Race Relations: Social Order Of Prison

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Post by Clarence_Tillman on Sun Nov 18, 2018 7:41 pm

Credits to Douglas Nyswonger aka Warren Borbeck aka xxxxxxxx

When most people think of prison gangs, they think of chaotic bands of violent, racist thugs. Few people think of gangs as sophisticated organizations (often with elaborate written constitutions) that regulate the prison black market, adjudicate conflicts, and strategically balance the competing demands of inmates, gang members, and correctional officers. Gangs form to create order among outlaws, producing alternative governance institutions to facilitate illegal activity. The ramifications of these findings extend beyond the seemingly irrational and often tragic society of captives. They also illuminate how social and political order can emerge in conditions where the traditional institutions of governance do not exist.

Prison gangs have become major players in the inmate social system. “Shot callers” run the gangs and make demands of the inmates who affiliate with them. Their decisions affect inmate’s daily lives in a number of surprising and important ways. For instance, understanding prison gang politics helps explain today’s widespread racial segregation in prison. Despite the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s policy of full racial integration, race permeates nearly all aspects of the inmate social system.

A white inmate interviewed at the Los Angeles County Jail explains, “I never wanted to get involved in racial problems. When I went to prison, I didn’t hate blacks. I didn’t hate Mexicans. I didn’t hate Indians. I didn’t hate anybody like that. But when you go to these prisons, by the time you do ten years, like me, if you are even half way sane, it’s a miracle.” A white inmate sitting at a table in one of San Quentin’s dorms explains the racial politics of where one can sit: “There’s just certain races that you can play [card] games with right here [at this table]... Don’t ask me why. But we can’t play with the black folks. I would get beat up. You’d get in a fight over it. That’s just the way it is. There’s more racism here than there is in civilization, for sure. And if you don’t come in prejudice, you might leave prejudice.” Inmates only have their hair cut by someone of the same race and only with clippers that other races haven’t used. A white inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison describes the obligatory nature of segregation, explaining, “to talk to a black would cause problems with my own race… I grew up totally colorblind so it’s a big adjustment, you know, but that’s just how it is.

An inmate has an obligation to defend his own race when interracial violence erupts. A black inmate describes what is required of him, “If it’s a racial situation, you got to respond according to your racial background. If I’m standing next to this man here, and he’s suddenly attacked by another racial group. Even if I don’t know him, he’s black. I’m obligated by myself to assist this man.” A white inmate at Folsom Prison echoes this rule, “If it’s a white thing, you know, you get in it. If it’s with the whites and another race or something, then you got to be a part of it. If it’s something else, I just turn my head. I don’t even want to see it.” If it’s a “white thing,” a dispute between a white inmate and an inmate of another race, then he has an obligation to aid the white inmate. The associate warden at Pelican Bay testified that inmates group up by race when violence erupts because “if they didn’t, they would be disciplined, so to speak, by their own race.” Self-policing by race is widespread.

Inmates learn about segregation quickly when they arrive to prison, and both the correctional officers and gang members tell them about it. An officer at San Quentin explains that it’s easy to identify inexperienced inmates. “You can always spot a guy that’s not used to prison—a new inmate. Because he’ll come out. He’ll wander around. He won’t go with his own group. He’s just looking. And, usually what will happen is one of the gangsters will go over and snatch him up and bring him over and run the game down to him. Tell him this is what you got to do, this is where you got to be. You can only hang out with your own people. We don’t want to see you talking to people of other races. And, that happens real quick, real quick.” Officers also tell new inmates about the segregation. An inmate who served a five-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon explains, “I’m a white guy, so I can only hang with white guys in prison. The COs told me that I would only run with the white guys. I knew that going in, but they told me too. A guy, a white guy, came up to me right away and told me to get with the skins and I’d be okay. I got some ink, some white power stuff.”

A Public Enemy #1 (PEN1) gang member explains: “When I got in, the other guys took me under their wing. They showed me where to go and what to do…Most of the guys going in don’t have a clue, so you talk with your cars [people from your county], you figure out what to do. It’s not hard.”

For the community responsibility system to operate effectively, inmates need new arrivals to integrate with the existing groups. Each race expects the other groups to educate new inmates about the system. When inmates are affiliated, leaders can assert influence on group members to limit disruptive behavior. When this happens, the system works well, so each group wants others to inform new inmates about how the system works. A white inmate who served ten years for robbery complains, “The black dudes were slow at training their new guys. When they [white inmates] come in, we have a talk and set them straight. My boys were on it; you cannot fuck around and let this slide. The Mexicans, they know what’s what and they were quick, but the black guys, that’s a different story. I had to remind them several times, you know, ‘You have a new boy on the yard’ and stuff.”

Violence is an important resource allocation mechanism. Gangs fight for something as simple as where one hangs out in the prison yard or who controls the TV at specific times. A former gang member explains the intensity of these battles, “If a new yard opens up, you’re going to fight for that handball court, you know, you’re going to fight for some tables…If you ain’t a Northerner [Norteño] and you come into that areas, you’re going to get stabbed. It’s a whole different lifestyle in here. And it can get complicated sometime.” Another inmate explains that officials have little say in what happens in the yard, “Somebody wanna control this basketball court or that basketball court. Or this weight bench or that weight bench. CO has nothing to do with that. That’s amongst the inmates, the convicts. Sometimes you can maybe talk it out, get it settled without the violence. Sometimes you have to bring the violence.” Sociologist Brian Colwell relays a white inmate’s account of an altercation that took place over control of a common resource. The white inmates were allied with Southern Hispanic inmates, and the inmate explains that he approached several black inmates who were playing checkers on the Southerners’ workout bench:

I came over and said [in a subdued tone], “Excuse me, could you do me a favor. These are the “Southerners” [Hispanics from southern California] benches. I know they aren’t here now, but when they aren’t here, they become our [the white inmate groups] responsibility and nobody else is supposed to drive on them when they aren’t here. You can finish up your game, but when you’re done I’d appreciate it if you could move on up to those other tables that are made to be used to play games on. That’s what they are for.” They didn’t even look up at me, they didn’t even pay me that respect when I was talking to them. One just said, “We’re not moving and we’re going to do both, white boy.” Well, I picked up a weight bar; I was weaker back then so I didn’t do it fast enough so he was able to block it with his hand when I was bringing it down on him. Then madness. The whole scene popped off. The riot lasted for 30 minutes, which is a long time for a riot in here.

It’s important for gangs to control these common areas and resources in the yard because this is the arena in which much illicit business happens. An officer describes inmates’ yard time at San Quentin, “they’re down there passing drugs, they’re down there passing information, there are orders on whose to be hit, whose supposed to be holding weapons, whose supposed to be holding drugs. And, you know, it’s their time to do their business.”

One of the gangs’ most important jobs is to resolve conflicts among inmates, the most common causes of which are disrespect, disputes over drug deals and drug debts, and theft. The shot callers watch out for problems and work to resolve them when they arise. A shot caller is typically someone who has been incarcerated (often in that housing area) for a relatively long time, knows the facility, common problems, and has the skills needed to keep the peace. A former inmate explains, “A shot-caller is someone that runs the whole tank or module. Pretty much, people that know a lot about incarceration cuz they’ve been in prison for a while. They run it and they run the section.” Another former inmate describes the two main functions the shot caller performs, “So here’s the deal, you got old guys like me who have been in prison forever and have shot-callers do their job, keep peace and run the action. That’s why we have shot-callers so when a couple of idiots get into it in the yard, instead of letting them kill themselves, the shot-caller goes out and works it out. He talks to these guys and finds out what happened, who did what to who it’s very simple.”

Each gang is responsible for their members’ actions, so they have an incentive to monitor their members to ensure they maintain their collective reputation. Interacting with unknown people from different gangs is possible because each inmate knows the other gang’s reputation is on the line and each gang faces relatively low costs of demanding good behavior from its members. A white inmate at Folsom Prison explains that if an inmate from your county acts poorly, it reflects poorly on you, so you are the obvious person to handle the problem. He explains “Like if you get somebody who has been an informant from your county, you know, or a child molester or something, somebody in your car (that’s your county)…You got to handle it. Somebody’s gotta handle it or the whole car is shunned. You know your whole car will be put on shine, you know, lame status.” To protect their reputation, groups punish members who violate the rules of the inmate social system.

If someone starts trouble, the shot caller can punish him or make him apologize. A white inmate who served eight years for robbery and assault explains how the gang worked to keep white inmates inline, “I knew this guy that ran his mouth a lot, made lots of problems, called people names and stuff. He called these Mexican guys a bunch of greasy wetbacks. He’s a loose cannon, he’s going to cause trouble you know what I mean, we work hard to keep that race shit calm and here is this prick causing trouble, no one wants that so we had to check him. We took him down a peg or two, it came right from the top, the asshole needs a lesson.” A black inmate describes his initial surprise at the gang policing of interracial violence. After he disrespected a white inmate, “the next thing I know, I’m told to make it right with him. I have to man up and take care of my shit. At first I thought, you gotta be kidding me. No way am I going to tell this guy that I’m sorry. Then they told me that I have no choice. That’s the rule, you do what you’re told. They made a very good argument about how I need to fall in line. Okay, so I made things right.” A Northern Hispanic inmate explains, “Pretty much we respect other groups. You aren’t supposed to be disrespectful or do anything…like disrespecting you to just get everybody in a wreck. If I was just to say, ‘Fuck you’ just because, that is not tolerated.” One inmates explains how things might unfold if an inmate feels disrespected by an inmate of another race. He goes to “the guy with the most power or seniority over the car (group). Then they hold court and decide what discipline is to be had. Maybe run, they’ll make the guy run laps, [as opposed] to stabbing him. That doesn’t happen very often. It’s got to be a big deal for a guy to get stabbed. It’s usually just something so they see it. The other side. They see it and know we have unity. We show everybody we go down together and this guy got disciplined.”

A white inmate who served sixteen months on a drug charge explains, “if someone pisses me off, you know starts trouble with me, he has to answer to his own people. They decide if it’s worth fighting over you know? If they decide that he’s just a big dick and he needs to apologize to me for being a dick then he will tell me he’s sorry. That’s how it usually ends. Nothing too dramatic.” One inmate describes the process of intergroup dispute resolution. He explains that members of other races “aren’t going to communicate with you for no reason unless they are trying to prevent problems. There is no doubt who is right or wrong. Some guy starts saying ‘Man I didn’t do this or that’; its like ‘Shut up.’ It’s not going to be, ‘He’s lying.’ Cuz for one there’s going to be other people that seen it. People will be talking about, ‘Yeah we saw him do this to that white guy, disrespecting him.”

Another inmate describes how each group monitors and punishes its own members, “We need to keep the boys in line. If one of our guys is a hot head or something and is always shooting off his mouth it can get everyone into trouble. We don’t want a lockdown, we don’t want a riot so I’ve had to beat down my own guys to control the bigger picture. If one of my guys is messing up then we either offer him up to the other guys or we take him down ourselves. Like I had a guy that ran up a big drug debt, he owed money to the woods [peckerwood skin-head gang] and I had to turn him over to them. They took him to a cell and really beat the shit out of him. We had to do it. If not, then everyone fights which is bad for business and bad for us.

For illicit markets to operate effectively there has to be an arena in which inmates can resolve commercial disputes. If an inmate owes someone money, the lender can work with their gang to be paid.

A PEN1 gang member describes how they worked together, “my leader tells me to talk with their Lieutenant and set up the rules. There’s really no problem here, and no one is jumping me or anything. It would be a lot worse if I did not know what was going on with the brothers, you know? We have to talk. I remember this one time, the colored guys owed us some money, so I go to their guys and say ‘Hey, man, I want to work with you, but I’m not a punk, you need to pay up.’ They were totally cool, their guy was like, ‘That’s cool man, I get it, we’ll talk with the boys.’ Stuff like that. I have to tell you, I do not like the blacks; I know that’s not cool, but I don’t like them. That doesn’t mean that I won’t talk to them. If the time is right and they owe me money, they will pay up if I explain that it’s about business. Everyone is fine with that.” Despite the fact that inmates segregate by race, have racist tattoos, and vocalize their hatred of others, they work together to establish order so that they can gain from trade. When there are profits available, people find ways to overcome prejudices.

Gangs don’t always make their members do the right thing, and disputes still happen. A white inmate describes one such instance, “I got into a fight with this guy; he owed me money. I told his boys that they need to talk with him and they were like, ‘What can we do about it?’ which means that I gotta go get the money myself. I go talk with him, and he spits on me. What the hell? I wasn’t going to beat him up, but now I have to on principle alone…If he was cool, nothing would happen. Instead, he has to be a total dick and spit at me. Who does that? What are we, ten years old?”

Typically, gangs must authorize the use of violence because spontaneous, unplanned violence causes problems for other inmates. An inmate who did eight years for manslaughter explains, “you can talk with the leaders if you want to fight, that’s fine, but you cannot just jump a guy in the yard...The guards will see that something is up and they’ll start watching us…you start bringing down another guy, and now everyone is involved and it’s a mess. So I say, look, talk to the leaders, see if they’ll let you take the guy down in a blind spot or in their cell. Keep that shit low-key, right? No need to bring in the cops over some name calling. We can take care of that.”

Public acts of violence attract staff attention, which hinders inmates’ ability to deal in contraband. Profit-seeking gang leaders have an incentive to control violence. An inmate who served four years describes how the inmate rules determine when and where violence is acceptable, “you have the official rules, no going out of bounds and stuff, but there are the rules of the yard and the rules of the cell. We knew when to fight and when not to. You know, there are riots in prison, but those are planned and we know when to let things go. You get confused about all the rules at first, but the longer you are in, the easier it is. At first, I got in a lot of fights cuz some guy would stare me down or say shit to me; then I learned the rules, and I knew when to ignore shit and when to pay attention. The longer you are there, the easier it is. You just have to learn when and where to do your thing.”

Gangs create rules to police their own people and to promote market activity, but inmates do fight, stab, and kill each other over disputes. Violence causes trouble for market participants, especially when it occurs in public. After riots, officials put inmates on modified programming, including possibly a complete facility lockdown. Without access to the mainline population, gang drug-dealers can’t do business and inmates can’t enjoy time outside. A former inmate laments the ill effects of a lockdown, “Well, we don’t fight in a riot and stuff unless we have to, it’s too dangerous. We’ll go into lockdown which sucks and people get killed and stuff. If I’m locked down, then I’m not working. You can make some serious bank in prison and shot-callers hate it when you’re in lockdown.” A black inmate explains that shot callers strived to avoid lockdowns because “the gangs can’t sell their stuff, drugs and stuff. They don’t want a lockdown, that’s true…Leaders get pissed if there’s a lockdown and we don’t get yard time, I hated it…It’s best to handle things low-key. No one needs a riot.”

When gangs determine that violence is necessary, they orchestrate it to be less disruptive and noticeable. To settle minor disputes, inmates often fight in a cell. One former inmate explains, “if someone disses me or someone takes my stuff then the leaders tell us to take it to the cell. We slug it out and get things taken care of.” Another explains that cell fights allow inmates to avoid formal reprimands, “We do a lot of cell-fights. I may have words with someone, someone may piss me off so we take it to the cell and have a cell fight. No one sees us and we don’t get written up.” A gang member argues that “The leaders, they control most of the problems and keep the peace. It’s not like they show on TV, we don’t fight hardly ever. We control the yard and keep the boys in check.”

A Hispanic inmate who served a six-year sentence for robbery and assault explains prison gangs’ dual nature, “The boys inside, they follow the rules and that means you work with your own boys and do what they say. Look, there is a lot of problems caused by the gangs, no doubt. The thing is, they solve problems too. You want a structure and you want someone to organize the businesses so the gangs have their rules. You don’t run up a drug debt, you don’t start a fight in the yard and stuff. Gangs are a problem but we took care of business…the cops split up gangs if there’s a big problem so we keep to ourselves and mind our own business.” The possibility of earning illicit profits creates incentives for violent criminals to promote order behind bars. Prison gangs find it profitable to provide governance.

Gangs create mechanisms to generate and distribute information about people in prison. It’s relatively easy for inmates to learn about a new arrival’s criminal past. One way is simply to ask the new inmate to see his paperwork, which will state the offenses for which he was convicted. New inmates violate an important rule by not showing their paperwork and it indicates that he has something to hide. Moving to a new facility won’t necessarily give an inmate a fresh start either because inmate correspondence allows people to notify others of the new arrival’s status. An inmate can also ask someone on the outside to access an inmate’s criminal docket on legal websites like PACER or Westlaw and then mail copies or summaries of the findings. In California, contraband mobile phones even allow inmates to access the Megan’s Law database to find out which inmates are sex offenders. In fact, the simple act of being transferred to a new prison reveals some information about an inmate because it indicates that he had conflict at his previous prison. One inmate explains his reasoning after he became suspicious that a new arrival (who wouldn’t show his paperwork) was a child molester, “He’s a transfer, that’s a red flag anyway but a transfer without paperwork, yeah he’s dirty. So I just tell him okay, that’s cool, see ya later. I’m not asking questions, we don’t ask questions at that point. I then check with my people, and they say he needs a hit. Three of us take him out in a blind spot.” Officials reportedly aid the inmates to some extent in identifying sex offenders, and an inmate claims, “the COs tell us, they hate these guys, too.”

Shot callers educate new inmates on the rules of the prison yard, and they send written communications to collect information. A shot caller will often send a new inmate a note that contains a prison-arrival questionnaire. A typical note might have seven questions (called a “seven on seven”). It will ask for the new inmate’s name, nickname, date of birth, neighborhood that he’s from, when and where he’s been incarcerated, charges and offenses, and what rank, if any, he holds in prison and street gangs. These questionnaires tend to be shorter at the county jail level because inmates spend less time there, inmate populations are more transitory, and pre-prison social networks provide more information. At state prisons, gangs use a longer questionnaire and ask about a new inmate’s background more extensively. For example, a longer (“forty on forty”) questionnaire at San Quentin asked if the inmate’s family had ever been in law enforcement, if he was trained in any martial arts, if he had any family members in prison, and if he was willing to work for the gang. When transferring to a new facility, a gang member might smuggle a note from the shot caller at his old prison to the shot caller at the new prison to help establish his reputation in the facility. For instance, the rules governing northern Hispanic inmates say, “It shall be the responsibility of the lieutenant to inform the captain of the departure of his soldados in order that the familia of the other regiment can be informed.” In other words, the shot caller alerts the leader at the new prison that the new arrival is a trustworthy member in good standing.

Inmate rules provide a way to secure access to the resources needed on any given day. An inmate explains, “There are so many rules about who goes first in line for meals and who gets the TV first. If you follow all these rules, you end up doing easy time.” These rules mitigate the costs that one’s actions impose on others. For example, inmates on one occasion assaulted someone who had not showered for a month. Another inmate explains the difficulty that arises when inmates don’t know the rules, “I knew prison was hard but I never thought I’d have to know rules about who uses the shower first and who sits with who and who the leaders are. I think that’s why there are fights, the dumb guys don’t know the code going in and they screw up.” These rules help to resolve disputes over conflicts associated with common problems.

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"The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System" by David Skarbek
"Enforcing the Convict Code: Violence and Prison Culture" by Rebecca Trammell


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