Prison and Politics – Part II

All societies operate within the rules, boundaries and limitations of a political framework, a culture. The prison culture is no different. There are rules on the inside and the keepers as well as the kept know them. These rules dictate how the prison will run, or how it will fall apart.

image by thomas hawk via flickr creative commons

image by thomas hawk via flickr creative commons

The typical State Trooper pulls over a soccer mom for texting, feeding a kid and putting on her eyeliner while driving. The typical Correctional Officer is looking for contraband during an unclothed body search. The soccer mom will be less likely to pull a razor blade out of her mouth and slash at the officer. The point being, the State Trooper plays an important part in keeping the public safe and may encounter a serious felon – the Correctional Officer deals with nothing but convicted felons who have proven by their behavior that they are unable to comply with basic societal expectations.

The street gang culture is a strong influence on youth in the community. Whether the draw to the gang lifestyle is in response to isolation and hopelessness, or the thrill of petty crime, these influences will send young men (and women) to prison for gang related crime. The reasons for this cycle of crime and mass incarceration range from the deterioration of the family dynamic, perceived social injustice, reliance on government support, or the more liberal belief of over policing in minority communities. Regardless of where you fall on the scale of the reasons – crimes are committed, people are convicted and criminals are sentenced to prison.

courtesy of

courtesy of

Inmates and Convicts. A convict is an inmate who knows the rules, where to bend them, when to break them and how to get over on correctional staff. An inmate is typically younger, a street thug now behind bars, disrespectful and prone to engaging in “blanket warfare,” where he threatens staff and other inmates from the warm, safe confines of his locked cell, tucked under his blanket. Convicts do not like inmates as they are disrespectful, cause unnecessary attention from correctional staff and disrupt the day to day routine of the prison.

Enter the gang influence. Street gangs and prison gangs are not the same thing. While they may align with one another based on theology, or geographic region of origin, street gangs number in the dozens and focus on their home turf. West Side Piru, Hoover Crips, 18th Street Gang, East Coast Crips, The Rolling 60’s, all battling for control of a few blocks along with all the drug trade, prostitution and protection money that comes with it. In prison, the dynamic changes a bit. When warring factions exist, street grievances surface and threaten to disrupt the daily routine. The routine includes access to the yard, canteen, visiting, job assignments, all areas where the convict culture rely upon.

The Prison Gangs exist to carry out their criminal enterprises inside the prison. While they may recruit from street gangs, they are focused on protecting the prison drug pipeline, selling protection, racketeering, and to a large degree, controlling the disruptive activity of the street gangs. If crips and bloods go after one another, correctional staff respond, at least temporarily, with a lockdown and restricted movement. The Prison Gang’s activities are hampered, so it is in their best interest to influence and control street gang members while they are in prison. The Prison Gangs sanction assault and murder within the prison and have on several occasions sent word to paroled gang members to carry out a hit on the outside.

image by gangs of the world via flickr creative commons

image by gangs of the world via flickr creative commons

The most notorious Prison Gangs, at least in California’s prisons, are the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, The Nuestra Familia, and the Black Guerrilla Family. All formed along racial lines, all competing for the drug trade and overall influence on the yard. Loose affiliations between the gangs keep a tenuous balance, The Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia on one side and the Black Guerrilla Family and Nuestra Familia on the other.  Until the late 1980’s all the Prison Gang leaders were in the general populations, running their gang activities, including bloody battles for control.

To reduce the levels of violence in the general populations, known Prison Gang members and associates were removed from general populations and eventually rehoused in new Security Housing Units (SHU), at CSP-SAC, Corcoran, and eventually Pelican Bay. As Pelican Bay activated their Security Housing Units the SHU cell blocks at CSP-SAC were deactivated and converted to general population units.

Pelican Bay SHU via CDCR

Pelican Bay SHU via CDCR

Violence directed by the Prison Gangs diminished, but new groups surfaced to fill the void and stake a claim for control. Nazi Lowriders and Norteno gangs blossomed and attempted to stay off the prison staff’s radar to avoid being targeted for a SHU placement.

The original Prison Gang members sent to SHU still manage to get orders and directives out to the prisons, through various means, (paroled and transferred inmates, arranged meetings at court appearances, family members and in some cases, compromised staff). Mass levels of gang directed violence were reduced. Staff and inmate safety at the general population prisons was improved. But the restrictions the Prison Gangs placed on the unstable street gang members were no longer in place. There are staff assaults occurring at nearly every prison, in spite of reducing populations. As mentioned in Part I of this post, after the non violent inmates were released or turned over to county level authorities, the remaining population is more recalcitrant and prone to violence because there is very little to loose.

Very recently, in response to concerns raised by prison rights groups, and increasing federal micromanagement of prison operations, long term SHU inmates are being released and rehoused in general population.  In very simple terms, a Prison Gang Member serving a SHU Indeterminate term, may be returned to general population if they have not engaged in gang activities for a number of years. They no longer have to drop out and disavow the gang. Well, perhaps they didn’t engage in gang activities because they were in restricted, isolated SHU housing? To be fair, there is a criteria for placement, but it doesn’t seem to be all that effective.

One such inmate appealed for a return to general population and his plea was granted. Hugo Pinell, a member of the San Quentin Six, and Black Guerrilla Family member, slashed the throats of two officers at San Quentin in an escape attempt. This occurred well after he lured another officer into his cell and stabbed him to death. Pinell was already serving a life term for rape. I think we can all agree, he’s not a nice guy, never was.

Hugo Pinell Crime scene via

Hugo Pinell Crime scene

The political forces from outside, once more, decided that they knew better and ordered Pinell released to a general population. Most correctional practitioners were left scratching their heads over this decision. Two weeks later, Pinell was stabbed to death while standing in the canteen line. I haven’t seen the details of the investigation yet, but I don’t need a crystal ball to know that correctional staff will get raked over the coals for failing to protect this monster. Who’s protecting staff from the likes of Pinell? Fortunately no staff were injured in the 70 inmate melee that followed Pinell’s stabbing. Hugo Pinell, in my humble opinion should have remained in SHU for the rest of his days.

Part III of this post on Politics and Prison will focus on the what can be done to make prison safe for staff and inmates as well as contribute to public safety.




  1. Fascinating and frightening series. It’s mind-blogging the decisions supposed “authorities” make. It’s always had me stumped.

    1. It does make for a few scratch your head moments,doesn’t it?

  2. Excellent!

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