It is not correction officers but prison gangs who maintain order and met out justice behind bars in America. The result is more efficient crime on the outside.
Pelican Bay State Prison is home to the California prison systems most hardened gangsters. Most of the prisoners 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 cells are opened for yard time in a certain procedure to prevent putting a member of one gang in a group of another or violence can explode. In the yard, each gang stakes out its only meeting point with scouts trying to overhear the other gangs. Of the 50 prisoners in the yard, thirty will have knives – hidden up their rectums.
Understanding how prison gangs work is difficult: they conceal their activities and kill defectors. The California prison system houses the second-largest inmate population in the country – about 135,600, split into facilities of a few thousand inmates apiece. With the possible exception of North Korea, the United States has a higher incarceration rate than any other nation, at one in 108 adults (the national rate rose for 30 years before peaking in 2008, at one in 99).
The underlying order in California prisons comes from precisely what most of us would assume is the source of the disorder: the major gangs, which are responsible for the vast majority of trade in drugs and other contraband behind bars. Prison gangs provide governance in a brutal but effective way. 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.
The State of California has studied gangs in detail and maintain an extensive data base. Accounts of inmates and corrections officers are the other source of information. 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. To tell what kind of cell phone an inmate has, examine his bar of soap on his sink – the safest place for an inmate to store anything is in his rectum, and to keep the orifice supple and sized for the contraband phone, inmates have been known to whittle their bars of soap and tuck them away as a placeholder while their phones are in use. So a short and stubby bar means a durable old dumb phone, broad and flat means a Blackberry or an iPhone. A Samsung Galaxy Note or iPhone6 inspires pity.
The prevalence of cellphones in prisons reveals the loose grip authorities have on their inmates. In 2013, they confiscated 12,151 phones in California prisons. Guessing that this represented 10% of phones, almost every one of the state’s prisoners has a phone – all in violation of prison regulations.
Prison is set up so that most of the things a person wants to do are against the rules. People come up with complicated ways to get around them. Gangs have known highly sophisticated organizations with carefully plotted strategies, business development plans, bureaucracies, and even human-resources departments – all of which lead not to chaos in the prison system but to order.
Rational-choice theory aims to explain human behavior as the product of reasonable decisions by economic factors. It has shown behaviors that at first appear wild, irrational, or psychopathic, to be rational. When people are encouraged or forced to act against their economic interest, they find work-arounds. The prevailing view of crime requires revision. Prior dogma thought that criminals were best understood as mental defectives, crazy people who couldn’t control their impulses. Instead, criminals offend because they make careful calculations of the probability and likely cost of getting caught – and then determine that the gamble is worthwhile. This opens up the study of crime to economic theory. Prison is the ultimate challenge for a rational-choice theorist: a place where control of the economic factors is nearly total, and where virtually any transaction requires the consent of the authorities. The setting has given rise to alternate currencies and hidden markets. Cigarettes had become the medium of exchange in many prisons, but once they were banned, other currencies take their place, like postal stamps.
One of the fundamental questions about prison gangs is why they arise in the first place. California had prisons for nearly a century before the first documented gang appeared. Before prison gangs showed up, you survived in prison by following something called ‘the convict code’. Old prisoners shared them with first offenders – 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 predictable in their types of inmate. Prisons faced a flood of first offenders, who tended to be young and male – and 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 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 Mexican Mafia was the sole Hispanic gang until 1965, when a group from inmates from Northern California formed Nuestra Familai to counter the influence of Hispanics from the south. Gang elders – called maestros – instruct the youngsters in gang history and keep the culture alive.
What’s astonishing to outsiders 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. At lights-out in some prisons, the leader of each gang will call out good night to this 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 hey 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. Getting sentenced to prison is like being called up to the majors.
Prison gangs serve another function for street criminals. 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. 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; suspected of ratting someone out. 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.
In each cell you have a filthy toilet with no cover, a rusty sink, and a metal frame they call a bed. Inmates use the toilet as a refrigerator in the summer to keep milk cool. Inmates are legendary for keeping razors in their mouths. Being able to ‘spit ou a razor” is like a magic trick in jail. You could be in the mess hall, get into an altercation with another inmate, and the next thing you know he’s spit out two razors from both sides of his mouth and your face is slashed up … A nigga will become Houdini when it comes to survival. Spitting razors became such have razors in his mouth, he would cut his own mouth up before even getting the opportunity to spit them out. a problem that inmates immediately punched other inmates in the mouth as soon as an argument began. This was so that if the other inmate did have razors in his mouth, he would cut his own mouth up before even getting the opportunity to spit them out. Gang leaders are brilliant managers of violence.
Pelican Bay opened in 1989 as an upgraded version of two famous old California prisons, San Quentin and Folsom, both of which still house inmates but function, as they always have, like enormous holding pens, hardly optimal for supervising a population of violent psychopaths who plot constantly to subvert the rules of the institution. Even the most secure housing at San Quentin, was built so prisoners could all go from their cells to the yard together, with 50 men moving as an i=ungovernable mass. The walkways were narrow, and exposed prisoners to each other in ways that encouraged attacks. As you walked guys to the shower, they’d get stabbed or speared. Pelican Bay, by contrast, allows much greater levels of control, and a much more oppressive existence for anyone trying to plot a crime. The population is sectioned into yards and blocks that might have little contact with one another, and that allow the inmates to be managed with special attention to their gang affiliation. Upon identifying a gang member, the prison can modulate his location, freedom, and level of surveillance, to a degree that inmates have called stifling and inhumane.
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 card’s color, which roughly correlates with probable gang affiliation: green for northern 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, as 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. Each interaction between a correctional officer and a prisoner resembled bargain, more than diktat. Before yard time finished, the guards inspected cells. They were livable, especially in comparison to the Rikers Island ones, even if the whole block had a dank locker-room smell. There was a dirty metal object in the sink, blunt with a wire attached. This was a stinger used to boil water. It’s illegal, but if an inmate isn’t doing anything wrong, a guard might let it pass. If a guard discovers a contraband item during an inspection, he might place it on the inmate’s bunk, just to show that he knew about it and could confiscate it at ay time, if the inmate didn’t behave.
Inmates use a technique called “fishlining” which involves attaching an object to one end of a string, sliding it out of a cell and into the hallway, and then using the other end of the string to yank it across the floor, this way and that, until it slides in front of the desired cell. They can send a book to an adjacent cell this way. (The books on one Aryan Brother’s bookshelf included a single-volume edition of The Chronicles of Narnia and a Teach Yourself book on German.) The fishlines work as a way to distribute contraband, but are also used as a sort of corporate communications system – like a pneumatic tube for prisoners.
The messages inmates send include extensive questionnaires for new arrivals. Nuestra Familia is particularly sophisticated, and, in a sure sign of bureaucratization, the gang even has an initialism for its new-arrivals: NAQ. After arrival in your cell with the door shut, the new inmate might get a fishline with a piece of paper on it. And he will be expected to answer the questions in full. The survey might include questions about your offense, your judge, and your relatives in other prisons. But it could also ask where you lived on the outside and what resources you have that could be valuable to the gang. The questionnaires are collated and checked. At some prisons, inmates use their cellphones to confirm details on Facebook, and they have been known to open LexisNexis accounts. Gang members are trained in micrography – the writing and decipherment of very tiny letters – so they can produce tightly rolled pieces of paper, called “kites,” to be transported from prison to prison in the usual orifice. These activity reports circulate around the prison system, possibly detailing conflicts with other gangs.
Finding kites is difficult, because guards cannot cavity-search every inmate every day. The only way to control known gang members is to confine them under strict conditions, that make communication almost, but not quite, impossible – no freedom of movement or circulation with the general prison population, for example, and only rare, carefully monitored visits.
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 stategy, 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. In Sacramento, the Department of Correctionsand Rehabilitation has posters on the wall showing mug shots of all the major gang leaders, grouped by the prisons they live in. Most are at Pelican Bay, probably for life, in snowflake-shaped building called the Security Housing Unit, or SHU.
Of course, there are ways to control inmates that American prisons have never tried on a large-scale. The gay-and-transgender unit of the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles County is safe and gang-free—so much so that prison officials have had to screen out straight Angelenos who play gay just to keep away from gangs. That jail is simply small and well administered, and it’s not clear that its methods could scale up. They could easily replicate less enlightened penal practices, too. In other countries, they can use corporal punishments not available to authorities in American prisons — a bullet in the back of the neck is a strong deterrent to any Chinese gang that might form behind bars. Within the bounds of American civil rights, though, we are left with prisons whose smooth operation relies in part on the predatory activities of gangs—and with facilities like the SHU, which is California’s effort to control the gangs by subjecting their leaders to levels of surveillance and restriction far beyond what most American inmates face.
Walking into the SHU feels like entering a sacred space. After the clanging of doors behind you, a monastic silence reigns. The hallways radiate from the command center at the hub of the SHU snowflake, and each one has chambers on either side that sprout chambers of their own. The hallways echo with footsteps when you walk down them. There are no prison noises: no banging of tin cups, no screaming of the angry or insane. The silence is sepulchral, and even when you get to branches of the snowflake, where the inmates actually live, it seems as if everyone is in suspended animation, on one of those interstellar journeys that last multiple human lifetimes.
In fact, many are just watching television while wearing headphones. A cellblock holds fewer than a dozen cells men, most of them living without cell mates. A board has inmates’ pictures on it, each color-coded. Hispanics and whites predominated. A couple of inmates wanted halal food, although it is suspected the meal requests were a way to break monotony and create work for the staff, rather than as an expression of any authentic religious conviction. The inmates were allowed televisions with the speakers disabled, as well as 10 books at a time.
The other Pelican Bay inmates were enjoying time together in the main yards, but these hard-core gang members didn’t have that option. Instead, they could go to a large, featureless concrete room at the end of the block for daily solitary exercise. The “yard” had a plexiglass roof that allowed them to see the sky above, and a small drainage hole in the floor, through which they could sometimes communicate faintly with other inmates on other cellblocks. Last year, gang members used the drainage pipes of their in-cell toilets to communicate clandestinely across cellblocks and coordinate a hunger strike by inmates statewide, to protest the conditions in the SHU.
No one would talk to reporters. The inmates maintain violent proclivities under lockdown at Pelican Bay— they become experts at weapons craftsmanship, for example, and could fashion the metal post of a bunk bed or the edge of a cell door into a spear, known as a “bone crusher,” that could be flung from inside a cell and penetrate a man’s neck or liver.
The first man turned out to be genial but squirrely. He was Hispanic, refused to give his name, and babbled away about how prison gangs are “just a thing,” never quite articulating what that meant. The only sentence he said that made any sense was that he was in for life for killing two people. The door was a steel plate with small holes in it. After just a few seconds of his talking, I got a headache, partly from his mad monologue and partly from the odd moiré effect of looking at him through the screen.
As I passed down the line of cells, I tried talking to everyone but got little response. One heavily tattooed Hispanic man flicked his hand at me from behind the steel door, as if to shoo away a flea. Most ignored me, and the few who paid any attention just stared at me like I was prey and said nothing other than “no.” Finally one man with large glasses and a thick black mustache said, “Prison gangs? There ain’t no prison gangs here.” He then turned to a blank wall and started doing calisthenics.
When I emerged, and the door had clanged again behind me, I told the guard I hadn’t managed to talk with anyone. She was not surprised. Any conversation they attempted, she said, might be overheard and used against them.
But there are limits to what even the most carefully designed prisons can constrain. The guard and I were talking in library voices, and no sounds came from the row of cells nearby. “It’s quiet,” I said, lowering my voice. “Can they hear what we’re saying?”
“Every word,” she said. “Every single word.”