of staff doesn’t like when they get away early, but we don’t have the space.”

Inmates outside this unit are allowed to spend hours outside their cells on their block each day because the prison generally can’t keep them on restricted lock-up unless they are on misconduct, Larson said. Segregated sections are set up for certain inmates who can’t be around the general population, including sex offenders, juveniles sentenced as adults and inmates on suicide or mental health watch or who were abused or injured by other inmates.

General population inmates also meet with lawyers or counselors or are shuffled off to GED classes, support group meetings and religious services.

Snacks and other goods are the currency, and guards are always on the lookout for entrepreneurs who set up “stores” by stocking up on commissary products they sell for favors or more products.

Stress on staff

Grasping gang mentality has been an adjustment for prison guards - and the county as a whole, Larson said.

“Many of these inmates grew up where it’s survival of the fittest. They have that urban street mentality, and their customs and way of life are totally different from what we’re used to here in the Wyoming Valley,” he said.

Adding to the tension are more inmates coming off heroin and other drugs, or wrestling with mental health issues.

The county prison houses offenders charged with murders and other serious crimes that will send them to state prisons after they are sentenced. A typical bail for a county inmate used to be about $25,000, but bails exceeding $100,000 have become “commonplace,” officials have said.

County Councilman Eugene Kelleher said he has spoken to several prison workers in recent weeks about their working conditions.

“The more I learn, the more I am concerned about the safety of the guards,” Kelleher said. “It’s a terrible situation.”

Some obvious solutions hinge on county finances - more prison guards, a new one-story prison with a better layout promised to cost less to maintain and staff, restoration of drug-sniffing canines and revival of a central court to reduce the high percentage of county inmates lodged in the prison awaiting sentences, as opposed to serving them.

“There are a lot of constraints and financial limitations because of the county’s inherited debt,” Kelleher said.

At $34.1 million, the prison system is the largest single department expense in the county’s $130.2 million general fund operating budget.

Acting county Manager C. David Pedri recently said a new prison is needed but may not be possible for years because the county owes $321 million in principal and interest on past borrowing and won’t be out of debt until 2026.

Larson said he continues to pursue solutions that won’t push him over budget. He is planning a formal gang training session for staff and is exploring a grant to fund an employee to focus on gang monitoring full-time.

Many other county prisons are wrestling with rising gang populations, he said.

“They’re all having these problems,” Larson said.

Feuding gangs

Bloods gang members started ending up in the county prison in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the officials said.

The area’s highway accessibility to major cities and high demand for drugs fueled the arrival of gangs, said Larson and a worker.

As the county’s Latino population grew, mostly in the Hazleton area, the prison started housing members of some other gangs, such as the Trinitarios, Latin Kings and Dominicans Don’t Play, or DDP, they said.

“We also saw the arrival of the Crips and other rival gangs thrown in the mix with the white supremacists and the outlaw biker gangs,” Larson said.

Most of the inmate gang members were from New York and New Jersey, but lately more from Philadelphia and the Allentown area are ending up in the county lockup, Larson said.

The most pressing concern at the moment is feuding within the Bloods organization, Larson said.

“The Bloods have various sets within the Bloods organization, and those sets right now seem to be in conflict with one another more so than the Bloods and the Crips, or the Bloods and anybody else,” Larson said. “They’re fighting for territory and control of the drug trade.”

There are “quite a few Crips” at the prison, but the Bloods seem to have “some sort of alliance or agreement” with other prison gangs to leave each other alone as long as there isn’t any provocation, Larson said.

Larson said the gangs have become more secretive in prison and the community, which he interprets as evidence they are increasingly aware local law enforcement and criminal justice officials aren’t the clueless “country bumpkins” the gangs once thought they were.

“We’re open about the gang activity in our prison,” he said. “We want them to know we’re not going to tolerate it and they’re not going to get away with it, because I think for the longest time they felt like they were flying under the radar and that we didn’t know about it.”





Information from: Times Leader, https://www.timesleader.com

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