A Look Inside White Supremacist Prison Gangs
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Over the past few weeks, a white supremacist prison gang called the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas has emerged as one of the groups that may have had a motive to murder two prosecutors in Kaufman County. While any connection to those crimes is speculative at this point, there are stronger links between another white supremacist gang called the 211 Crew and the murder of Tom Clements, the head of Colorado's prison system, last month.
If you've been in prison, what don't we know about the Aryan Brotherhood and other prison gangs? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, how ethical slips can set our moral compass adrift.
But first prison gangs, and let's begin with a caller. And Michael's on the line, Michael on the line with us from Lawton, Oklahoma.
MICHAEL: Good afternoon, Neal.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
MICHAEL: We - you know, my experience with - well, they call them the AB, Aryan Brotherhood, another state, unfortunately through my own incarceration. But inside prison, it - of course you have a subculture, limited ability to interact, et cetera, with the outside world. But what struck me was their - the hierarchy, you know, the - those that are in charge, your leaders, and your structure as it goes on down.
In other words, it's very easy for new guys coming into the fold or, you know, coming into a new environment to just acclimate, to just be a part of it. You know, there was a place for them. And...
CONAN: Was there pressure to join?
MICHAEL: I would say there was, in a way, you know, because if you didn't stand for something, then who were you. So there was. There was direct, but not so much forced. You know, if you just absolutely - I never actually was in or closely associated but daily interacted with them. And I didn't see anything as far as my personal that I thought would be advantageous as far as maybe I'm joining a gang because it gives me security because now I've got eight, 10, 20 people that when one guy says go, it's a green light, you know, and I'm safe in that.
CONAN: Did they have - you're talking about so they obviously have a degree of power. Did that extend to power with the authorities, with the guards?
MICHAEL: Yes it did, and a two-way street, I'm sure. Hopefully somebody inside the corrections would call, but yes because they were able to quell differences, settle disputes. You know, these people could do what a prison guard or a correctional officer, take - you know, they could with one word, look, we're no longer going to act this way on this particular issue.
Many of them are, you know, they're educated, and they conduct themselves well. I mean, they're by no means the radical-looking crazy people that you kind of see on TV, the Adam Lanza, wide-eyed and look like if you met them on a street, you'd turn away.
In fact one of the people I was closest to was actually, according to him, fourth in line in another state, I'm not going to say which, but another state, and in the Aryan Brotherhood. He'd been in prison since 1973 and did 28 years and was recently released. But he - I mean, he's 5'2", he's a Vietnam veteran, he's well-read, he wears glasses, and he actually taught me chess. I lived on the same - in the same dormitory.
But the respect that he got and the maturity that he handled that, it's a 900-man yard, and with one word he made the decisions in passing, walking through halls, in the chow hall was a big place. And - but he conducted himself with a level of maturity that, you know, it's almost scary.
But on him personally, one of the things he said was because we got closest during the end of both our times, and he's also from Oklahoma, Tulsa to be exact. But he said Michael, I won't be in the Aryan Brotherhood when I get out. They want me to, but he said there's just - it's a whole different thing outside. He said the drugs and the (unintelligible) and things like that, he didn't want to be any part of that.
CONAN: Well, Michael, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate the information.
MICHAEL: Thank you, have a good day.
CONAN: You, too. Joining us now is Erin Fuchs, law and order editor at Business Insider. She joins us by phone from her office in New York. Good to have you with us today.
ERIN FUCHS: Hi there, it's good to be here.
CONAN: And does that sound, at least in part, like the Aryan Brotherhood you know?
FUCHS: It does. They really do wield a lot of power in the prison systems. I spoke to a former warden of a Texas prison who said that a lot of these gang members really have the guards under their thumbs. They're able to bribe guards so that they bring in contraband, and they have a lot of power on the outside, as well.
A lot of prison gangs, especially white supremacist prison gangs, are involved in meth trafficking and a lot of barter on the outside.
CONAN: And the hierarchical structure, we hear of military ranks being assigned.
FUCHS: Yeah, there's a paramilitary structure where a general, at least in the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a general is in charge of each of the five main regions in the state. And then they have various people under them. There really is a chain of command.
CONAN: And we're talking about structure and the power they wield. What about their beliefs, white supremacists?
FUCHS: I mean, that's a big part of it, but it's kind of interesting. Especially the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, it does have white supremacist beliefs, but it also works with Mexican drug cartels to deal methamphetamines. So really the only color that matters to them now at this point is green, according to a former warden I spoke to who's an expert on these gangs.
CONAN: And is there a direct connection between the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a group that's outside the prison, and the Aryan Brotherhood that's inside the prison?
FUCHS: Well there - yeah. I mean, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas has members both in and outside of the prison. It's actually a separate group from the larger Aryan Brotherhood. The Aryan Brotherhood was formed in Texas in the 1960s. Subsequently, a totally separate group called the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas formed in the 1980s, when prisons that were desegregated, there were a lot of racial tensions.
The ideology is similar, and there's both organized crime with both groups. But they are distinct.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in the conversation. Emily's(ph) on the line, she's calling us from Salt Lake City.
EMILY: Oh hello.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead.
EMILY: Hi yeah, I did 27 months in Draper, Utah State Prison, so I was involved with some of the women who were the gang wives, so on and so forth, of Aryan Nation gentlemen or guys that were over on the men's side. It's - I understand what these people are saying, but in Utah it's a joke. These people are just rotating around each other about who has the drugs, who has better magazines and who has more tattoos.
As far as Utah is concerned, there is no organization. I've been in Ogden, where I've seen it, and it's nonexistent.
CONAN: You said Aryan Nation. Is that distinct from Aryan Brotherhood?
EMILY: Yeah, well out here it's kind of the same thing. You know, they kind of piggyback onto something they've seen or heard in the media that they think is neat and cool, and it's pretty sad. We have a gentleman out here who's litigating because he's been on solitary confinement. He's associated with this nation.
Utah State Prison is one of the most unbelievable prisons. I mean, fortunately I haven't been in that many, but I was a poster child for pretty much having an attitude in the residential drug program, and they accommodated me and accommodated me and were very, very good with me until I graduated from the program and was hired to security and therapeutic staff to be a peer lead.
And they did the same thing with the women that were in gangs. They, you know, de-ganged us, we were not allowed to use any nicknames or things like that, and these women grew in here. But when they were removed and, you know, came back, they came back with little mentality from this little nation of whatever.
But it only took a little bit, and they were re-learned or re-educated so to say. But as far as the men are concerned and from what I've observed here in Ogden and Salt Lake, it doesn't exist. It's just who's got the drugs, who's got the money, who's got the coolest tattoos and who's got the car. There's no organization.
CONAN: Emily, thanks very much.
CONAN: Is there - obviously, Erin Fuchs, there are women associated with these men. But is there an Aryan Sisterhood?
FUCHS: Well, with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, women can't be part of the gang, but there are women associates on the outside who form a communication hub. They bring in coded messages to their boyfriends on the inside, take coded messages out, but they are not actually members of the gang. It's all men.
CONAN: Joining us now is Jorja Leap, an adjunct associate professor of social welfare at UCLA, author of "Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love and Redemption." She joins us now from a studio at UCLA. Good to have you with us today.
JORJA LEAP: Hi, good to be here.
CONAN: And what goes on inside prison that makes people feel like they might want to join a gang?
LEAP: Well, it's - I think it's very important. I was listening to the other callers and nodding my head as they were talking, particularly Michael. These are groups, and particularly in California, where there is - there has been overcrowding in our state prison. These groups represent order, they represent privilege, and they represent protection.
So there's a multiplicity of reasons people are drawn into prison gangs. If you are a gang member on the outside, particularly in Southern California, which is where I have the greatest expertise, if you're a gang member on the outside, and you are Mexican or Hispanic, you will join in with prison discipline once you are inside prison walls, and you will become part of the Hispanic or Mexican Mafia organization.
It's enormously attractive in a strange sort of a way because prison gangs ensure order and discipline, and they actually minimize or control violence inside prison walls.
CONAN: You wouldn't think that.
LEAP: No, it's counterintuitive. We think that there's chaos within the walls of prisons, but as I've gotten to know former gang members that are working to re-enter society, their observations on this are uniform. It's extraordinary. Some of them would actually rather be in state prison than in Los Angeles County Jail because they find state prison to be even more orderly than the county jail system because of prison discipline.
They know their roles, they know where they belong, they know what they're going to do, they know their allies, and they know their enemies.
CONAN: We're speaking with Jorja Leap, a professor of social welfare at UCLA, author of "Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love and Redemption." Also with us, Erin Fuchs, editor of law and order at Business Insider. And we're talking about gangs. If you've done time, what don't we understand about prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Investigators believe there may be a connection between the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the murders of three in Kaufman County: Mark Hasse and Mike and Cynthia McLelland. Again, that suspicion is unconfirmed, though in Colorado, where a Department of Corrections director, Tom Clements, was recently murdered, a member of the 211 Crew was the named suspect. He was killed, though, in a shootout in March.
A fellow gang member is in custody for questioning. Another is sought though. Again, they are not suspects in the murder.
The two cases have drawn attention to white supremacist gangs operating in American prisons. So today we're learning more about them. If you've been in prison, we want to hear from you. What don't we know about prison gangs, white supremacist or otherwise? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a comment on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is UCLA adjunct professor Jorja Leap, author of "Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love and Redemption." Also with us is Erin Fuchs, editor of law and order at Business Insider. And I wanted to go back to you, Erin Fuchs. The 211 gang, the suspect there in Colorado, was killed in a shootout in Texas. There seem to be a lot of different groups with a lot of different names. What are their connections, or what are their distinctions?
FUCHS: To be honest, I'm not entirely familiar with the 211 Group. I know sometimes there are alliances between different prison gangs. Sometimes there are rivalries. And I know that some are more loosely organized than others.
CONAN: So as far as we know, they may be allies, they might be deadly enemies?
FUCHS: Right. I mean the reason that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was thought to possibly be responsible for the murders in Kaufman County, Texas was because back in November, Kaufman County was one of the agencies that indicted 34 members, and subsequently they were warned by Texas's Department of Public Safety that various members of that gang were talking about inflicting mass casualties on law enforcement.
So that particular group can be very dangerous.
CONAN: And where does that investigation, you say there have been charges made, where does it stand?
FUCHS: That was in Texas.
CONAN: OK, thanks very much, and we appreciate your time today.
FUCHS: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Eric Fuchs, editor of law and order at Business Insider, joined us by phone from her office in New York. Let's go to another caller, and this is Julie, Julie on the line with us from Sacramento.
JULIE: Hi, my name is Julie, and I'm from Sacramento, California, and I was sentenced to two years at Valley State Prison for Women, which is in Chowchilla. And I did close - I did four months and 28 days of a two-year sentence. I had never been to prison before, and I had never done any real hard time ever. Recovering alcoholic.
And my experience in the prison system with respects to how it is run and the women in there, you learn very quickly that you have to almost act as if you are a part of a gang. You have to take any smile or smirk off your face, and you have to fit in, and you have to look hard. You definitely don't come out the same.
I was speaking with your gal producer that answered the phone, and I was sharing with her the first week that I was there I was put in a room with - it's a level four prison, and the roommate I had was a gang member, and she'd been to prison multiple times. And she was pregnant on top of it. But the way she spoke to me was just so awful.
And she made me write all her paperwork and do, you know, all of her stuff for her. And I shared with a woman who I had a van ride up with about my roommate, how she was treating, and she went up to my roommate and had told her, you know, it's her first time here, do you think you could, you know, take it easy on her.
Well, she went back and told her gang affiliation, and there were consequences for that. I mean my so-called friend did me no service whatsoever and I was assaulted, and it was an awful experience, and you have to beg like crazy to get your room changed.
And then I was transferred to another room, and I was assaulted by a black gang member just for making a comment about that there was a fight on the field and asking do you get more time added, you know, just asking questions. And her response was: Don't talk about my people that way. And I just was asking questions, not - and I was telling her, you know, I was just asking a question, and so when I went up to go to my locker, for whatever reason she jumped off of her top bunk and punched me in the back of the head.
So you learn very quickly to keep your mouth shut, and you just have to really try to make it out of there alive, and some people don't.
CONAN: Julie, we're glad you were among those who did. Thank you very much.
JULIE: Thank you.
CONAN: And Jorja Leap, as you hear that, those comments, I assume those same kinds of situations would apply in men's prisons as well.
LEAP: Well, and I think it's important to emphasize something. You know, the caller from Utah had an experience within her state, but in fact what Julie just depicted, we've got to emphasize, this occurs with women as well as men. Women do not receive as much attention, it's not as sensational. They're not as heavily engaged in drug trafficking and things like that within the prison walls.
But there's still intimidation, violence and an expectation that you will adhere to gang discipline. It's at a much more lethal level among the men. The stakes are much higher. There really are green lights, as the caller Michael indicated. There can be murder and retaliation.
But I also want to emphasize what I've learned is there's also alliances. And what Erin said was so critical. I've seen this over and over again in California. The only color that is respected is green. And I think people don't want to be aware that there are business enterprises operating from within prison walls.
CONAN: And the permeability that we see in Texas, with a group that operates inside and outside the prison, does that extend to California as well?
LEAP: Yes, a lot of the time I will say that prison walls are porous, and of course this is another thing that we don't want to look at publicly or in our policy. But the amount of communication that goes out of prison - I'm called, quite candidly I am called very routinely by individuals who are in prison across the United States.
And invariably, you know, I'll ask them if someone's given them a cell phone, and they'll make jokes about it, but it's very clear that even the most basic means of communication are available, as well as very sophisticated coded messages that are passed between prison yards, between prison dorms and inside and outside of the prison walls.
CONAN: Let's go next to Fred, and Fred's on the line with us from Miami.
CONAN: Hi, Fred, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRED: Well, you know, your (unintelligible) there, there's a definite distinction between federal prison and state prisons. The federal prisons run it in such a way that the gangs really can't organize as well. Yes, they attempt to recruit, and as soon as somebody's recruited, that throws the numbers off. And when I say gangs, I'm referring to all of them: white, black, Hispanic.
You go into almost any federal prison and you'll find, you know, four Mexican Mafia, four of any of the black gangs, Bloods, Crips, four - you know, they keep those numbers so balanced because they're trying to control, and the Feds keep that to a level (unintelligible) level.
The state can't do that. The states are stuck with, you know, I've only got so many prisons, and they're going to get an overabundance of - you know, if -like in the Florida system there, if you were to go into one prison, you're going to find that there are more black gangs than white or Hispanic. You go to a different prison, there's more Hispanic.
CONAN: And what's your expertise here, Fred?
FRED: A total of 27 years behind bars.
CONAN: And do these gangs operate, as our guest, Jorja Leap, was saying, as businesses as well as, well, other aspects?
FRED: Without a doubt, because that's what they are about. They are about the dollar. They're - you know, any way that they can find a dollar, whether it's to bring in pornography, whether to bring in cell phones for even better communication, or drugs or materials for making drugs or, you know, whatever they can do in bribing the guard, getting a spouse or a visitor to bring in something.
CONAN: And I gather that's - you would think - a person like me might think it was pretty difficult. It sounds like it's pretty easy.
FRED: It's not that hard. Everybody has got a price, you know, and you can take (unintelligible) this, and this was in a federal prison 15 years ago, a guard who had at that time like 15 years of service with the federal government. He kind of ran into a situation and needed money, and somebody approached him. Somebody had overheard him talking about it. He made the mistake of talking about it while in - while at work. Somebody overheard him. He was approached, and all of a sudden, there's a mass flood of pot on the yard that it amazed me. All this pot before was like little pin, you know, you can buy a joint, you know, real thin, just enough pot you can say that there was pot in this joint. But all of sudden, they started becoming fat.
FRED: And there was just massive amount of pot, and it was all this one guard bringing in his lunchbox, and, you know, he just kind of make his rounds and something would drop and then somebody would pick it up.
CONAN: Fred, thanks very much for the information.
FRED: Not a problem.
CONAN: And, Jorja Leap, as you consider that, A, is there, true, a distinction between - before - between staying in federal prison and, B, the potential and reality of corruption here seems very real?
LEAP: Fred is absolutely right. The account - the differentiation between federal and state prison is extraordinary. It's as if they are two different countries. And, of course, there's much more funding. There's much more careful guarding, and there's fewer federal prisoners. That's the other part of it. There's more resources, fewer prisoners, and they keep very tight controls in those situations. The possibility and the reality of corruption is unbelievable, and I'm actually grateful that Fred shared that experience of what occurred with the guard because these are very nuanced relationships.
In a sense, these are men that are living - and women in some cases - living together sort of cheek to jowl. And, you know, guards have circumstances. Guards have alliances. Guards have, as Fred pointed out, things happen in their lives. So there's tremendous, tremendous opportunity for that slippage. And what I've learned and the narratives that I've listened to is it doesn't happen abruptly. It doesn't happen overnight. The line slowly gets moved - slowly, incrementally - and it goes from, you know, marijuana all the way to heroin. And what I learned goes on in terms of just commerce within the prison walls is extraordinary.
CONAN: We're talking about the Aryan Brotherhood and other prison gangs. Our guest is Jorja Leap, an adjunct professor of social welfare at UCLA, author of "Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love and Redemption." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this is a caller from San Francisco - from California who says he's calling from a prison there. Hello?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello. Good morning. How are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks. You're on the air. Go ahead.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. I think that taking the Aryan Brotherhood because they made some headlines, you know, that's one thing, but I've been in prison 35 years now. And, you know, the Aryan Brotherhood started out as the Bluebirds, and the Bluebirds graduated into the Aryan Brotherhood. And in the '60s and '70s, they were the counterparts of BGF and some other - the Texas Mafia and so forth when the gangs, the Hispanics and the black gangs really started to rise up and unite because in prison might makes right, whether you're a cop or whether you're a prisoner, might make right.
If you're solo, you've got a hard line to walk, believe me. I've got a tough 35 years walking by myself. But I've done it. But these kids that are coming in these days, this is an answer to black gangs and gangs that blacks in general or Hispanics unite whether you're Paisa, which is Mexican national, or Southsider or a Norteno, these guys stick together. There is no room for - there's no wiggle room. These guys stick together. When the call to arms comes, whether you're black, it does not matter.
And the whites are so disorganized that they get their clocks cleaned on a regular basis. So, you know, while the Aryan Brotherhood may have some real baggage they're carrying around and have been for years, they have been also an answer.
CONAN: They've been an answer because, well, people need to bond together to protect each other.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oftentimes, you know, the whites are just very disorganized.
CONAN: I wonder, Jorja Leap, do you think that's accurate?
LEAP: You know, I think it depends on the setting, and I think one of the big problems we have about prison gangs is we treat them as if they are this one monolithic entity. If you look at the Department of Justice, they say that the White Aryan Brotherhood or the Aryan Brotherhood accounts for between 1 and 2 percent of the prison population, but 20 percent of the lethality in terms of murders and violence behind the walls. I've seen and heard both extremes. I've heard that they're just disorganized and a complete joke, and then they've heard they're also a force to be feared.
I think it depends very much on the organization, the leadership, the setting and the corruption of the prison guards, and I think anybody that makes - and I don't mean the people that are living inside prisoners - prisons who understand this better than any of us. They're the experts. But anybody on the outside who makes blanket statements about prison gangs is either naive or terribly misinformed because they run the gamut. I do know that white - the Aryan Brotherhood, particularly as it was conceived in San Quentin, which is kind of the history that's been told to me, does pride itself on being highly organized, you know, family structure, paramilitary structure.
They've got a hierarchy, whatever you want to call it. But I've also heard, very much like the woman that called from Utah, in certain states they're a joke. I would say California, New York, Colorado, places like that, Texas, they're not a joke. They're well-organized. But it all depends, as I said, on the setting and the membership. There is no single description or monolithic prison gang.
CONAN: I'd like to thank our caller from California. When do you get out?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I wish I knew. Don't misunderstand me, though. I'm not saying that the Aryan Brotherhood is disorganized. I'm saying that the whites are disorganized.
CONAN: I think we got that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Aryan Brotherhood - huh?
CONAN: I think we've got that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, OK. All right. Wish I knew when I was going to get out, Neal. Thanks for your great program. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Thank you for your call. And our thanks as well to Jorja Leap. She joined us from a studio at UCLA, where she's an adjunct professor of social welfare. Appreciate it.
LEAP: Thanks so much.
CONAN: After a short break, we'll talk about ethical slips, maybe not for prison guards, but those moments when things that were once unthinkable become routine, when transgressions pass not with a jolted guilt but with a dull twinge. Stay with us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.