As prison brawls go, this one was particularly captivating on the video playback. At least 15 gang members were throwing punches. And exercise bicycles. And televisions. Inmates were lifting them overhead and heaving them onto foes. The fight was loud. And chaotic. Until a quick-thinking officer pointed a lens at brawlers, shouting, “You’re on camera!” Most of them scattered after that.

It happened Sept. 9, 2009 in a downtown San Diego jail. It never made the news — details of prison life through official channels are always scant. But a log entry on a union website called it “gang-related fighting.” Federal law enforcement sources described it as a power struggle between two Hispanic gangs — Sureños from Southern California and Paisas from Mexico. The result: One inmate briefly hospitalized and an unprecedented 17-day lockdown.

This wasn’t business as usual at a state penitentiary, where inmates doing hard time for murder, assault and rape are accustomed to violence and racial strife. This melee took place in a downtown federal jail, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the type of facility known for housing the least volatile offenders on the criminal spectrum — the embezzlers, bribe takers, extortionists, money launderers and swindlers. And the illegal immigrants and smugglers, as well.

But there’s a new breed of inmate in the federal prison system these days: Younger, riotous and gang-connected. Federal officials are filling cells by going after the violent criminals traditionally prosecuted by the state: Local street gangs, prison gangs and organized crime syndicates like the Mexican Mafia and Aryan Brotherhood, plus large Mexican drug cartels like the Arellano Felix organization.

These volatile inmates are serving longer sentences because of harsher mandatory minimum terms. They are crammed into small spaces because the prison population has skyrocketed — up 43 percent in the last decade. And there are fewer guards to keep order. That combination can translate to fights, riots and lockdowns, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons can’t build prisons fast enough to accommodate the demand for more space and greater security.

“Traditionally there haven’t been these violent prison gangs in the federal system, not the racial violence once associated with state prison in the federal system,” said veteran criminal defense attorney David Bartick, who represented Mexican cartel leader Francisco Javier Arellano Felix. “There has been a tremendous change over the last several years.”

His client, who avoided the death penalty and is serving a life sentence, spent time at San Diego’s MCC before he was moved to the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. Four prison staffers were injured there during an attack by inmates in May.

These thugs aren’t just beating up each other and corrections officers. They are taking a toll on taxpayers, who are footing a billion-dollar-plus bill to expand high-security units, contract with private companies for more bed space, and build new prisons around the country — the type of facilities the state already has. No fewer than six new federal prisons are either under construction or recently completed. All are scheduled to open by 2013 or sooner.

The expenses have been necessary because most federal prisons weren’t equipped to handle the increasingly violent inmates that the state prisons were already housing. “Doing time on the federal side was considered the country club — they were kind of set up that way. They were low-key, low-level security compared to what we had on the state side,” Bartick said.

In San Diego, officials had to expand the high-security unit to isolate rival gang leaders and others. At one point Mexican Mafia members and associates, Aryan Brotherhood defendants, local street gang lieutenants and Arellano Felix kingpins were all in custody at the same time downtown at MCC.

“There is so much violence going on in the Bureau of Prisons right now, and in the last several years, because of our population change,” said Bryan Lowry, president of the union representing federal corrections officers at 115 facilities nationwide, who is advocating for more corrections officers. “We have a younger, more aggressive, more gang-oriented population than any time in our history.”

Lowry said the prisons are greatly overcrowded and understaffed and as a result unprepared to do battle with the new breed of inmate. Officers often find themselves alone, managing dozens of inmates. Things can go wrong, fast.

In a more recent San Diego incident, a gang member suffered brain damage at the hands of another at a downtown jail run by Geo Group, formerly Wackenhut, which contracts with the federal government to house more than 750 federal prisoners awaiting trial or transfer to a federal prison. Law enforcement sources familiar with the violence asked not to be identified because they are forbidden to publicly discuss it.

The number of inmates murdered by other inmates in federal prison nationwide has more than doubled in the last decade, from five in 1999 to 13 in 2009, according to federal statistics. The mortality rate increased from four deaths per 100,000 prisoners in 1999 to seven in 2008, according to the most recent numbers available.

Union officials who gather information from members said there have been 14 violent deaths of inmates so far this year, with six months to go. If that pace continues, the 2010 deaths could be more than double the previous year.

“The public has no idea what’s going on in these prisons,” said Lowry, the union president. “There are two or three lockdowns a week, four or five staff assaults.”

Ultimately, it’s more than taxpayer dollars at stake, federal officials and lawyers say. If and when federal inmates return to society, they often bring the violent culture with them to the outside.

“The Federal Bureau of Prisons is now significantly over capacity, which has real and detrimental consequences for the safety of prisoners and guards, effective prisoner re-entry, and ultimately, public safety,” said Sally Quillian Yates, a Georgia U.S. attorney, during a May hearing. She is part of a panel studying the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing laws on the federal prison population.

The rationale behind the federal legal tactic to go after gangs and cartels: disperse state inmates into the federal system to break up violent prison gangs, and to dilute their power and influence.

Federal prosecutors even coordinate moves with state counterparts to decide who gets charged with what crimes, and in which jurisdiction, to obtain the maximum sentence and the best way to disrupt gang members’ stranglehold on prisons. State officials generally favor the liaison, because it enables them to send problem inmates to federal facilities around the country, rather than being limited to state facilities.

Critics argue that the feds are encroaching on state territory, that the tactic does the opposite of containing the power.

They say it spreads it around more.


Joshua Cruz was a member of a San Diego street gang and a “soldier” for the powerful Mexican Mafia prison gang. His job description: Assaults, drug dealing, extortion, money laundering. And murder.

His unfortunate target was Alvaro Hernandez, a wanna-be Mexican Mafia associate who’d been acting beyond his authority — “taxing” drug dealers and “having guys beat up” without permission from Mexican Mafia bosses, according to an indictment. Cruz, following orders, called a meeting with the unwitting Hernandez and fatally shot him with a 9 mm handgun.

Murder is a state crime, prosecuted by the district attorney. But Cruz wasn’t charged with murder. Instead he was one of 36 alleged Mexican Mafia associates indicted by a federal grand jury on conspiracy and racketeering charges. He was convicted by a jury. And sent to prison. Federal prison.

Cruz is part of that new breed of inmate.

Gang members like Cruz typically would go to state prison. In fact, some of his co-defendants were already in state prison serving life terms when indicted by the feds.

“You have people coming in that you never had before who are harder, sometimes graduates of the state system and bring a whole different type of inmate into the federal system,” said Alex Landon, Cruz’s defense attorney, speaking generally.

Lawyers and prison experts said the transformation to more violence-prone inmates has intensified in the last five years as the Justice Department began aggressively using anti-mob laws against gangs.

In San Diego, federal prosecutors used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO, against a gang for the first time in a 2006 Mexican Mafia case. They used the law again in two other Mexican Mafia cases in 2008 and 2009, targeting a total of 62 defendants in the three cases; and against local street gang members in a massive $100 million mortgage-fraud scheme in 2009. There were 24 defendants.

There’s another prosecutorial strategy impacting federal prisons, particularly in San Diego.

There is a greater emphasis on prosecuting border crimes and cracking down on so-called “criminal aliens” who’ve been convicted of crimes, incarcerated at state prisons and then deported, but who keep sneaking back into the U.S.

Rather than deporting them yet again, federal authorities are prosecuting them for re-entry and sending them to prison, and they are getting harsher sentences because of prior convictions.


In San Diego, even with MCC and facilities run by private contractors Geo and Corrections Corp. of America, the feds are still over capacity and seeking more bed space. Meanwhile, the local jails run by the sheriff have plenty of room.

Legal experts said the evolution of the federal prison population can be traced back to the late 1980s, when mandatory minimum sentencing laws first went into effect. That meant more people were flooding the system for longer periods of time.

“As a result, the federal prison system has become much more crowded than it ever was before,” said Landon, the defense attorney who represented the Mexican Mafia associate. “When you pack too many people in small places there’s a natural reaction to that.”

The federal prison population grew an average of 4.6 percent a year between 2000 and 2007, compared to 1.7 percent average annual growth for state prisons, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report. And collectively the federal prisons are about 35 to 40 percent over capacity.

Union officials are calling the situation a security and staffing “crisis,” noting that critical staffing and funding shortages at the Bureau of Prisons have left the agency with a 5-to-1 inmate-to-staff ratio, significantly higher than the 3.7-to-1 ratio in 1997. To return to 1997 levels, the bureau would have to hire about 11,000 staffers, said Lowry, the union president.

Prison officials said the number of correctional officers system-wide is not readily available.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-California, during congressional testimony last year in the wake of a correctional officer’s murder by an inmate at the federal penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., noted the prison was operating at 86 percent of necessary staffing levels, while the prison population was 25 percent over capacity.

Contact Kelly Thornton directly at And follow her on Twitter @kellymthornton.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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