Vincent Imhoff is a writer and Los Angeles criminal lawyer who acts as a managing partner at Imhoff & Associates, P.C. He earned his law degree at Chicago-Kent College and his undergraduate degree at Lewis University. When he isn’t writing or practicing, Vincent finds time to ski on his favorite slopes and get some jogging in.

Prison Gang Culture, Segregation and its Repercussions on the Street

I once read a book on the Mexican Mafia, California’s (and perhaps the country’s) most powerful prison gang, in which an anonymous prison guard gave a quote to the effect of: “The Mexican Mafia runs the prison, we’re just referees.” It stuck with me because the prison gangs have become such a ubiquitous part of the criminal underworld, inside and out, even the correctional officers (COs) acknowledge it. Prison gangs in one form or another have likely been around as long as prisons themselves, but never has membership in one of the gangs been such an unavoidable requisite for prisoners who wish to survive inside, nor have the gangs’ power on the street been so far-reaching. Unfortunate and societally detrimental as that reality is, the possibility that prison officials themselves may be inadvertently facilitating this dynamic is even more troubling.

Virtually all prison gangs are organized along ethnic lines. The chief players across much of the country are:

  • The Mexican Mafia who oversee a network of “sureños” gangs.  Sureños means “southerner” and indicates a Latino (Latina) gang member from a southern California-based group. The Mexican Mafia network is, as mentioned, probably the most powerful syndicate in the country and under their umbrella are infamous street gangs like Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13 (“13” is a Mexican Mafia identifier; “M” being the 13th letter of the alphabet); 18th Street; Florencia (Florencia 13); The Avenues, etc.
  • Nuestra Familia (Our Family) and their norteños gangs. Norteño, predictably, means “northerner”, indicating a gangster with an allegiance to a northern California gang. The northerners are probably the second biggest and most powerful prison syndicate and have been engaged in a violent war with the southerners for half a century. Active on behalf of Nuestra Familia (NF) and the norteños is “Northern Structure”, a kind of farm team for NF.
  • Caucasian gang-inclined prisoners often gravitate toward the Aryan Brotherhood (AB)- the prison system’s most powerful white gang. Per capita, the AB may be the most violent gang inside the prison system. It’s estimated by the FBI that while the AB represents less than 1% of the prison population they’re responsible for more than 20% of prison murders. While the AB is obviously based on overtly racist ideology, in practice they’re more interested in making money and practicality than racial superiority. Their most powerful members include Tyler Bingham, a Jewish AB “shotcaller” whose white supremacist tattoos share space with a Star of David. Multiple murderer (including a guard) Thomas Silverstein, raised by a Jewish stepfather and Michael Thompson who is part Native American. The AB have also formed an alliance with the Mexican Mafia.
  • The predominate black prison collective is the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF). For years predominately African American gangs fought in prison as they had on the street; though the shifting gang paradigm is increasingly forcing in-prison alliances between previously antagonistic rivals like Bloods and Crips. With sureños “sets” and AB-subordinates allied against black gangs in general the BGF is gaining power. In a number of urban areas, particularly on the East Coast (Baltimore for instance), the BGF is consolidating power on the streets from inside.
  • In the Midwest Chicago-based gangs allied to either the “Folk Nation” (Black Gangster Disciples, Latin Disciples) or “People Nation” (Latin Kings, Vice Lords) run much of the drug trade and other illicit activity on and off the streets.
  • Due to a generally more diverse immigrant population East Coast prison gangs tend to conform less to uniform sureños, norteños, AB and BGF-associated sets. Gangs on the eastern seaboard are often peopled by members with ethnic backgrounds that include Italian ancestry; Irish; Puerto Rican (Ñetas); predominately Hispanic Trinitarios, the La Gran Familia and La Gran Raza syndicates; Asian gangs including the Wah Ching, Ghost Shadows, Born II Kill; Russian and other Eastern European organized crime groups, etc.

Right now, there is hardly a street gang in the country that survives without the supervision, support or allegiance of a prison gang.

A disturbing consequence of those allegiances is the paradox it presents for law enforcement officials and the justice system in general. How helpful, constructive or rehabilitative can sending gang affiliates (or those forced to become gang affiliates) to prison be if doing so only strengthens a criminal organization’s powerbase?

And as incarceration rates increase to record levels, flooding already overpopulated prisons with scores of new recruits, gang membership and power is only going to increase.

Exacerbating the problem, according to a number of civil liberties and human rights organizations is the prison privatization trend. The lawsuits and complaints filed in a number of states share many of the same criticisms, understaffing being high on the list. As an economic incentive exists for prison-running corporations to keep staff levels as low as possible, reports of understaffed COs being forced to consolidate gangs in their own floors, “pods” or units to avoid inter-gang fighting.

While parsing up sections of a prison between the resident gangs may prevent some squabbles in the short term, the move also effectively cedes control of the facility nearly entirely to those same gangs. No prison, particularly those understaffed, can do much to control a prison population once it’s been split up into consolidated blocs of prisoners. Of course, that same consolidation translates to stronger, more unified and more organized criminal networks. It’s a sad and scary example of the cure quite possibly being worse than the disease.

ENlawyers note:

You may or may not be aware but in Maryland, home to DMI and BGF, two notorious prison gangs, there have been several recent federal indictments of high-profile alleged gang leaders.  Look for this trend to increase while authorities raise pressure on jails to keep inmates under control while swelling their populations.  Perhaps it is time to look for alternatives?