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April 23, 2008

INTOLERANCE: Gangs rule prison life

In the Michigan City prison, the black inmates sit on one side of the cafeteria, and the white inmates sit on the other side.

Crossing over can result in a brawl, which is exactly what Anderson resident Jeffery Cottrell, who is black, was caught in the middle of while serving time about 10 years ago.

A black inmate walked to where the white inmates were eating, and the white inmates started a fight with the man. This escalated into a massive riot that prison guards rushed to suppress.

“I hid under the table when the rubber bullets started flying,” said Cottrell, who is now program director of the Urban League in Madison County.

Race-related violence and discrimination are no more or less common in prisons than society as a whole, said Kojak Fuller, an Anderson resident who served time in the Wabash and Plainfield prisons. Fuller was a basketball star at Anderson High School and was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1993. He is now doing work in Anderson for Man 4 Man Ministries, which works with convicted felons.

Gangs form in prisons just as they do in cities and towns, mostly because inmates were already part of a gang before being incarcerated, said Lyna Tresley, director of operations and support services for the Indiana Department of Correction.

“There’s all sorts of groups,” she said. “The white supremacists, religious groups, the whole gambit.”

Sometimes prison violence occurs because of other perceived differences.

For instance, at the New Castle Correctional Facility in April 2007, prisoners who had been transferred from Arizona rioted because they felt they had fewer privileges in the Indiana facility and were not being treated as well as the Indiana prisoners.

Prisons are segregated based on security levels and not race, Tresley said. The lowest risk offenders are placed together, and the highest risk offenders are housed together.

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