Easing the Hard Time
Once upon a time, had they met on a prison yard, inmates Emilio Soto and Gerardo Fuentes might have sliced each other to pieces.
Soto was a gang member from Stockton, Fuentes one from Los Angeles. “Any little look that I thought was disrespectful or he thought was disrespectful,” Fuentes said, “and it would have been on.”
For almost 40 years, Latino gangs from Northern and Southern California have been at war. The feud has cost hundreds of lives inside and outside prison, dictated prison budgets and forced authorities to separate one from the other.
Today, though, Soto and Fuentes live in peace, side by side, on the top tier of cellblock C-4 at the state prison in Lancaster. They are part of a revolution in protective custody that is slowly breaking the stranglehold of gang-imposed rules on state prison life.
Until now, protective custody has been for prison’s pariahs -- sex offenders, informants, homosexuals -- who were locked in their cells most of the day. Gang members and other inmates viewed this as an unmanly and arduous way to do time.
But in the last few years, California prisons have given inmates another choice by converting entire yards to protective custody.
The result: Thousands of ex-gang members -- serving time for murder, robbery and assault -- have defected to these so-called sensitive-needs yards (SNYs), seeking a haven from gang life.
As on regular prison yards, SNY inmates live two to a cell and have the same exercise and meal routines. The only difference is that they live with other inmates whose lives, like theirs, would be in danger if they were in the general mix.
Demand for SNY space is growing unrelentingly. Since 1998, when the practice of setting aside whole yards for protective custody began, the SNY population has grown from less than 1,000 to more than 13,000 -- almost 9% of adult male inmates, by far the largest protective-custody population in state history.
Inmates requesting sensitive-needs yards must explain why they need protective custody, and their claims are investigated by prison staff. Prison reception centers in Chino, Delano and Wasco report a combined 1,400 new inmates awaiting SNY assignments.
“We were asking people to step forward and renounce the gangs,” said Joe McGrath, deputy director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “You can’t legitimately ask them to do that if you can’t guarantee ... a better quality of life.”
This year, Mule Creek State Prison in Ione became the first all-SNY institution. Three of the four yards at the prison in Lancaster are for SNY and honor inmates. Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga is half SNY. Corcoran State Prison and Kern Valley State Prison in Delano will convert yards to SNYs by year’s end, officials say.
Meanwhile, so many gang members with heavy reputations are opting into the yards that protective custody “is no longer synonymous with being a punk,” said David Delgadillo, a former longtime member of the Mexican Mafia on a sensitive-needs yard at Pleasant Valley, serving time for murder and attempted murder. “Now it’s becoming common for people to drop out.”
Some SNY inmates have had a change of heart. Some have refused to kill a friend on gang orders. Many are simply tired.
Rudy Martinez, a Mexican Mafia associate serving time for murder, realized he’d had enough while being bused out of Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City a few years ago.
He saw people jogging, driving, entering restaurants. At one clogged intersection, a motorist pounded the dashboard, yelling at traffic. “She was so frustrated, but I wanted to trade places with her,” Martinez said.
He left the mafia for an SNY shortly thereafter, hoping for parole someday.
Others’ motives in asking for SNY placements are less pure. They’ve run up prison drug or gambling debts they can’t pay. Some plan to go back to gang life once freed.
Nevertheless, for the first time on California prison yards, large numbers of Northern and Southern California Latinos, blacks and whites, Bloods and Crips, Nazi Lowriders and Aryan Brotherhood members all live together. And all of them coexist with homosexuals, sex offenders, former police officers and informants.
Though they don’t keep statistics or cost estimates by yard, prison officials say fights, stabbings and riots are less common on SNYs, making them safer and less expensive to operate.
“You still have [fights], but they’re nowhere near what’s generated on an active gang yard,” said Lt. Ken Lewis, Lancaster state prison spokesman. “Any time you have a minimum amount of violence on a yard, obviously it’s a cost savings.”
Still, much is unknown about the effects of SNYs. No one has studied recidivism among parolees from the yards, for example, or whether SNY inmates might make better use of classes, jobs and self-help groups than those on gang-dominated yards. For now, no greater resources are devoted to rehabilitation on SNYs than anywhere else.
“It’s an innovation whose consequences aren’t known and have yet to be studied,” said Valerie Jenness, a criminologist at UC Irvine.
This year, though, the state prison system adopted inmate rehabilitation as a goal, and the U.S. Supreme Court ordered racial integration in California prisons. SNYs are among the few places where gang rules and violence don’t get in the way.
By 26, Emilio Soto was such a dedicated member of Nuestra Familia, the prison gang of Northern California Latinos, that he had threatened to kill his own brother if he spoke against the organization.
But when Soto was in Pelican Bay State Prison, he said, a gang leader spread false rumors that he’d turned informant. Based on that, Soto said, Nuestra Familia members tried to kill him.
Even so, for five years, Soto refused protective custody, risking stabbings every day. Finally, he tired of the gang life and entered an SNY at another prison in 1999. He was so ashamed that he didn’t speak to his family for three years.
In gangs, “you’re brainwashed,” said Soto, now 37 and serving time for murder. “Even if there’s a threat on your life, you’re supposed to be this down homeboy. But then you do it all, and they want to kill you anyway. So where’s the love?”
There is none, former gang members say, and that’s why SNYs are growing. Gangs, they say, roil in conspiracy. Betrayal comes like breakfast, and that knife in your back might be your best friend’s.
“They just want to whack you for anything,” said Albert Martinez, a former gang member from the Maravilla neighborhood of East L.A. who is now on the Lancaster state prison’s C Yard. “It’s not like it used to be. There’s no old-school values.”
Indeed, the rules of prison gangs have changed, said Lt. Bruce Frank, head of gang investigations at the prison.
“A lot of the newer guys don’t have the level of respect that the older guys used to have,” Frank said. Gangs “used to have a more solid structure. Now it’s almost a free-for-all.”
Part of the reason for the disintegration, former members say, is Pelican Bay State Prison, near the Oregon border, where many gang leaders from throughout the state are isolated in maximum-security lockdowns.
Without leadership, gang subordinates feud constantly. Gang leaders, meanwhile, are left to imagine all kinds of duplicity in their underlings, and issue “green lights” -- death warrants -- like Detroit unemployment slips, former gang members and prison officials say.
“There’s nothing to do. So anything they suspect on someone, they run with it,” Soto said. “If there’s nobody else to get, they focus on killing each other.”
Nuestra Familia has marked for death more than 1,000 people, many of them fellow Nuestra Familia members, said Devan Hawkes, a prison-gang expert at Pelican Bay.
“When the inmates hear their names are on the list,” Hawkes said, “they often will try to get protective custody.”
All this has fostered “politics,” the name given to the gossip and backbiting that has made prison gang life resemble a high school popularity contest -- except, in this case, the participants have shanks.
Just surviving politics is exhausting, SNY inmates say.
Wayne Bradley, a longtime member of the Rolling 30s Crips in South Los Angeles, said he was stabbed by youngsters in his own gang for refusing to hide their drugs and shanks. Planning against future attacks, Bradley had a nervous breakdown, he said.
“It’s like a chess game with no rules,” Bradley said. “Plus you got to watch the dudes the other guy’s got standing behind you.”
For some inmates, SNYs are purgatories of regret.
“I’m doing time for guys ... who want to kill me,” said Freddie Gonzalez, a Mexican Mafia dropout from Pomona who is serving a life sentence for killing a Nuestra Familia member on mafia orders. “Some of us older guys get together. We say, ‘What did we do all that stuff for?’ I don’t know.”
For others, though, SNYs are a place to bury petty -- but lethal -- differences. The 40-year war between Northern and Southern California Latino gang members is a case in point.
Nuestra Familia, the prison gang of northerners, is allied with black prison gangs. The Mexican Mafia, controlling inmates from Southern California Latino street gangs, is linked with the white Aryan Brotherhood.
Those alliances have turned prison yards into something resembling the Jim Crow South: Latino inmates from Southern California, for example, are forbidden from sharing anything with blacks or Northern California Latinos: phones, water faucets, TVs or basketball courts.
So there would be no mistake, Nuestra Familia members distinguished themselves with tattoos of the number 14, because N is the 14th letter of the alphabet. Mafia members took 13 as their badge, because M is the 13th.
“Before I came to prison, I’d heard about Nortenos [Northern California gang members] and 14, but I’d never seen a Norteno,” said Fuentes, who has a 13 tattooed on his chin. “When I saw one, it was just pure hatred.”
He opted into an SNY at 26, after a dispute with his prison-gang leaders. Even years later, when placed in a cell near Soto, a former Nuestra Familia member with a 14 tattooed on his wrist, Fuentes said he felt uneasy.
But “now I see Emilio as Emilio,” said Fuentes. “I’m 31 now.... It seems pretty childish now. I did a lot of stupid things for the 13 on my chin.”
Looking beyond prison walls, the growth of SNYs is a measure of the chaos on the streets of Southern California, say gang members and state officials.
In the mid-1990s, the Mexican Mafia behind bars extended its power to Southern California Latino gangs on the outside. The imprisoned mafiosos ordered gang members to collect “taxes” from drug dealers operating on their home turf, or face death in prison.
But because many mafia leaders are locked away, their control over street taxation has weakened.
Greed, lack of control and drug addiction breed feuds, rip-offs and betrayals on the street. Gang members use the drugs they’re supposed to sell or rob mafia-protected dealers.
Mafiosos in Pelican Bay, some of them also drug addicts, bring wayward street soldiers into line for offenses real or imagined by issuing “green lights.” And such green-lighting is driving new inmates to SNYs at a good clip, inmates and prison officials say.
The SNYs “are so full because the [Mexican Mafia] brothers are making them full,” said Armando Ibarra, 32, a former street representative for the mafia, who opted for protective custody after mafiosos accused him -- falsely, he says -- of stealing $87,000. They “don’t care no more about the [guys] that are working for them.”
Other inmates check into SNYs after fouling up mafia orders. In March, for example, two men were shot to death at a home in Mentone, a community near San Bernardino -- killings that prison-gang investigators believe were mafia-ordered. During the attack, an infant was shot in the foot -- an unpardonable act to the Mexican Mafia, said Leo Duarte, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation investigator.
“That guy should never have shot that guy holding a baby,” Duarte said. The mafioso who controls the area “was overheard on a recording: ‘I can’t give him a pass. He shot a baby.’ Those are the exact words.”
When the man suspected of -- though not yet charged with -- the shooting returned to prison on a parole violation, he asked for protective custody, Duarte said.
C Yard is akin to a gang member retirement home for Emilio Soto and Gerardo Fuentes.
Fuentes misses the camaraderie of his former homeboys and the respect their numbers inspired among correctional officers. In SNYs, “the cops will talk to you any which way they want. On the mainline, they wouldn’t do that because they’ll get hit” by other gang members.
Soto and Fuentes say that inmates on SNYs inform easily on one another, and neither likes living near child molesters and homosexuals. Furthermore, they say, SNYs don’t have enough jobs, vocational training or self-help groups.
Fewer than half of the 1,100 inmates on C Yard have jobs, according to inmates and prison officials. The rest are idle or locked in their cells much of the time.
“There’s no rehabilitation in the state of California,” Soto said, “so you have to choose to rehab yourself.”
Still, both men expect gangs to push more inmates into sensitive-needs yards. Soto says the Nuestra Familia leader who tried to kill him was himself stabbed by the gang’s soldiers a few years later. Soto has heard that he is on an SNY at Pleasant Valley State Prison.
In the meantime, Northerner and Southerner have let down their guard, dropped the fixation on “13" and “14" and found a way to get along on a tier in a California prison.
“You start seeing things, after doing so much time,” said Fuentes, serving a life sentence since he was 21 for murder and robbery.
“After watching people fight for power and backstab one another, you say, ‘This is all BS. [Gang leaders] are up in Pelican Bay. You’re their pawn. This is their chessboard.’ ”