State’s proactive approach drives down prison violence

Sara Jean Green (Seattle Times staff reporter) | August 19, 2010

SHELTON, Mason County — Nelious Horsley, a former leader of Tacoma’s East Side Piru street gang, has been shot five times, including once in the head.

Now serving his third prison stint at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Horsley, 38, pulled at the collar of his T-shirt Wednesday, showing off a nasty scar from the time he was stabbed in the throat during a prison riot when he was 19.

“Everything was very, very intense back then. Now, it’s a little more relaxed. A lot of guys are older and have been in a long time and are trying to find a way out of it. You have to want it,” said Horsley, who has spent nearly half his life in prison on a variety of weapons and drug charges.

He now helps teach a violence-prevention class to fellow inmates, which is part of a larger state Department of Corrections strategy to reduce the number of fights and aggravated assaults.

Roughly 20 percent of the state’s 16,000 inmates are gang members, but they’re responsible for 46 percent of prison violence, said Dan Pacholke, the acting prisons director for the Department of Corrections (DOC). Over the past two years, violence at the state’s five largest prisons — in Monroe, Aberdeen, Steilacoom, Shelton and Walla Walla — has dropped as much as 20 percent. Statewide, violence has gone down 5 percent in each of the past two years.

That translates to approximately 200 fewer violent infractions each year, Pacholke said.

Inmate interviews

Much of that decline is attributed to intense one-on-one interviews with inmates when they are first sent to Shelton, where an estimated 500 prisoners arrive each week from county jails. During the screenings, many are proud to admit their gang affiliations and show off their tattoos, and that information is logged into a growing database.

“Tattooing is very telltale. If you’re in a gang, you’re going to tag and flag,” said Pacholke at a briefing for news reporters on Wednesday in the prison’s visiting room.

The prison system now has a policy of “mandatory separation” to keep rival gang members apart, he said. There’s also “a great deal of sorting” to separate hard-core gang members from the wannabes, who are often younger prisoners who haven’t yet shown the same propensity for violence, Pacholke said.

Once through their initial processing at Shelton, most prisoners are sent off to other institutions. The most violent offenders get housed in the West Wing at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where they’re confined to their cells 23 hours a day.

While black street gangs were once responsible for the bulk of prison violence, that distinction has since shifted to Hispanic gangs, Pacholke said.


When it comes to violence behind bars, the rival Norteños and Sureños gangs are numbers one and two, respectively, with white-supremacist groups ranking third and gangs like the Crips, Bloods and Black Gangster Disciples coming in next, Pacholke said.

Not all prison violence is gang-related, though.

“There is a pecking order,” Pacholke said. Sex offenders are at the bottom of the prison hierarchy and are often victimized by other inmates, while murderers and home-invasion robbers are at the top.

Random violence occurs too, especially during football and basketball seasons when inmates often bet commissary items on the outcome of games — and get into fights when a loser fails to pay up, said Sgt. Alfred Smack, who supervises one of the Shelton receiving units.

Smack credits DOC Secretary Eldon Vail with giving corrections officers more discretion in directing inmates’ movements inside the prisons and introducing new programs to keep down boredom, which in turn has helped reduce violent offenses.

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