MAJOR PRISON GANGS IN THE UNITED STATES
During the 1950s and 1960s there was a substantial amount of racial and ethnic bias in prisons. This was true in most all state prison systems, but was particularly pronounced in the southern United States and in the state of California. During the late 1950s, a Chicano gang formed known as the Mexican Mafia (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2009). This gang was drawn from street gang members in various neighborhoods of Los Angeles and, while in San Quentin, began to exercise power over the gambling rackets within that prison. Other gangs soon began to form as a means of opposing the Mexican Mafia. Among the earliest to form were the Black Guerilla Family, the Aryan Brotherhood, La Nuestra Familia, and the Texas Syndicate.
This section provides a brief overview of some of the major prison gangs found throughout the nation. As accurately as possible, these gangs are presented in a manner that is historically correct, cap- turing the basic feeling of the time and context during their development (see Table 10.1). Because the federal government produces accurate resources and data on justice-related topics, information regarding most of these gangs has been obtained from the National Gang Intelligence Center, a think tank of the Department of Justice. Much of the information presented has been obtained from a recent document titled the National Gang Threat Assessment 2009. The following few pages provide an overview of 13 of the most prevalent prison gangs in the United States. Though not fully inclusive, this is a comprehensive listing of the major prison gangs that exist today. The history of each gang, criminal activity, and other relevant information is provided. The gangs are presented in the order in which they were formed, starting with the late 1950s and continuing through the early 1990s:
The Mexican Mafia prison gang, also known as La Eme (Spanish for the letter M), was formed in the late 1950s within the California Department of Corrections. It is loosely structured and has strict rules that must be followed by the 200 members. Most members are Mexican American males who previously belonged to a southern California street gang. The Mexican Mafia is primarily active in the southwestern and Pacific regions of the United States, but its power base is in California. The gang’s main source of income is extorting drug distributors outside prison and distributing methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana within prison systems and on the streets. Some members have direct links to Mexican drug traffickers outside of the prison walls. The Mexican Mafia also is involved in other criminal activities, including controlling gambling and homosexual prostitution in prison.
Audio Link 10.4 Listen to a clip about prison gangs.
Reference Link 10.2 Read about the proliferation of gangs in the U. S. and their impact on prisons.
256 Introduction to Corrections
TECHNOLOGY AND EQUIPMENT 10.1 Using Scanners to Detect Contraband Brought Into and Out of Prison Facilities
This was no ordinary telephone call. A Baltimore man alleg- edly used a cell phone to arrange a murder, offering to pay $2,500 for the crime, according to Maryland federal prosecu- tors. Moreover, the man should not have had a cell phone— he was in the Baltimore City Jail on the evening he allegedly placed the fateful call. Indeed, according to the federal indict- ment, he was being held on a murder charge and made the call to arrange the killing of a witness to the original murder. Cell phones and the electric chargers that power them are just the latest form of contraband that correctional institutions grapple with daily. Corrections officers also face attempts to smuggle drugs and weapons into the facilities, as well as inmates who fashion weapons out of ordinary materials. To help correctional managers detect contraband and run safer institutions, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is sponsor- ing several research projects and pilot programs, based on recommendations from expert practitioners, to test an array of technologies. Scanning and detection devices can help spot everything, from a cell phone to a knife.
Testing Airport Scanners in Prisons
One NIJ-sponsored pilot program that enjoyed success used a millimeter wave imaging system to scan visitors at the Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. The imaging system can look through clothing to detect weapons, cell phones, and nonmetallic objects. Currently used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to scan pas- sengers at an increasing number of airports, the system was tested and evaluated at Graterford, a maximum-security facil- ity that houses about 3,100 inmates outside Philadelphia.
A person steps into a “portal,” which looks like a booth. The system beams radio energy in the millimeter wave spec- trum from antennas that rotate around the person. The energy is reflected, and scanners produce an image of the body and any objects hidden beneath the clothing. The system, called the SafeView, is manufactured by L-3 Communications. According to the manufacturer, the system produces less radi- ation than a cell phone transmission. Millimeter wave systems have been controversial because they present images of bod- ies so well—similar to nude photographs—that some people consider the systems intrusive. The TSA has taken various measures, such as immediately deleting the images, to win acceptance. This technology has much the same capabilities
and limitations as an alternative approach—backscatter X-ray systems—used for the same purpose.
The pilot project at Graterford involved scanning visi- tors. Thomas Dohman, Graterford’s intelligence captain, said the system was used for more than a year, and officials believe it was successful. “It’s very effective at discourag- ing smuggling,” he said. To address privacy concerns, prison officials used a privacy screen that cut out the most explicit views but still allowed the system to signal if something was hidden beneath a person’s clothing. Graterford officials also set up laptop computers when they introduced the system so visitors could see for themselves how the images looked. “The public accepted it,” Dohman said.
The Graterford system completed between 400 and 600 scans in a typical week, and each scan was completed in seconds. “It really didn’t slow down the [screening] pro- cess,” Dohman said. The manufacturer made the system available for free during the testing period, and the NIJ coordinated the pilot project because it provided an oppor- tunity to do an operational evaluation in a correctional envi- ronment that involved a commercially available system.
Overall, the millimeter wave system improved the contraband situation at Graterford, Dohman said. On several occasions, the system detected cell phones. Yet Dohman believes the system’s greatest success is in its deterrent effect. According to Dohman, people who knew about the system did not even try to smuggle something through it. “It’s infrequent that people had anything concealed,” he said.
This woman is being checked for contraband prior to entering a secure area of a prison institution.
Chapter 10: Prison Subculture and Prison Gang Influence 257
The Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), originally called Black Family or Black Vanguard, is a prison gang founded in San Quentin State Prison, California, in 1966. The gang is highly organized along paramilitary lines, with a supreme leader and central committee. The BGF has an established national charter, code of ethics, and oath of allegiance (see Figure 10.1). BGF members operate primarily in California and Maryland. The gang has 100 to 300 members, most of whom are African American males. A primary source of income for gang members is cocaine and marijuana distribution. Currently, BGF members obtain such drugs primarily from Nuestra Familia/Norteños members or from local Mexican traffickers. BGF members are involved in other criminal activities, including auto theft, burglary, drive-by shootings, and homicide.
The Aryan Brotherhood (AB; see Figure 10.2) was originally formed in San Quentin in 1967. The AB is highly structured with two factions— one in the California Department of Corrections and the other in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Most members are Caucasian males, and the gang is active primarily in the southwestern and Pacific regions. Its main source of income is the distribution of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine within prison systems and on the streets. Some AB members have business relationships with Mexican drug traffickers who smuggle illegal drugs into California for AB distribution. The AB is notoriously violent and is often involved in murder for hire. Although the gang has been historically linked to the California-based prison gang Mexican Mafia (La Eme), tension between AB and La Eme is increasingly evident, as seen in recent fights between Caucasians and Hispanics within CDC.
Although this technology detects contraband hidden under clothing, it does not detect contraband secreted in body cavities. To address this need, the NIJ is currently funding the development of a system that can identify contraband hidden in body cavities. The system, which is based on electric field tomography (EFT), is being devel- oped by Quantum Magnetics Inc.
Portable Scanner Spots Improvised Prison Weapons Made by Inmates
Although millimeter wave portals can identify objects hid- den under clothing, they are large, fixed, and relatively expensive. Corrections officials have told the NIJ that they would also like to be able to use inexpensive, handheld devices. These would give corrections officials more flex- ibility by allowing them to screen people at entrances and to perform spot checks anywhere. The NIJ is sponsoring the development of a handheld device that can detect everything from cell phones to Plexiglas. Many correctional institutions have reported that while their metal detection systems work well, the institutions face constant chal- lenges in detecting nonmetallic objects, such as impro- vised weapons made of wood or hard plastics.
The NIJ awarded a grant to Luna Innovations Inc. to develop a new device that would spot contra- band items regardless of what materials are used. The Weapons and Non-Permitted Devices Detector, or WANDD, is a handheld system similar to handheld metal detectors. The WANDD scans fully clothed people for contraband hidden under their clothing. Although designed specifically to spot nonmetallic contraband, it detects metal as well.
Unlike millimeter wave systems that use radio energy, the WANDD uses sound waves—akin to sonar—to detect objects. The WANDD includes an ultrasonic wave transmitter and an acoustic receiver. The device “listens” to the sound waves that bounce back to it, detecting hidden objects under clothing. Engineers at Luna tested the proto- type at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in Williamsburg. They found that the device works well with various clothing fabrics, including standard jumpsuits. The WANDD proto- type successfully detected objects such as cell phones, plastic knives, guns, and credit cards.
SOURCE: Bulman, P. (2009). Using technology to make prisons
and jails safer. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
FIGURE 10.1 Sample Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) Code
BG Term Meaning
Annette Brooks Aryan Brotherhood
Bobby G. Foster BGF
Central High mainline
Compton hole or segregation
D. C. decision or deciding
Kiss marked for death
Mary Mitchell Mexican Mafia
Nelson Franklin Nuestra Familia
Paula police officer
Record shop hospital
Sammy Davis, Jr. bootlicking
Supermarket killed or dead
258 Introduction to Corrections
The Crips are a collection of structured and unstructured gangs that have adopted a common gang culture. The Crips emerged as a major gang presence during the early 1970s. Crips membership is estimated at 30,000 to 35,000; most members are African American males from the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Large, national-level Crips gangs include 107 Hoover Crips, Insane Gangster Crips, and Rolling 60s Crips. The Crips operate in 221 cities in 41 states and can be found in several state prison systems. The main source of income for the Crips is the street-level distribution of powder cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, and PCP. This gang is also involved in other criminal activity such as assault, auto theft, burglary, and homicide.