MS-13 Gang Members Rush to Old Man’s Rescue in Prison Fight

The El Salvador-based gang MS-13 is used to being the villain, but it played the hero Monday morning at breakfast.

Four MS-13 gang members rushed to the defense of a 72-year-old inmate at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility in Massachusetts on Monday morning, staving off what could have been a brutal beating over a food tray.

The altercation was witnessed by Martin Gottesfeld, an activist who is being held at the complex, awaiting federal trial on charges related to the hack of a Boston hospital. The meal is served in the same area as the bunk beds, so Gottesfeld was able to take notes as it unfolded in real time. (A prison spokesperson confirmed an incident occurred in the unit.)


The Plymouth County Correctional Facility

Photo: Plymouth County Sheriff's Office

Breakfast starts early in the BS-1 unit, Gottesfeld told The Intercept in a phone interview, and the elderly man was “head food-runner,” responsible for handing out trays. Each inmate is entitled to a single tray of food, but one young, white inmate and his friend grabbed a second.

The elderly man chased after the younger fellow and his friend, demanding the tray back; if any prisoner takes a second tray, that means somebody else won’t get breakfast. “The white kid dropped the tray and went to swing at the old guy, and that’s when the MS-13 guys just descended,” Gottesfeld said.

“If anybody here was instrumental in preventing harm to another, that’s not a bad thing,” said John Birtwell, the complex’s public information officer, adding that he couldn’t provide any specifics, as an investigation is ongoing.

The old white inmate and the gang members were on friendly terms because he had been helping them navigate the prison bureaucracy in order to get permission to attend church services, Gottesfeld said. (Gottesfeld, who has been associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous, requested that The Intercept not name the inmates involved. Gottsfeld is behind bars for an alleged cyberattack in defense of a young girl, Justina Pelletier, he believed was being badly mistreated by Boston Children’s Hospital, a story I’ve covered previously.)

President Donald Trump has repeatedly raised the specter of MS-13 in his advocacy for harsh immigration policies, and Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for government, made demonizing the group a central part of his failed bid for governor. It wasn’t long before politics seeped into the BS-1 pod. As the young man was being led away in handcuffs, he shouted back at the men who’d beaten him in defense of the head food-runner. “He goes off in a huff about how Trump is going to close the border and kick the Mexicans out,” Gottesfeld said. (MS-13’s membership is more El Salvadoran than Mexico.)

Gottesfeld said he wanted to share the story because of the demonization of the gang that has become conventional wisdom. The gang members have been in his unit for a few months, he said, and when they arrived, there was trepidation. “When they first came in the unit, all of us were like, ‘Oh shit, MS-13, there goes the neighborhood,’ but they turned out to be model inmates,” he said. Beyond their so-far-unsuccessful attempts to attend church, he said, they’ve been unfailingly kind and rule-abiding. Many of them, he said, seem to have been swept up in broad conspiracy charges. “Contrary to the public impression that’s been painted…these guys are ideal inmates, they wanna go to church, don’t cause trouble,” he said. “I don’t think these are bad guys, not the killer rapists they’re being portrayed as.”

Later, he said, two guards who witnessed the incident wrote matching reports, both relaying the fact that the gang members had come to the defense of the food-runner, rather than act as aggressors. A lieutenant later came to the unit to interview inmates about the report, and the old man agreed to speak to him. For the man to speak to the lieutenant, said Gottesfeld, was a dangerous violation of an informal code not to talk to prison authorities. His willingness to take that risk was a sign of his gratitude. “That breaks a prison taboo,” he said. “That’s the biggest thank you than he can make.”

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