An expert discusses the role of race-based gangs and other extremists in America’s prisons
In the last years, American state and federal prisons have seen the rise of violent, race-based prison gangs. This development was at least partly the result of the desegregation of prison populations in the 1960s, which sparked the creation of ethnic gangs as a matter of self-protection as well as criminal enterprise.
The Aryan Brotherhood (see From the Belly of the Beast), a particularly notorious and deadly white supremacist gang, was the first of these race-based gangs, formed in at San Quentin Prison in California. Since then, gangs that are white, black and Hispanic — and some that are actually mixed — have proliferated in the prison system.
Mark Pitcavage, the fact-finding director for the Anti-Defamation League, recently spearheaded a study of the contemporary prison gang scene called Dangerous Convictions: An Introduction to Extremist Activities in Prisons. The Intelligence Report interviewed Pitcavage, a historian and expert on the radical right, about the findings of the ADL's 52-page report.
INTELLIGENCE REPORT: Why do prisoners join gangs?
MARK PITCAVAGE: Prison gangs offer protection — and money and drugs. Some offer ideology, racial or otherwise, but protection is key.
IR: Is virtually every prisoner affiliated?
PITCAVAGE: No, no. A lot of prisoners never become affiliated. It all depends on the prison. If you're talking about a minimum-security prison for minor offenses or white-collar crimes or something like that, you are not going to see much of that. In larger, tougher prisons, you see much more gang activity.
In state prison, where many inmates are serving long sentences, there is a great deal of gang activity. There are gangs in federal prisons, too. Some gangs even have federal and state prison chapters. But even in state prison, where there is generally more activity, a minority of prisoners will belong.
IR: What are the largest prison gangs?
PITCAVAGE: The most prominent white supremacist gangs are the Aryan Brotherhood, the Aryan Circle [founded by Mark Cooper Gaspard in the Texas prison system in the mid-1980s], the Nazi Low Riders and the Peckerwoods. There are racist black groups, like the Black Guerrilla Family, the Five Percenters and the Moorish Science Temple. And major Hispanic gangs include the Mexican Mafia [known as "la eme," for its first letter] and La Nuestra Familia. And basically apolitical street gangs like the Crips and the Bloods are inside the prisons, too.
These gangs are organized differently. Some are essentially local. The Nazi Low Riders are basically in California and a couple of surrounding states. A gang called the Silent Aryan Warriors seems to be confined to Utah prisons, just like Krieger Verwandt ["Warrior Kindred"]. The United Brotherhood Kindred Alliance is in Michigan. The Mexican Mafia is based in southern prisons while its rival, La Nuestra Familia, is centered in the north. The Aryan Brotherhood is everywhere.
IR: Was the Aryan Brotherhood the first real prison gang?
PITCAVAGE: As long as we've had prisons, we've had prison gangs. But the Aryan Brotherhood took it to the next level. It was formed during the 1960s at San Quentin, originally to protect white inmates from Hispanic and black gangs. Later, it evolved into a powerful criminal syndicate with a nationwide presence.
IR: Did something occur to help promote these gangs' growth?
PITCAVAGE: Many prison populations were desegregated during the 1960s, and one result was that many inmates felt they had to join a race-based gang for protection. If white prisoners and black prisoners were separated, then that would not be an issue.
[Editor's note: Some states have actually resegregated certain cell blocks as a security measure meant to weaken race-based gangs.]
But the key to the Aryan Brotherhood — and the key to understanding virtually all prison gangs — is that ideology often takes a back seat to organized criminal activity. The Aryan Brotherhood is an organized crime group — that is the primary dynamic behind it. It's all about drugs, protection rackets, prostitution, extortion, witness intimidation, assaults, et cetera.
In many prisons, the Aryan Brotherhood actually makes alliances with gangs of other races. If they were ideological white supremacists, they wouldn't do that. This is why a lot of people who join race-based prison gangs while in prison don't stay with them once they're out or join other white supremacist groups. They just aren't primarily ideologically motivated.
IR: There was a major federal bust of 40 members of the Aryan Brotherhood, 30 in prison and 10 on the outside, in October. A central allegation was that members killed or attempted to kill people inside and outside the prisons in order to control drug trafficking, gambling and extortion. How do prisoners reach outside the walls to control or influence activity that involves the free world?
PITCAVAGE: There are a lot of ways you can pass on information from the prisons. Wives and girlfriends of prisoners often play an important role.
The Aryan Circle, for instance, uses its female supporters on the outside, who they call sisters, to conduct business operations and spread racist propaganda. And you can always meet privately with your attorney, who may be willing to carry messages to someone else on the outside.
There are ways. If you are in a maximum-security prison or in administrative isolation, it obviously is more difficult.
IR: Can you describe the Nazi Low Riders? And what is their connection to the Aryan Brotherhood?
PITCAVAGE: The Nazi Low Riders originally started as a phenomenon in the California Youth Authority, but the group spread into the regular prison system. Despite their name, they are not a strictly white supremacist gang. They accept members with Hispanic surnames or Hispanic wives or girlfriends, although they require members to have at least half white blood and no black blood.
What happened with the Aryan Brotherhood was that prison officials were doing a good job of identifying their members and putting them in administrative isolation. This really curtailed their criminal activities, so they looked to the Nazi Low Riders as people who could do a lot of the dirty work that they couldn't do while in isolation.
They could do drug-running, they could bring stuff in from outside and they could be the workhorses for the Aryans, the junior partners. That is how the Nazi Low Riders rose to prominence. Now that authorities are dealing with the Nazi Low Riders, others are seeing their star rise.
IR: You note in your report that the men who murdered James Byrd Jr. in the Jasper, Texas, truck-dragging incident had developed their racial beliefs while behind bars. What is the link between incarceration and politicization?
PITCAVAGE: Exactly what dynamic occurs varies with each particular individual, but there are some universals. Prisoners have a lot of time on their hands, and as a result they are desperate for reading materials. They are desperate for stimulation.
Some of them are just fine with pumping weights, but others aren't and seek out extremist publications as well as non-extremist publications. You see prisoners asking for free subscriptions, for correspondence, for people to send them materials, anything. They may not be ideological at that point, but they want something — and the material they get can lead to their politicization.
Another thing is that many prisoners want to justify or rationalize what they have done or what has happened to them. They don't want to say that they did something wrong or deserved what they got. This is true whether you are black or white. By adopting a particular ideological slant, you can rationalize that you are not a simple criminal, that you are in jail for political reasons.
Left-wing extremists have rationalized bank robberies as expropriations from the state. A right-wing prisoner rationalizes his crime as fighting back against ZOG [or "Zionist Occupied Government," a term for the federal government used by many neo-Nazis] — and he will be backed up morally by white supremacist publications.
The ideologies offer an excuse and a sense of empowerment that allows someone in jail to be transformed from a criminal into a "prisoner of war" or "political prisoner."
IR: Are there other benefits for prisoners?
PITCAVAGE: If you join a movement, you can receive all kinds of benefits from outside people in the movement. A lot of left-wing groups do serious prisoner support, sending you gifts or money, raising funds for your defense. They may write you letters, put up Web pages about you and so on.
Many right-wing groups do the same, setting up "prison ministries." Often, young women are encouraged to write to male prisoners, something that is seen as a terrifically important benefit.
This can play out well for prisoners who get out. They enter a world where they are heroes. They are ex-"POWs," liberated "political prisoners" who can tell the youngsters outside what it's all about. As such, they have access to women, drugs, all kinds of things.
IR: Many prisoners convert to one religion or another — often extremist faiths like Black Hebrew Israelism or the white supremacist theology of Christian Identity — while in prison. Aside from protection, are there tangible benefits to this as well?
PITCAVAGE: Now, that is a different phenomenon. If your religion is recognized by the authorities, you can get certain religious privileges that will vary from state to state. You may be able to get access to sweat lodges in some Western state prisons, even if you are not Native American. You may be allowed to have private meetings with religious leaders from the outside.
Prison officials often will allow you to meet with others in your sect, in the prison chapel or wherever. In some cases, officials have been forced to do this after being sued by prisoners.
Of course, these privileges offer another way for prison gangs to carry out their criminal activities. Early on in some prison systems, some street gangs such as the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords formed Muslim circles and so were allowed to hold private religious meetings. There, they could plan criminal activity.
You have some people claiming they're Muslims when they have no belief in Islam whatsoever. You have people claiming that they are Odinists or Asatrú or Wiccans, when in fact they are not Pagans at all.
This is a very difficult area for prison officials, because there are also genuine converts. It's hard to prove that a particular prisoner doesn't really believe in a particular religion.
It's clear that a great many prisoners are "converting" to racist Asatrú, which is the chief prison rival to Christian Identity [a theology that typically identifies Jews as biologically Satanic, blacks as non-human, and whites as the real Hebrews of the Bible], as a way of getting special privileges.
IR: How do outside groups recruit in the prisons?
PITCAVAGE: Sending materials and writing letters are the most common ways. Sometimes visits are used. Prisoners are lonely and have often been abandoned by their friends and family. Extremists capitalize on those feelings.
IR: Which outside extremist religious groups do the most prison recruiting?
PITCAVAGE: Christian Identity groups are very active in trying to do this. A lot of Identity groups have prison ministries that send materials into the prisons.
In fact, one of the first white supremacists to reach out to inmates in an organized manner was Richard Butler [founder of the Idaho-based Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi and Christian Identity group]. Butler set up his prison ministry in the 1970s, and in the following decade Aryan Nations also began to publish a newsletter called The Way specifically for inmates.
Today, the Virginia Christian Israelites [another Christian Identity group] are also very active. And Richard Kelly Hoskins [an author and long-time Identity ideologue] runs a prisoner book fund that sends materials to inmates. Kingdom Identity Ministries, which is based in Harrison, Ark., sends prisoners Identity literature at a reduced rate and offers an Identity Bible course.
The World Church of the Creator [a major neo-nazi group known as WCOTC], although it is a sham religion, has also recruited heavily in the prisons, and such prisoners often try to claim religious benefits. Another group even has a "Department of POW Affairs."
IR: What about neo-Pagans and non-white groups?
PITCAVAGE: Racist Asatrúand Odinist activists sometimes do this work, too. The racist women's group Sigrdrifa, which has chapters in the United States and Canada, runs a special "Odinism in Prison" project and claims active Odinist chapters in a dozen states.
[Editor's note: Imprisoned right-wing terrorist David Lane, serving a 190-year sentence in federal prison, is one of the principal propagandists for a violently racist version of Odinism, running an outreach operation from his maximum-security federal prison cell in Colorado.]
The [black supremacist] Nation of Islam is certainly active in the prisons as well. Then you have the non-religious extremists, like the [antigovernment] "sovereign citizens" [who typically believe, based on a tortured reading of history, that whites can declare themselves exempt from federal and state laws].
Radical animal rights groups and environmental groups such as ALF [Animal Liberation Front], ELF [Earth Liberation Front] and Earth First! also sometimes reach out to prisoners.
IR: Who decides what literature gets into prisons?
PITCAVAGE: They're called security threat group analysts. The federal level has a whole bunch of them. On the state level, they may be substantial or sometimes just a few who monitor activities in all the prisons in a given state. This is usually for the less populated states.
They look at all the materials coming in and out of prison to see if they are allowable or if they are linked to extremism, street gangs, organized crime, violence and so on. If they identify a prisoner as a member of the one of these groups, they may be able to take additional measures against him, such as placing him in administrative segregation. They have fairly wide latitude. In some cases, prison chaplains play a role, too.
IR: Is there a relationship between getting recruited into these racist groups and then committing hate crimes or other violence after leaving prison?
PITCAVAGE: My suspicion is that there is probably not a huge link, because a lot of these people just join the gangs while they are in prison, then leave them when they get out. But the fact is that some prisoners do get genuinely politicized, and on top of that prison gives them an education in violence. It's a mess. I think that is what happened in Texas [with the murderers of James Byrd Jr.], and the result was one of the most inhumane acts ever perpetrated in modern America.
IR: How do prisons decide if a given religion may be practiced inside the walls?
PITCAVAGE: It depends on where you are. It is really complicated, too, in that a particular belief system can be recognized as a religion but it or its material may still be prohibited if it poses a security threat.
Prisons must balance First Amendment rights with valid security concerns. So if it is an overtly racist religion, officials may not allow it to be practiced simply because it could stir up trouble. Prison officials have wide latitude when it comes to security.
Christian Identity, for instance, is sometimes recognized as a religion by prison authorities. But racist or anti-Semitic Identity materials are unlikely to be allowed in.
Materials from the World Church of the Creator are prohibited in most prisons. But in the New York prison system, and at least one other system I know of, the officials didn't care one way or the other because they only had one "Creator" in the system and just couldn't be bothered.
But, generally speaking, WCOTC does not have very much success as far as being officially sanctioned. This is why [WCOTC leader] Matt Hale encourages inmates to file grievances and lawsuits against prison officials who withhold his group's materials. Women from the group's Sisterhood send out "Prisoner Legal Packets" to help with this process.
IR: And what about neo-Paganism?
PITCAVAGE: Non-racist versions of Asatrú and Odinism are pretty much acceptable religions in the prisons. But again, if it is a racist version of these religions, then those materials may be prohibited. I should add, though, that a recent law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, puts the burden more squarely on prison officials to make their case that particular sects or practices pose threats to security.
IR: Is there a significant distinction between those who come into prison without much racial awareness, like the men who killed James Byrd, and extremists who enter prison already highly politicized?
PITCAVAGE: People who are already ideologically extreme don't stop their activities in prison — some of them see prison as a great opportunity for recruiting. Take Leroy Schweitzer, the Montana Freeman [a form of "sovereign citizen"] leader who's in federal prison in South Carolina serving a 22-year sentence for various financial scams.
He's teaching prisoners how to engage in "paper terrorism," how to file bogus liens against public officials, attorneys and others. He even showed one jewel dealer serving a 40-year sentence on money laundering charges how to file a [bogus] $1.5 billion lien against the judge in his case.
Other imprisoned ideologues try to influence followers outside of prison. Craig "Critter" Marshall, an environmental extremist serving a five-year sentence for conspiracy to commit arson, told Earth First! readers last year that the only form of solidarity he wants is more arsons. He wrote something like, "When someone picks up a bomb, instead of a pen, is when my spirits really soar."
IR: How much of a threat do these gangs pose to prison staff?
PITCAVAGE: Prisons are dangerous. I don't know whether the violence from gang members is greater than that of non-members, although obviously there is a greater potential for planned or organized violence. But there is a lot of training for this sort of thing now — prisons in general have better control mechanisms, whether it is cameras, doors that can automatically shut, or special training.
But that doesn't stop prisoners from killing each other all the time — and it doesn't stop guards from being assaulted. Let's face it, prisons are nasty places.