How Corrections Officers Attack Ongoing Inmate Gang Links


An aspect of security in Utah’s corrections system has found renewed importance with a recent spike in gang membership and violence: how to keep gangsters in lockup from contributing to crime on the streets, says the Salt Lake Tribune. “Most of the public, they look at it like the guy has been picked up, he’s gone through the court process and now, everything is good,” said Pete Walters, who oversees the gang unit at the Utah State Prison and heads the Utah Gang Investigators Association. “They get to make phone calls. They are all allowed to get and send letters. The majority of them have visits. [] They, a lot of times, still have an influence over some of the groups in the neighborhood.”

Walters’ job, and that of other gang investigators in the corrections system, is to figure just how much influence certain gang members have and how the information officers gather on the inmates could thwart plans gang members may be making from inside their cells. In an activity known as “fishing,” inmates can pass messages between their cells by way of make-shift delivery devices called kites, made with a piece of string, a note and a weight. Letters can contain hidden code words, symbols, or drawings to signal an attack on a rival. Phone calls could also contain hidden messages. Corrections gang officers are trained to intercept and decode the hidden messages. The officers chat up inmates to find out which gangs are feuding, and, most importantly, talk with local law enforcement agencies. Retaliation for a gang event on the street can play out in prison or jail; or an incident that occurs in the corrections system can have ramifications in neighborhoods. “You still have people trying to deal drugs, you still have extortion, you still have assaults,” said Jeremy Sharp, a gang officer with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office who works at the jail. “They continue to do it here.” While Utahns might not think the state has the same gang problems as cities like Los Angeles or Chicago, the corrections system faces the same challenges in containing gang activity. New inmates undergo mental health and physical evaluations, and checking for gang affiliations is a part of the evaluations. Some are forthcoming about their gang ties, others deny it despite telling tattoos on their bodies.

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