Behind the bars: Ex-con, experts describe gang mentality in Oregon prisons

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On April 3, a riot involving 60 inmates put the Oregon State Penitentiary on modified lockdown.

Discipline reports for those involved described what appeared to be a planned confrontation between members of white prison gangs and members of a Latino gang.

During the fight, inmates were punched in the back of the head, kicked in the face and ultimately subdued by guards using pepper spray.

According to a former skinhead who served time at the state penitentiary, the incident offers a window into life behind bars in Oregon prisons.

"It's a lot of race wars," said Jason Dean, who has since renounced his white supremacist ideology. "The whites against the Mexicans. Or the whites against the blacks."

Inside the Oregon State Penitentiary, Dean said, he recruited new arrivals into white supremacist gangs and sent people to beat up or ambush other inmates.

"It's like training a dog. A puppy," said Dean.

Prisons around the country have long been considered by those in law enforcement to be a breeding ground for organized crime and gang activity.

Brian Martinek, executive director of the Northwest Regional Re-Entry Center, is a former police chief who now helps ex-convicts from federal prison integrate back into the community.

Martinek said both federal and state prisons have a reputation for turning inmates toward prison gangs that reflect their nationality or skin color.

In the case of white inmates, they are often coerced to align themselves with white supremacist groups.

"What tends to happen is, especially young people that don't have other ways of handling themselves to protect themselves, and feel secure, will lean toward these gangs," said Martinek.

Even if prisoners don't officially join a gang, Martinek said, they can become sympathetic to those groups, and often radicalized.

"It's creating a mindset that may not have been as extreme as when they went in," said Martinek.

A recent example is the case of Jeremy Christian, who was arrested in the slashing deaths of two men on a Max train earlier this year.

Witnesses recalled Christian shouting racial slurs before the attack, targeting a young black woman and a young Muslim woman.

Christian also happened to have gone through Martinek's re-entry program two different times.

"He is not the majority of the type of people that we get here, but we have other people that have a similar mindset and similar issues," said Martinek.

On the inside, there are those who choose to stand up against white prison gangs, but the consequences can be dire.

In 2012, Michael Hagen, a prisoner at Snake River Correctional Institution, was beaten to death in his cell, after refusing to do tattoos for a white prison gang.

Dennis Steinman, a Portland attorney, represented Hagen's widow in a civil rights lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections that ended in a $450,000 settlement.

"Michael Hagen did not need to die. And it's because of the way the prison was run and because of the way gangs are allowed to run amok that he did die," said Steinman.

According to state records, there were 325 violent assaults on inmates by other inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

There were also 235 assaults in 2015 and 314 in 2014.

The state does not track which assaults involve suspected gang members, but Steinman said, based on his experience, he believes much of the violence is gang-related.

"I don't know that it's too strong to say the gangs control what goes on in the prison, but it's pretty darn close," said Steinman.

Dean said he never officially joined a prison gang, but did become affiliated with them. Since his release, he has renounced white supremacy and now works with the group "Life After Hate," which provides counseling and support for ex-cons looking to step away from their gang associations.

Martinek said, based on his experience, former gang members can and have been reformed, but said more needs to be done to reform the prison system that produces them.

Copyright 2017 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


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