How Gangs Took Over Prisons

Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, September 16, 2014

On a clear morning this past February, the inmates in the B Yard of Pelican Bay State Prison filed out of their cellblock a few at a time and let a cool, salty breeze blow across their bodies. Their home, the California prison system’s permanent address for its most hardened gangsters, is in Crescent City, on the edge of a redwood forest–about four miles from the Pacific Ocean in one direction and 20 miles from the Oregon border in the other. This is their yard time.

Most of the inmates belong to one of California’s six main prison gangs: Nuestra Familia, the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family, the Northern Structure, or the Nazi Lowriders (the last two are offshoots of Nuestra Familia and the Aryan Brotherhood, respectively). The inmates interact like volatile chemicals: if you open their cells in such a way as to put, say, a lone member of Nuestra Familia in a crowd of Mexican Mafia, the mix can explode violently. So the guards release them in a careful order.

“Now watch what they do,” says Christopher Acosta, a corrections officer with a shaved head who worked for 15 years as a front-line prison guard and now runs public relations for Pelican Bay. We are standing with our backs to a fence and can see everything.

At first, we seem to be watching a sullen but semi-random parade of terrifying men–heavily tattooed murderers, thieves, and drug dealers walking past one of five casual but alert guards. Some inmates, chosen for a strip search, drop their prison blues into little piles and then spin around, bare-assed, to be scrutinized. Once inspected, they dress and walk out into the yard to fill their lungs with oxygen after a long night in the stagnant air of the cellblock. The first Hispanic inmate to put his clothes on walks about 50 yards to a concrete picnic table, sits down, and waits. The first black inmate goes to a small workout area and stares out at the yard intently. A white guy walks directly to a third spot, closer to the basketball court. Another Hispanic claims another picnic table. Slowly it becomes obvious that they have been moving tactically: each has staked out a rallying point for his group and its affiliates.

Once each gang has achieved a critical mass–about five men–it sends off a pair of scouts. Two of the Hispanics at the original concrete picnic table begin a long, winding stroll. “They’ll walk around, get within earshot of the other groups, and try to figure out what’s going down on the yard,” Acosta says. “Then they can come back to their base and say who’s going to attack who, who’s selling what.”

Eventually, about 50 inmates are in the yard, and the guards have stepped back and congregated at their own rallying point, backs to the fence, with Acosta. The men’s movements around the yard are so smooth and organized, they seem coordinated by invisible traffic lights. And that’s a good thing. “There’s like 30 knives out there right now,” Acosta says. “Hidden up their rectums.”

Understanding how prison gangs work is difficult: they conceal their activities and kill defectors who reveal their practices. This past summer, however, a 32-year-old academic named David Skarbek published The Social Order of the Underworld, his first book, which is the best attempt in a long while to explain the intricate organizational systems that make the gangs so formidable. His focus is the California prison system, which houses the second-largest inmate population in the country–about 135,600 people, slightly more than the population of Bellevue, Washington, split into facilities of a few thousand inmates apiece. {snip}

Skarbek’s primary claim is that the underlying order in California prisons comes from precisely what most of us would assume is the source of disorder: the major gangs, which are responsible for the vast majority of the trade in drugs and other contraband, including cellphones, behind bars. “Prison gangs end up providing governance in a brutal but effective way,” he says. “They impose responsibility on everyone, and in some ways the prisons run more smoothly because of them.” The gangs have business out on the streets, too, but their principal activity and authority resides in prisons, where other gangs are the main powers keeping them in check.

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Skarbek, whose most serious criminal offense to date is a moving violation, bases his conclusions on data crunches from prison systems (chiefly California’s, which has studied gangs in detail) and the accounts of inmates and corrections officers themselves. He is a treasury of horrifying anecdotes about human depravity–and ingenuity. There are few places other than a prison where men’s desires are more consistently thwarted, and where men whose desires are thwarted have so much time to think up creative ways to circumvent their obstacles.

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{snip} Prison officials have long known that gangs are highly sophisticated organizations with carefully plotted strategies, business-development plans, bureaucracies, and even human-resources departments–all of which, Skarbek argues, lead not to chaos in the prison system but to order.

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Among the fundamental questions about prison gangs–known in California-corrections argot as “Security Threat Groups”–is why they arise in the first place. After all, as Skarbek notes, California had prisons for nearly a century before the first documented gang appeared. Some states don’t have prison gangs at all. New York has had street gangs for well over a century, but its first major prison gang didn’t form until the mid-1980s.

The explanation, Skarbek says, can be found in demographics, and in inmate memoirs and interviews. “Before prison gangs showed up,” he says, “you survived in prison by following something called ‘the convict code.’ ” Various recensions of the code exist, but they all reduce to a few short maxims that old-timers would share with first offenders soon after they arrived. “It was pretty simple,” he explains. “You mind your own business, you don’t rat on anyone, and you pretty much just try to avoid bothering or cheating other inmates.”

But starting in the 1950s, things changed: The total inmate population rose steeply, and prisons grew bigger, more ethnically and racially mixed, and more unpredictable in their types of inmate. Prisons faced a flood of first offenders, who tended to be young and male–and therefore less receptive to the advice of grizzled jailbirds. The norms that made prison life tolerable disappeared, and the authorities lost control. Prisoners banded together for self-protection–and later, for profit. The result was the first California prison gang.

That moment of gang genesis, Skarbek says, forced an arms race, in which different groups took turns demonstrating a willingness to inflict pain on others. The arms race has barely stopped, although the gangs have waxed and waned in relative power. (The Black Guerrilla Family has been weakened, prison authorities told me, because of leadership squabbles.) The Mexican Mafia was the sole Hispanic gang until 1965, when a group of inmates from Northern California formed Nuestra Familia to counter the influence of Hispanics from the south. Gang elders–called maestros–instruct the youngsters in gang history and keep the enmity alive.

What’s astonishing to outsiders, Skarbek says, is that many aspects of gang politics that appear to be sources of unresolvable hatred immediately dissipate if they threaten the stability of prison society. For example, consider the Aryan Brotherhood–a notoriously brutal organization whose members are often kept alone in cells because they tend to murder their cell mates. You can take the Brotherhood at its word when it declares itself a racist organization, and you can do the same with the Black Guerrilla Family, which preaches race war and calls for the violent overthrow of the government. But Skarbek says that at lights-out in some prisons, the leader of each gang will call out good night to his entire cellblock. The sole purpose of this exercise is for each gang leader to guarantee that his men will respect the night’s silence. If a white guy starts yelling and keeps everyone awake, the Aryan Brothers will discipline him to avoid having blacks or Hispanics attack one of their members. White power is one thing, but the need to keep order and get shut-eye is paramount.

Another common misconception about prison gangs is that they are simply street gangs that have been locked up. The story of their origins, however, is closer to the opposite: the Mexican Mafia, for example, was born at Deuel Vocational Institution, in Tracy, California, in 1956, and only later did that group, and others, become a presence on the streets. Today, the relation of the street to the cellblock is symbiotic. “The young guys on the street look to the gang members inside as role models,” says Charles Dangerfield, a former prison guard who now heads California’s Gang Task Force, in Sacramento. “Getting sentenced to prison is like being called up to the majors.”

But Skarbek says the prison gangs serve another function for street criminals. In a 2011 paper in American Political Science Review, he proposed that prison is a necessary enforcement mechanism for drug crime on the outside. If everyone in the criminal underworld will go to prison eventually, or has a close relationship with someone who will, and if everybody knows that gangs control the fate of all inmates, then criminals on the street will be afraid to cross gang members there, because at some point they, or someone they know, will have to pay on the inside. Under this model, prison gangs are the courts and sheriffs for people whose business is too shady to be able to count on justice from the usual sources. Using data from federal indictments of members of the Mexican Mafia, and other legal documents, Skarbek found that the control of prisons by gangs leads to smoother transactions in the outside criminal world.

Gangs effect this justice on the inside in part by circulating a “bad-news list,” or BNL. If your name is on a BNL, gang members are to attack you on sight–perhaps because you stole from an affiliate on the outside, or because you failed to repay a drug debt, or because you’re suspected of ratting someone out. Skarbek says one sign that the BNL is a rationally deployed tool, rather than just a haphazard vengeance mechanism, is that gangs are fastidious about removing names from the list when debts are paid.

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On every cellblock at Pelican Bay, the guards post plastic identity cards on the wall, to keep track of which inmate is in which cell. These cards include each inmate’s name and photo. But the most-important information is conveyed by the cards’ color, which roughly correlates with probable gang affiliation: green for northern Hispanics, pink for southern Hispanics, blue for blacks, white for whites, and yellow for others, including American Indians, Mexican nationals, Laotians, and Eskimos. The information is crucial to the smooth running of the institution. Maintaining balance in a cellblock, and not putting a lone gang member in a situation where he might be surrounded by members of a rival gang, requires constant attention on the part of the corrections officers.

Out in the yard, when Acosta and I watched the inmates gather by gang, the guards knew exactly what was happening, and they could have intervened and broken up obvious gang activity. And it was obvious: nearly all gang members have gang tattoos across their torsos, and some have markings on their faces too. {snip}

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Over the years, California has tried two broad strategies for gang management. The first was to break up gangs and scatter their members to distant prisons where their influence would be divided and diluted. That strategy too frequently allowed gangs to metastasize, effectively seeding the whole prison system, and even other states’ and the federal system, with gang activity. The current strategy, implemented in the 1990s, is to identify high-level gang members (a process called “validation”) and bring most of them to Pelican Bay.

Pelican Bay is far from the gangs’ strongholds of Los Angeles and the Central Valley. In every direction there is little more than redwoods, marijuana farms, and seacoast. More important, Pelican Bay has the facilities and knowledge necessary to isolate and neutralize gang members. {snip}

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