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Easing the Hard Time

COLUMN ONE

Seeking a haven from gang life, thousands of California inmates are choosing to live on 'sensitive-needs' yards. The demand is growing.

September 16, 2005|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

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 The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexican Mafia -- The Sept. 16 Column One incorrectly attributed the shooting of two men and an infant in the San Bernardino County community of Mentone to an order from the Mexican Mafia. The motive for the shooting is under investigation, but it is believed to be related to a dispute between the shooter and one of the victims from years earlier.

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.

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