Custody Battle

Hundreds of inmates in state prisons need special protection from gang paybacks. When officials tried to mix them in with the general-prison population, they filed suit--and won.

"In my first prison case, I never actually went to the prison," he says. "I thought it didn't make a difference, but it did. Unless you've been in there, you just don't know."

Peters began to understand that, "In this case, people would die if I fouled up."

It started with the letters.
The inmates, once they heard that they had lawyers, started writing to tell what was going on behind the walls, and what they faced if they were forced out of protective segregation.

At one point, the attorneys were getting as many as five letters a day. They assigned Sarah Molinsky, then a paralegal with Osborn Maledon, the task of reading and filing each letter. She soon had almost 250 separate files.

At first, she recalls, it was "almost voyeuristic--kind of like looking at a car accident." The inmates described a completely different and deeply violent world.

Protective segregation, Molinsky learned, was hardly a lush life. Inmates couldn't get the same educational and treatment programs as general-population prisoners, or, often, regular visits with family.

They also had to suffer the wrath of the general-population inmates simply for being PS inmates. Their food, which was prepared by general-population inmates, often had feces, metal or glass in it. They were taunted as they walked through the prison on their way to meals or the library.

Prisoners know where the PS inmates stand in the food chain. "The new inmate on a cellblock is referred to as a fish," Hammond says. "All fishes are at risk from predators. But they call a PS inmate who's back on the yard a 'fish trailing blood.'"

Molinsky also learned that not all of the PS inmates were rapists or child molesters. "There's a lot of them in there for reasons that reflect well on them," she says. "One inmate stopped another from killing a guard at Madison [Street Jail in Phoenix]. Now that guy's a snitch, and his life is in danger."

DOC is not only supposed to protect the inmates' lives, but also their identities, to avoid reprisals against them if they are moved out of protective custody, and to keep their families safe.

But the department had a tough time even doing that, court records show. "Turnout lists," which showed inmates' locations and movements, were posted where they were read by all inmates and could reveal exactly who was in protective segregation.

"These guys are incredibly sophisticated when it comes to the day-to-day details of their lives," Gordon says. "Sure, these guys are rapists and murderers. They're also smart, and DOC had done nothing to hide [the PS inmates'] identities."

In one instance, DOC had even used inmates in protective custody in a video which was supposed to be shown to prisoners entering the state prison system, according to court records.

"The attitude was, prisoners like protective custody," Hammond says. "People think it's some kind of country-club existence, these guys are just living it up. Nothing could be further from the truth. The inmates hate it. That's why some of these guys waive out. They start thinking, 'Maybe I could make it.'"

But if life inside protective segregation is unpleasant, life outside it is deadly.

The main reason: prison gangs.
When the case went to trial before Judge Hardy in late 1996, the attorneys set out to prove that DOC couldn't keep inmates safe in general population because DOC couldn't control the gangs.

According to testimony from DOC officials, there are more than 3,000 inmates involved in gangs in Arizona's prisons. That would add up to about 10 to 14 percent of the state prison population.

There are at least 500 "patched"--fully initiated--gang members in the system, according to testimony from DOC officials. Also, there are 1,200 to 1,500 "probates"--probationary members of the gangs, inmates who are working to prove they're worthy of joining.

DOC officials say it's hard to know exactly how many other inmates have some relationship with a gang, including potentially hundreds of "wanna-bes"--inmates who want to be gang members and associate with the gangs, but haven't started probating.

But more are on the way. DOC estimates that about half of all the inmates entering Arizona's prisons from Maricopa and Pima counties enter with a street-gang affiliation. While not every one will join a prison gang, that adds up to about 3,200 to 4,000 more potential gangbangers entering the prisons every year.

DOC has identified five different gangs inside the prison system: the Aryan Brotherhood, the Old Mexican Mafia, the New Mexican Mafia, the Grandels and the Border Brothers. In the course of their research, the prisoners' attorneys heard about at least 13 different gangs, with groups like the New Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood being the most powerful. (According to testimony from one DOC official, there have been 800 different street gangs identified by law enforcement in the state of Arizona.)

Gang members enforce their will with violence. They deal drugs, run protection rackets and even take contracts out to kill those who cross them, prison officials testified. Gang members have a sophisticated communications system which can quickly disseminate information throughout the prisons and to the outside.

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