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The fight for survival within the United State’s prison system has created a subculture the breeds racism, hate, and violence. About two and a half years ago, a young man named William King was sentenced to death by lethal injection for his participation in the murder of James Byrd Jr. James, a middle aged black man from Jasper County, Texas, was bound at the ankles and dragged behind a truck for three miles. His body was ripped to shreds as a gruesome display of the effects of prison subculture. What caused William King and his partners Shawn Berry and Lawrence Brewer to commit such a horrific crime? Was their behavior a result of innate nature or was it learned? Many agree that it was the time spent in prison that caused William King to brutally murder James Byrd Jr.
Friends and family claim that William was a pleasant and quiet boy before he left for prison to serve a couple years for burglary. When he was released, his personality seemed irrational and violent and he was covered in racist tattoos. Friends say he frequently spoke about white supremacy and was anxious to develop his own splinter white supremacist gang. King’s defense attorney explained that it was the high rate of violence in Texas’s Beto 1 Unit that caused William to turn toward gang activity as a means of protection and security. Racist attitudes develop from poor treatment from other inmates and a need to strengthen a common bond among gang members. William, the defense attorney argued, was merely a victim of the depleting prison system in this country ().
The reality of prison gangs cannot be ignored. Victor Hassine wrote a book entitles Life Without Parole, in which he describes the horrific reality of life behind bars. He writes, Once inside, I was walked through a quantlet of desperate men. Their hot smell in the muggy corridor was as foul as their appearance. None of them seemed to have a full set of front teeth. Many bore prominently displayed tattoos of skulls or demons. One could argue whether it was the look of these men that led them to prison or whether it was the prison that gave them their look. Just looking at them made me fear my life (Hassine, 7). While the actions of William King cannot be excused or rationalized, his story sheds insight on the problems that face our correctional facilities. Prison gangs are everywhere, and effect every inmate. When a new convict is admitted he is viewed as fresh meat among the prison gang members and victimized to no end. Prison gangs are a convicts means of survival in an environment so starved of morals that violence, rap, and murder are just a daily reality.
While it is impossible to know the impact of prison gangs on our street, experts dispute over the control and communication between street and prison gangs. Some argue that there is little connection between street and prison gangs and that operations of prison gangs remain behind prison walls. Drug trafficking does exist within prisons; it is usually made possible through inmate’s friends and/or girlfriends (Huff 248). Still others feel quite different, and see prison gang control reach far beyond an inmates cell. Some speculate that a large percentage of drug dealing in East Los Angeles is controlled from within prison walls by the Mexican Mafia. Joe ‘Pegleg” Morgan was in prison for forty years, beginning with a conviction of murder at the age sixteen. He manage to gain so much power and control of drug trafficking, street crimes, violence and money laundering that he rose to serve as the Mexican Mafia’s Godfather in the later half of his life (Barker, 311).
Prison gangs tend to display a distinct hierarchical structure. A single inmate who best embodies the gang’s value (Territo, 580) assumes the role of the leader. A leader time in control is normally short, partially due to the prison system’s ability to relocate inmates. It is usually the strongest remaining gang member that assumes leadership or the gang’s elite counsels a decision. A member’s degree of influence flows down a criterion of ranks, with the recruits having no say in any aspect of the gang’s direction and function. Gaining higher position in the ranks usually involve violent acts against opposing gang members. Each member takes an oath to maintain loyalty and obedience to the gang; any signs of defiance or inability to represent gang ideals would lead to violent confrontation.
One of the ways Arizona has attempted to discourage the maintenance of prison gangs is by deporting gang leaders to other facilities across the country where hey might find themselves in the racial minority (). Because most inmates have tendency to join gangs inside prison due to over exposure and the need for protection, it is important to figure out ways to combat the violence these gangs encourage. By inmate deportation, the department can ensure that the inmate will be hard-pressed to find new racial alliances. For example, the state may place an Aryan Brotherhood leader in a facility heavily populated with black inmates. Unfortunately, gangs tend to be regenerating in nature. There is always someone ‘next in line,’ and by deporting a leader, the prison may only increase the gang’s anger toward the system, encouraging further violence. Many other attempts have been made to curb gang violence in prison. Twenty-three hour lock down, and further segregating measures have all been applied, but somehow prison gangs remain more prevalent and visible than ever ().
While there are many splinter gangs and offshoots, officials are aware of about six major prison gangs within the country: Neta, Mexican Mafia, La Nuestra Familia, Texas Syndicate, Aryan Brotherhood, and Black Guerrilla Family. Each one of these gangs has historical significance concerning the sociological implications of society. The two states that experience the brunt of prison gang activity are Texas and California. Most of these gangs are divided along strict racial lines causing a severe degree of racism among inmates. Convicts like William King, are good examples of the hatred within prison walls.
Mexican-American inmates are said to be at a disadvantage making the formation of gangs essential. First off, they are faced with a language barrier, and the inability to verbally communicate with other inmates often causes disputes leading to violence. Cultural differences are also a concern. Mexican culture depends on the “consistent presence of family members… For Mexican Americans it is important to see relatives regularly face-to-face, to embrace, to touch, and to simply be with one another, sharing minor joys and sorrows of daily life” (Keefe 68). Finding themselves in the increasingly alienating American society, with no real formal terms of communication, the need to develop gangs becomes more predominate. Gangs replace the extended family so treasured in Mexican society as a way to emulating cultural values from their home country.
The gang Neta is a Puerto-Rican American/Hispanic gang. This group was established in 1970 in Rio Pedras Prison as a means to stop violence between inmates. Neta generally has strong ties with street gangs. They show strong patriotism believing in “independence for the Island.” Members are expected produce at least twenty perspective recruits and observe the come together in observance of the fallen members on the thirtieth of each month. Their identifying marks usually consist of red, white, and blue (sometimes black is substituted) ink tattoos of two Puerto Rican flags piercing a heart or the letter ‘N.’ Some members wear colored beads to identify gang affiliation and rank, and others carry identification cards. Neta’s most threatening rivals are the Latin Kings and Los Solidos. Neta tends to be successful at keeping a low profile, which makes them successful at drug trade, extortion, and ‘hits’ on other types of violence.
The Mexican Mafia is one of the dominant Mexican-American/Hispanic gangs. It got its foundation from a urban Los Angeles street gang, and developed into a major prison gang in a youthful offender program in California during the late nineteen fifties. One of the gang’s primary goals is maintaining consistent drug traffic both in and out of prison. The Mexican Mafia uses the Mexican flag symbol of an eagle with a snake, the initial “EME,” or a single hand print, usually black in color, as their identifying marks. Their most predominate enemies are Black Guerrilla Family, Arizona’s New Mexican Mafia, and, most of all, La Nuestra Familia. The Mexican Mafia has allied itself with gangs like Arizona’s Old Mexican Mafia, Mexikanemi, and New Mexico Syndicate. By way of street gangs, the Mexican Mafia tends to have more influence and connection than any other prison gang does. The members are arrested at more frequent rate than members of other Mexican gangs (Barker, 310). The power of the Mexican Mafia extends deep into the streets of California by way of drug peddling and violent acts. The wives and girlfriends of Mexican Mafia gang members are held in high esteem amongst other member; they are a part of the family as well. The Mexican Mafia coined the term “Blood in, Blood out” which refers to the gangs policy concerning gang loyalty. ‘Blood in’ relates to the blood spilled during initiation, while ‘blood out’ alludes to the consequences of trying to depart from the gang. Concerned with drug trafficking, extortion, pressure rackets, and internal discipline, the Mexican Mafia has been a long-time powerhouse amongst prison gangs.
Another Mexican-American/Hispanic gang that sprung up in California during the middle of the century was La Nuestra Familia. This gang was originally formed for protection purposes against the Mexican Mafia because cultural and social difference had created hatred between these two gangs. La Nuestra Familia has different organizations for prison and street segments. Members typically wear red rages and have initials like ‘NF,’ ‘LNF,’ ‘ENE,’ and ‘F’ tattooed in various places on their bodies. Another common symbol among member’s tattoos is a sombrero with a dagger. Their most outstanding rivals were Texas Syndicate, Mexikanemi, and Aryan Brotherhood, while they maintained working relations with the Black Guerrilla Family. They focused on similar means of productivity, such as drug trafficking and extortion, as did most prison gangs.
The Texas Syndicate came out of the Folsom prison in California during the early nineteen seventies. Its members were Mexican-American/Hispanic males who joined as a direct response to the growing reality of violence and rape by other prison gang’s member. The tattoos that were generally located on the back of the right forearm, were intricate designs that somewhere adopted the initials ‘TS.’ An interesting characteristic of the Texas Syndicate which displays the existence of hierarchical organization, are the terms used by gang member’s to describe themselves, groups, and recruits. The term ‘Carnal’ refers to any gang member, and the term ‘carnales’ represents a group of members. They use the term ‘cardinal’ in reference to the recruits, and ‘chairman’ in reference to the leader. Their enemies are the Aryan Brotherhood, La Nuestra Familia, Mexican Mafia, Mexikanemi, and Mandingo Warriors. The Texas Syndicate had the tendency to fall in disfavor, whether by choice or action, with most of the other prison gangs. With no real allies, Texas Syndicate has developed relations with the Texas Mafia and Dirty White Boys. The members carry with them a growing Hispanic and Latino supremacy ideology and have said to be recruiting at a desperate rate.
The need to fight back against to reality of prison violence is evident in the origin of most prison gangs, and the development of white prison gangs is a classic example. Being so racially outnumbered in an unfamiliar subculture, white inmates also had to create a protection network. The William King closely relates to this concept, as his attitude toward race as radically changed from the time he went in to the time he was released. With rape and abuse common inside prisons, the means fight back is essential if one was to avoid being bought and sold to various gang member as a ‘bitch.’ Under such circumstances, staying neutral or claiming nothing makes an inmate a prime victim for gang members. Unfortunately, joining a gang harbors racism and hate that manifests itself violently.
The Aryan Brotherhood is a very well known prison gang consisting of white males. This gang first made it appearance in California in 1967. Members are known to be covered in identifying symbols such as swastikas, shamrocks, double lightening bolts, the initials ‘AB,’ and other neo-nazi symbols. They often use Gaelic symbols as a way of coding communication. The Aryan Brotherhood has a fine working relationship with the Mexican Mafia. Although racial hate runs rampant, the Aryan Brotherhood utilizes black associates to sell drugs to the black prison population, along with lending moral support to black groups that may cause prison disruption. The Aryan Brotherhood’s enemies are the Crips, Bloods, El Rukns, and Black Guerrilla Family. Members engage in all sorts of prison activities such as contraband, distribution of drug, and breaking facility rules. They are a violent gang. Between the years of 1975 to 1985, Aryan Brotherhood members committed forty homicides within the California prisons and local jails, along with thirteen homicides in the community. And between 1978 to 1992, member were involved in twenty-six homicides within the federal system, three of which had staff members as victims. Once out of prison, Aryan Brotherhood members are expect to ‘score’ for the members in prison. Maybe William King was ‘scoring’ for some member remaining in jail.
The Black Guerrilla Family is the only major black prison gang. A former Black Panther member founded this gang in 1967 at the San Quentin Sate Prison in California. The Black Guerrilla Family is by far the most politically oriented of the major prison gangs, formed to eradicate racism, maintain dignity, and overthrow the United States government. Stricter than any other gang, the Black Guerrilla Family was a death oath, requiring all members to make a sincere life-long pledge. Should this pledge by broken, the member would be killed. Their most typical symbol is a black dragon overtaking a prison tower. They also tattooed the initials ‘BGF’ and crossed sabers and shotgun as a sign of allegiance. Their enemies consist of the Aryan Brotherhood, Texas Syndicate, and Mexican Mafia. The Black Guerrilla Family uses many of the black street gangs and other allies include the Black Liberation Army, Symbionese Liberation Army, Weather Underground, and numerous black street gangs. Probably the biggest difference between the Black Guerrilla Family and the other prison gangs, is their dedication to a cause. With other gangs are concerned with power, luxury, and respect while in prison, the Black Guerrilla Family has a larger mentality. Their anti-government and anti-official beliefs cause a deeper, more serious threat to correction facility and law enforcement personnel.
Each gang listed above had certain symbols and initials that were tattooed on their body to show allegiance to their gang. Prison gang tattoos are very important within the prison subculture. During the William King investigation, King’s tattoos were brought in as piece if evidence concerning the defendant’s radical racial views. King’s defense attorney tried to convince the jury that the tattoos were merely protection devices during King’s stay in prison. William’s numerous tattoos included, a black man hanging from a tree, all of which King acquired in prison. These tattoos not only reflect the racist attitude King acquired in prison, but they also reveal the gangs values and ideals.
Inmates display their tattoos fearlessly. They are a sense of empowerment and a means by which to brag. A tattoo tells someone three distinctive things bout the inmate: who they are, what they’ve done, and where they’ve been. Many times the inmate will have his nickname or street name tattooed somewhere on his body. Tattooing the name of a loved one is not uncommon either. Also, symbols like swastikas and other racial markings help to give insight on that inmates belief system. These can help to decipher who the inmate is. What the inmate has done can be seen in the different weapons and the directions in which they point. For example, should the inmate have killed someone with a specific weapon, there may be a tattoo of his weapon pointed outward. A teardrop located under the eye used to be a strong implication of a murder committed, now it typically speaks of family or gang members that had died during the time the convict had spent in prison (Lichtenstien). Where the inmate has been can be determined from specific landmarks tattooed on his body. Specific gun towers or cell doors may be tattooed to indicate the different prisons that inmate has stayed in. Some convicts get tattoos of specific areas of their 'home turf' revealing a pride toward his culture and community.
Tattoos can be done in prison two different ways. The first is the free hand method in which the inmate gets ink and a needle and uses the original Polynesian weapon. These tattoos tend to illegible and sloppy. If the inmate can acquire the right supplies, he can also get a tattoo through the use of a homemade machine. This consists of a simple motor, a hollowed out ball point pen, guitar string, and a battery. Which basically can be constructed in such a way as to create a pivoting pen head that needs to be continually dipped in ink. This method is more precise and generally creates a better product. Getting caught with a tattoo gun, our in the act of getting a tattoo results in a major disciplinary response. The convict will loose privileges, be moved to a more restrictive wing, and sometimes face a disciplinary hearing. Due to the popular demand of tattoos, these rules do little to discourage the inmates from getting more tattoos. Within the prison subculture, a good tattoo artist is held in high regard.
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