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).
Prison gangs are everywhere, and affect 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 convict’s 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 operation of prison gangs remain behind prison walls. Still others feel quite different, and see prison gang control reach far beyond an inmate’s 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 managed 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.
Prison gangs tend to display a distinct hierarchical structure. A single inmate who best embodies the gang’s value 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.
The Mexican Mafia is one of the dominant Mexican-American/Hispanic gangs. It got its foundation from an 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.
Being so racially outnumbered in an unfamiliar subculture, white inmates also had to create a protection network. 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 members 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, members 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 expected to ‘score’ for the members in prison.
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.
The fight for survival within the United State’s prison system has created a subculture the breeds racism, hate, and violence. This is where Prison Gangs have come into play. Racist attitudes develop from poor treatment from other inmates and a need to strengthen a common bond among gang members.
Broken chains. (n.d.). Retrieved Nov. 02, 2005, from
Hassine, V. (1999). Life without parole: living in prison today. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Roxbury .
Montgomery, M. (n.d.). Locked down: gangs in supermax. Retrieved Oct. 29, 2005, from http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/prisongangs/.