Sunday, December 23, 2012

Part 2: Prison Gang Violence & Possible Remedies

During and after the Attica Prison Riot on September 9, 1971, authorities eventually agreed to twenty-eight of the prisoners' demands. Inmates stated they rioted, in part, due to the death of George L. Jackson, a black radical activist prisoner who had been shot to death by Corrections Officers in California's San Quentin Prison Adjustment Center on August 21st. Jackson was a founder of the Black Guerilla Family (BGF). Public outrage over how the situation was handled and scrutiny by a review commission led to several post-riot reforms. One of the biggest reasons given for the riot was overcrowding, but to this day Attica Prison is still over maximum capacity by double bunking a portion of their population in small cells designed to house only one inmate.

Reducing overcrowding is one way to cut down on prison and jail violence.

After the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot in February of 1980, inmates and officials also blamed overcrowding, inferior services, and lack of inmate programs as being major causes of the disturbance. There was also a shortage of correctional officers and training. Some staff used a form of manipulation called the "snitch game" to control uncooperative prisoners and label inmates who would not behave as being informants. This tactic meant the named inmate would often start being abused by fellow convicts. Then prisoners would choose to become a "snitch" to get away from their tormentors, however; this hampered efforts to get accurate information as inmates would often set up others or make bogus claims. This increased tension as inmates became suspicious of each other and distrustful of officers. Rioters broke into the infirmary to steal and take drugs. Many informants were killed with extreme brutality. Rioting inmates affiliated with Los Carnales (LC) gang were involved. Rivals soon formed the Sindicato Nuevo Mexico (SNM) gang.

Careful use of reliable informants and proper staff training are good ways to reduce violence.

The 1984-85 bloodshed in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prison system was also blamed, in great part, on gangs who had filled a power vacuum after the prior inmate trustee system was abolished. The Texas Syndicate (TS) attacked many inmates and gave rise to rival organizations like the Texas Mexican Mafia, also known as the Mexikanemi. To better deal with growing violence TDCJ later created the Gang Renouncement And Disassociation (GRAD) process in which members are given an avenue to denounce their gang membership. Part of the process also exposes them to Anger Management and Cognitive Intervention.

Careful monitoring of inmate behavior, appropriate discipline, and effective programs are good ways to reduce violence.

After prison gang violence increased in the 1970s, Security Housing Units (SHU) were built by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Both Corcoran and Pelican Bay State Prisons were designed to house the state’s most serious offenders in a secure, safe, and disciplined institutional setting.  The SHU was a modern design for prison gang members and violent maximum security inmates. SHU housing pods are small and inmates look out through a perforated steel door at a solid concrete wall. Human contact and privileges are minimal. Food is delivered twice a day (hot breakfast, sack lunch, and hot dinner) through a slot in the cell door. A correctional officer in a control booth controls all SHU doors. The C/O can press a button and allow one prisoner at a time to go out to a shower or to a court-mandated five hours per week of outdoor exercise. This exercise takes place in a cement yard, often called a "dog run", which extends the length of three cells and has a roof partially open to the sky. The correctional officer in the control booth is always armed. From his central vantage point, he can shoot onto any one of six pods, each containing eight cells.

Safety and Security Measures and Fair Policies for both staff and inmates are proven ways to reduce violence.

CDCR is currently in the midst of what it calls a "dramatic policy shift” to determine who still belongs in isolation and what SHU inmates can return to General Population (GP). It intends to review the case file of thousands of SHU inmates in the near future. Since October, 2012, officials have reviewed 88 SHU cases and decided 58 inmates can be transferred. Another 25 have been placed in a "step-down" program and can work towards eventual transfer to GP. Just 63 inmates were released out of the SHU in the prior 10 months of 2012 before the new policy took effect in late October of this year.

"This is a huge overhaul," CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thorton said, "This is a huge shift in the way we manage gangs."

The new regulations are temporary and set to expire in October of 2014. Officials said they purposely set an expiration date so they can tweak the regulations and make changes after working with them for two years before making it standard operating policy. Critics argue the step-down process still requires "cooperation" with Institutional Gang Investigators (IGI) and it still requires many years before release from isolation cells. Some even allege the new policy expands definitions of gang activity, which will result in even more inmates getting sent off to the SHU based on vague criteria or just for being suspected members of an expanded Security Threat Group (STG) list.

Prison officials insist otherwise and argue that new regulations require more concrete gang "behavior" than merely just possessing “suspicious” artwork or letters. For instance, officials no longer automatically transfer an inmate who is found to only "Associate" with a gang. Inmate Todd Ashker, alleged to be a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, was convicted of 2nd Degree Murder of a fellow inmate while housed at Folsom Prison. He says most gang "validations" are based with evidence provided by anonymous informants "making it virtually impossible" to credibly refute. He also filed a lawsuit against CDCR. Lawyers for the state contend the new policy addresses issues raised in Ashker’s lawsuit and are seeking its dismissal. A federal judge is set to hear legal arguments on the matter in 2013.

In Washington-DOC, while known gang members make up 18 percent of the state's prison population of 18,000, they account for 43 percent of major violent incidents and are responsible for many infractions. Washington State Jails, even though many administrators refuse to accurately track or acknowledge it, note similar statistics. In urban western Washington county jails Black gang members often create violence, while in more rural eastern counties Hispanic gangs like Norteños and Sureños are responsible for most fights.

Inmate Behavior needs daily monitoring, prison and jail lockdowns should be used for security reasons only, not as long-term group punishment.

It is widely known the incarceration rate in America is the highest among developed nations. In 2002, incarcerated individuals (90% of them men) was estimated at two million.  That has gone down recently due to financial pressures at all government levels more than any major push for overcrowding reductions. Three common reactions to prison gang violence by staff are: Segregation, Consolidation, and Inmate Transfers. It is also well known that Minority members of society are disproportionally represented in the prison system and as a result of Security Threat Groups, many correctional institutions are now trying to combat prison violence though intervention programming.

Facilities need inmate violence control suppression, gang members need intervention, and the community needs better youth gang prevention.

Lastly, there are few good studies on inmate violence in America. Agencies tend to keep statistics low key and are very fearful of inmate lawsuits today. They have historically been reactive, not proactive. Many Administrators believe if they can suppress issues long enough they may go away or inmates may give up. To be frank, many are near retirement and don’t want to be bothered more than they are already are. But, deliberate indifference may prove to be more costly for cash strapped governments than immediately addressing issues? Maybe society should starting dealing better with disciplinary and psychiatric issues in children before they get to be problem adults? Maybe we should teach youth the skills they need to function in society and give more hope to improve their lives?

Another factor that gets overlooked a lot is many men and women locked up in our nation's institutions are lacking a spiritual rudder to successfully navigate the turbulent seas of life. It is true that some prison gangs will try to utilize religious services as cover for their criminal activities, but if volunteers are properly screened and services properly monitored, they can benefit inmates who are soul searching for a different attitude on life.

Religious Services and Spiritual Reawakening has saved thousands of people from gangs and a criminal lifestyle.

America’s Jails and Prisons are out of sight, out of mind, for most of the general public. Only when a riot and major incident happens do correctional facilities get a couple of minutes on the nightly news. Much of the general public gets their distorted views of prison life from shows like ‘OZ or Prison Break’, or movies like ‘Blood In, Blood Out and American History X’. Some shows like ‘Lockup’ and others showing jails often only show graphic violence inside or may even glorify it. Maybe more people should take personal tours of prisons and jails to talk with both inmates and staff to hear about real issues that could improve overall conditions?

Listening to experts on the inside and working better on the outside can reduce violence.

We are interested in your thoughts on this matter so please leave a comment on this Blog.

You can read more on this subject in “La Familia: The Family; Prison Gangs in America”:

Monday, December 3, 2012

Part 1: Prison Gang Violence in America

Serving time in prison and jail isn't always easy and it isn’t meant to be, but relatively few are supposed to get a "Death Sentence".  During the 1970-80s, there was a lot of violence in places like California which was in the middle of prison gang wars, or prison riots like Attica, NY, that left 43 dead, and a vicious riot in Santa Fe, NM, that left 33 dead.  From 1984-85, Texas prisons had 52 homicides.

In the 1980s, the overall murder rate in U.S. prisons was nearly five times as great as out in the free world.  Prison facilities were old, overcrowded, and not built with safety in mind; they were built mostly to just keep prisoners from escaping.  Because of the extreme violence in the 1980s, California created Security Housing Units (SHU) meant to keep inmates locked down for 22.5 hours or more a day and built with the input of corrections staff to increase safety.  
Some people describe SHU's as "solitary confinement" or "isolation cells", which is officially disputed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CCDR).  Convicts, and their supporters, claimed the SHU’s were cruel and unusual punishment that deprived them of freedom and social human contact.  In other words, they said that their constitutional rights were being violated.  In the summer of 2011, thousands of California inmates went on a lengthy hunger strike to protest conditions in the SHU's.  The protests eventually resulted in an agreement between inmates, lawyers, and CDCR prison officials to expedite reforms.  State prison officials say the most serious of those reforms are now in effect.  But, SHU inmates also wanted a faster way out.
For example, inmates were often given 5 year SHU terms or a specific sentence, based on having committed a crime such as murder while behind bars.  But 3,000+ inmates, particularly at the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU, are serving "indefinite terms" because they've been tagged as prison gang members or disruptive group affiliates.  They got a SHU term based on "validation criteria" and the only way out for those inmates has been a process called "debriefing" where the inmate tells gang investigators everything they know.  When they do this they are often snitching on others about prison gang activities, thus adding new inmates for the SHU program.
Like a prior court order in California to racially integrate cell mates, some experts worry violence could go up in California and other states if the balance in power is shifted and disrupts the status quo among inmates and the gangs.
California is not the only place that has experienced prison violence.
Eleven prisoners have been killed so far in 2012 inside Texas prisons, the highest number since ten were slain in 1997, despite an overall decline in violence among the prison population statewide.  Officials say the increase is puzzling since overall violence, as well as sexual assaults and number of weapons found, have all declined in 2012.  Still, it is a far cry from 1985, when 27 Texas convicts were killed, and hundreds more injured in an outbreak of violence blamed on overcrowding and prison gangs.  Most staff that were present during past bloody incidents that led up to many of the current prison policies have long since retired.  But, we should never forget what caused such rigid inmate control programs to be implemented in the first place.
The growth of prison gangs was a direct threat to safety and security of all inmates and staff.  Street gang membership is often based on a "Jump In, Jump Out" basis.  Of course, getting beat out took a lot longer than getting beat in.  But, most prison gang members originally got in on a “Blood In, Blood Out” basis, meaning they had to kill to get in, and they main way out is to die.  Being a member of a prison gang is like being a member of an exclusive club who affect the lives of a lot of people.  A good analogy might be a Wall Street country club, although there are very few who are high rollers in the stock market, they have a great effect on the rest of us.  Prison gangs also bet and invest in their future.
Prison gangs get their orders out via Associates who pass the word on to youngsters who do a lot of their dirty work.  New recruits are constantly being tested and brought into these organizations.  In July, 2012, two Mexican Mafia (EME) members, Alberto "Beto" Vargas and Donald "Sluggo" Aguilar were arrested in Orange County's "Operation Black Flag".  Officials said nearly 60 people, many of them young Sureños, faced charges including racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder, narcotic and weapons sales.  

In late 2012, during an investigation known as "Operation Wicked Hand", 27 people including two teens, were indicted and accused of crimes such as conspiring to commit assault, extortion, home invasion, robbery, and drug trafficking in Ventura County, CA.  Made EME Carnal Martin "Maldito" Madrigal was named as the main shotcaller in that case.  La EME controls most Southern California Sureño street gangs even though some cops still doubt it.  In the recent case, law enforcement officials in Ventura County said the Mexican Mafia forced rival Sureño street gangs to work together to commit violent crimes something that they had not seen before.  

Not only are they involved in a lot of violence in prison, La EME is also very active in violence out on the street.  They pushed for young Sureños to wage war on Blacks, not just Crips and Bloods, but what amounts to a racial purge of Southland neighborhoods.  There is also a lot of violence that is directed towards rival Carnales and Camaradas of warring EME factions with a process known as "cleaning house" in and out of prison.
In November, 2012, a federal grand jury in Sacramento charged twenty people in the Nuestra Familia prison gang's Sacramento Regiment, including NF shotcaller Vidal "Spider" Fabela.  That same month, a high-ranking NF leader Alberto "Bird" Larez from the Salinas Regiment was arrested.  He was one of two high-ranking NF Captains who were released from federal prison in 2010. Larez and Henry "Happy" Cervantes from Lodi, CA, (and a former King Co. Jail inmate in Seattle) both faced life sentences in the FBI's sweeping Operation Black Widow conspiracy case in 2000.  Instead, they received 10-year sentences in a plea deal negotiated by the gang's leaders after problems surfaced with star prosecution witness, Daniel "Lizard" Hernandez due to his role in a murder at Cap's Saloon in Salinas.  Cervantes was arrested late last year and charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men found in a burning Oakland apartment.  Both Cervantes and Fabela were previously housed at the Lewisburg federal prison and communicated system wide with NF and Norteños in prison as well as out on the street.
The new breed of prison gang members today are more tech savvy and they make brand new networks.  A recent Federal investigation into the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) uncovered cooperation between them and the Mexican Gulf Cartel.  ABT James "Flounder" Sharron confessed to serving as a go-between for the gang and the notorious drug trafficking organization.  Sharron also admitted to moving hundreds of pounds of meth over the border into Texas for distribution.  Prison gangs are also very hard to break up because they often reinvent themselves with new members and leaders.  In late 2012, the Feds once again claimed they dealt "a devastating blow to the leadership of ABT."  
However, despite numerous federal prosecutions anything short of the death penalty seems like little deterrent for groups and members that get more power from going to prison and doing time.  They also get a chance to meet during trials and communicate via their case lawyers. Several members of the AB Commission in California and their aligned counterparts in the Feds were targeted for a RICO case trial that started in 2006. One longtime AB shotcaller, Barry "Red Baron" Mills, allegedly ordered, authorized or carried out 15 murders and very likely has ordered even more since.  During the trial AB were able to catch up on penitentiary politics, find out who was still with the Brand, and who was out in bad standings. 

Authorities often claim that shipping members out of state takes them away from their power base, but the truth is it often expands it.  As they get shipped out of state, prison gangs like the AB recruit younger members or new gangs may form to emulate them or protect themselves from them.  It should be noted that the California AB started first and is separate from the ABT; they are similar in nature and name but generally don’t like the other faction. They may tolerate each other especially if it is a racial issue against Blacks.
A violent gang war also appears to have taken over parts of an Idaho private prison with some inmates contending prison officials ceded control to gang leaders in an effort to save money on staffing.  Officers who work private prisons are also generally not paid as well as in state facilities.  Eight inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center are currently suing the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), contending the company worked with a few powerful prison gangs to control the facility located south of Boise.   Inmates in the lawsuit point to investigative reports from the Idaho Department of Correction that suggest gangs like the Aryan Knights (AK) and the Severely Violent Criminals (SVC) were able to wrest control from staff members after prison officials began housing members of the same gangs together in some cellblocks to reduce violent clashes.
The Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) was the most political of all the CA prison gangs and the most dangerous towards Police and Corrections Officers in the late 1960s through the early 1970s. The BGF was started after the death of George Jackson when he was killed in a bloody escape attempt from San Quentin Prison's Adjustment Center-High Security Unit in August of 1971. The BGF was very active during the SHU hunger strikes and it has also been responsible for a lot of violent crime in the state of Maryland during recent years.
The Texas Syndicate (TS) officially formed at San Quentin and Folsom Prison during the early 1970s.  While the TS prison gang was small, they were the most feared on the yard because of their propensity for violence and serious assaults.  Prison gangs like the TS are still responsible for a lot of violence today.  Even more so are the births of newer gangs like the "Tangos" which are homeboy cliques from Texas.
Next blog post we will talk about possible remedies to help deal with prison gang violence and current efforts to try and break the cycle of membership.