Monday, April 01, 2013


I figured today would be a good one to take a look at the Aryan Brotherhood, well sort of.  You know why.  But I wanted a look not from some "experts," who have spent their lives "studying" groups like this, keeping track of them, writing about them (though all of that is fine by me and necessary).  I also didn't want to hear from those like me with a built in ideology and who have been involved in one way or another with anti-racist work, anti-fascist work.  I thought, let's look for people who have been inside and actually had to deal with these guys...and who aren't necessarily from the "choir."  Consequently, don't expect to agree with everything, or even anything, you read in the two posts below.  However, you might want to pay a little attention.

The second post below is the one that for me personally is the most interesting.  I was in prison but it was before the prisons were totally turned into gang city.  While the prisons I inhabited were definitely divided up by race I wasn't forced into the weird position that as a Jew I didn't have any gang to join for protection  even if I wanted to do so.  However, even though I was an anti-racist and even though I was a red even then, I realized prison life was going to be different.  I did my best to get by and survive.  I didn't engage in racist shit.  I did associate with people of color some  (mostly in the living area where you could get away with some of that, and definitely not in the eating area where you could not).  In fact, it was a black guy who took me aside on my first day inside and sort of explained things to me.  I don't know who he was, but I was glad he took the time to do it.  

I got by in El Reno (a pen for younger convicts and rated somewhere between moderate and maximum security at the time) hanging out with some young, but pretty experienced, respected cons who knew what they were doing and took me in (I think because they probably found me weird, and my crime - bombing conspiracy - interesting).  I got by at Leavenworth during the final part of my time  by hanging out with people associated, believe it or not, with organized crime.  How this happened is two fold.  First, as there were Jewish mobsters there who associated with the Italian ones and well, I was a landsman, so to speak.  Secondly, my "girlfriend" who was in law school at the time was working on an appeal case for a guy who was, shall we say, a mob soldier out of Chicago and because of her, he decided to take me under his wing.  He was about 6'6" and tough as shit, so that didn't hurt.  

But I digress into "old times."

I would most definitely not want to find myself having to deal the prison world today.  Of course, I could never (even if I wasn't a Jew) align myself or befriend the likes of a white racist group like the Brotherhood, but, boy it would be some scary shit, I presume.  I'd be pretty much on my own and being on your own inside may sound cool, but it ain't.

Better out here, then in there...

The first post below is from the Daily Beast.  The second is from the blog of robert Kelsey.  The blog is generally a promotion for his self improvement, be more confident type of book. The guy was at one time, believe it or not, a banker. However, what he has to say here is interesting, though sometimes totally off base (in my opinion).

Why I Fear the Aryan Brotherhood—and You Should, Too

Whether or not the Aryan Brotherhood killed two Texas prosecutors, their increasing emergence from prison should strike fear in all of us. I should know—I was behind bars with them.

Law enforcement officers may have a real problem on their hands. They’re being tight-lipped about it, but it’s something they should have been aware of for decades. They had to see it coming.

Patti McConville/Getty

Four people have been killed since the beginning of the year in a series of shootings that appear to be connected to the homegrown jihadists of the Aryan Brotherhood. Mike McLelland, the district attorney of Texas’s Kaufman County, and his wife, Cynthia Woodward, became the latest victims this past weekend. Before that, McLelland’s former colleague Mark Hasse was shot in January. Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements was gunned down in mid-March.

The Brotherhood, also known as The Brand, AB, and One-Two, was formed during the 1960s by a group of white convicts serving time at San Quentin. They allegedly were fed up with white prisoners being victimized by the two predominant gangs, the Black Gorilla Family (BGF) and the Mexican Mafia and decided to form a gang of their own for self-protection. While initially closely associated with Nazism ideologically, many adherents belong to the group for the identity and purpose it provides. The ironclad rule for entrée into the Brotherhood is simple: kill a black or a Hispanic prisoner. The other rule, which is just as ironclad, gave rise to their motto: “Blood In/Blood Out.”

Quitting isn’t an option. There’s only death.

I got up close and personal with members of the Brotherhood more than 20 years ago in Nevada. Due to the relatively sparse population in northern Nevada, the feds didn’t have their own lockup in which to house pretrial detainees, or at least they didn’t back then. So they rented a “range”— a row—of 14 cells in Nevada’s maximum-security prison in Carson City to house defendants going back and forth to Federal Court in nearby Reno.

Other prisoners, like me, were being held at various city and county jails in the area, but everyone who knew they were not going anywhere soon wanted to get moved to Carson City, where there was a day room with a working color TV, a fairly well-equipped weight pile, and, by prison standards, excellent food. As I would also discover when I got there, the low-paid state prison guards assigned to the special unit were fairly easy to bribe: the occasional fifth of Jack Daniel’s or a dime bag of weed (which the guard got $100 for) found its way onto the range.

When the situation calls for it, they’re killers.

So after three months in a single cell (I’d get out once a week for a shower), when my lawyer said she could get me moved to Carson City I was very eager—until I got there. There were 13 white guys, and seven of them, I could tell by the tattoos, were members of the Brotherhood.  But by then I was a seasoned convict (having served four previous sentences, this wasn’t my first rodeo), so I’d been around prison gangs before and knew the ropes. I kept my head down, my eyes averted, and ate my meals alone at the far end of the table…at least for the first few weeks.

Then two things happened in fairly rapid succession. First, a small article about my case made it into a local paper in which the feds accused me and my crew of absconding with millions of dollars with our nefarious credit-card activities in the casinos in and around Nevada. The amount made me out to be a serious professional, worthy of respect even in the Brotherhood’s eyes, albeit only grudgingly given. The second thing that happened was the leader of the group, a huge guy with reddish hair and beard appropriately named “Big Red,” had a legal problem I helped him to solve.

The one thing I learned relatively quickly was that while the members of this tight-knit group might have been long on brawn and violence, they were short on brains. Big Red had served in the military. He wanted some documents from the military to present at his upcoming murder trial. I guess he wanted to prove how patriotic he had been while serving his country. But none of them could fill out the stack of forms, so I volunteered to help. When the documents I requested came back about a month later, I was considered a legal whiz on the order of F. Lee Bailey.

I was, to a degree, “in.” They considered me a harmless black mascot, I considered them fools to be played. As the saying goes, I was “stuck like Chuck.”

Eventually I was doing all kinds of writing, both legal and otherwise. I would pen poems for their wives, children’s and girlfriend’s birthdays, and these semi-illiterates were simply amazed. Ah, the power of the pen. My first paid writing gig paid me a grand total of three packs of cigarettes. 

All of a sudden Big Red noticed how I looked like his football hero, Earl Campbell. It’s amazing to me how gridiron prowess can overcome even the deep-seated antipathy of a dyed-in-the-wool bigot. Of course, other than having black skin, I looked nothing at all like Campbell. But I could hold my own on the iron pile, by then being able to bench press close to 250 pounds. 

And, having an ear for dialects, I’d also—quite slyly and over a period of months—developed a bit of a Texas twang. Speaking the “language” can be critical to acceptance, and I discovered how time and familiarity can overcome even the seemingly insurmountable of racial barriers.

When the guard smuggled in chewing tobacco, I packed my cheeks with the foul leaf and learned to hit our coffee-can spittoon with the best of ’em.

These were very tough men facing long sentences for serious crimes, but after a while they didn’t guard their tongues around me … they felt no need to. I’d gained their trust, and by then they knew I wasn’t facing serious charges, so I wouldn’t have the need to betray them by trading information, since my lawyer was already negotiating a relatively short sentence for me. I was privy to their conversations and after a few slips they even quit using the “N” word, but only after Big Red leveled his menacing glare at the offender.

These were men steeped in strong oral traditions and past heroic acts. They were still mentally fighting the Civil War (like so many other whites) and traced their roots back to men like Confederate guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill, whose Quantrill’s Raiders sacked the pro-abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas, at the beginning of the Civil War. One guy, Luke, claimed to be a direct descendant of one of the men who rode with Quantrill. He alleged that his great-grandfather was Cole Younger, the outlaw who robbed banks with Jesse James’s gang after the end of the Civil War. At age 38, Luke considered himself to be a proud third or fourth generation (he couldn’t count backwards too well) bank robber. His father, and grandfather before him, had robbed banks for a living as well.

It was from Luke that I first heard of Mountain Home, Idaho, when he said, “If I coulda just made it back to Mountain Home, I’da been OK.” The trouble he was referring to was his last bank robbery for which he was now awaiting sentencing, where he and his crew had kidnapped a bank-branch manager and strapped 10 sticks of dynamite around her chest and wired it to a remote detonator. He was not some little desperate punk-assed note passer; the crew he worked with would, after months of planning, take over the whole bank and, in his words, “take all of the goddamn money.” They felt it was unprofessional to leave one dollar bill behind.

He was the only one of the four captured and flat out told the FBI that he “didn’t know shit.” When they threatened him with a longer sentence, according to him his response was “rush it and you won’t owe it.” I believed him, since these were among the most standup dudes I’d ever encountered.

I gradually learned (from men who had no need to embellish their deeds as some armchair neo-Nazi pseudo-tough guys are prone to do) of Mountain Home and other pockets of armed resistance situated in rural areas of three or four western states where federal authorities are reluctant to enter to enforce the law.

“They know we’re up in there,” I remember Luke saying, “but it ain’t worth riskin’ getting their asses blown off to come in and try to take us out. They want to go home too, and they know we ain’t fucking around. We ain’t trying to overthrow the government or nothing. We’re just fighting to protect our wives, kids and our way of life, and them coward motherfuckers know it. All we’re asking is to be left alone.” He conveniently forgot about all the banks he’d robbed to be able to afford all of the expensive, high-end toys he once possessed. 

Unlike David Koresh and his sheeplike followers (and other sects based on religious fanaticism), these are battle-hardened and death-tested men (many of them, like Big Red, with extensive military experience) who are not set on dying for some kind of religious cause; their thing is that, when the situation calls for it, they’re killers. They’re not into dying—except to protect the honor of the Brotherhood.

And they’re also sincere in their belief that many members of law enforcement are kindred spirits, right-wingers who understand their hatreds, loss of hegemony, and rabid determination to protect whatever power the white man has left in America. And those who don’t buy into their hateful rhetoric they perceive as being weak-kneed sob sisters who will willingly mongrelize and sell out their proud white heritage. Truly, everyone who is not with them is against them.  

Their network, even back then was already so strong that when I arrived at the federal prison in Kentucky where I was to serve out my sentence, within a week of arriving a tattooed AB member came up to me in the yard and said, “We heard about what you did for Big Red out there in Nevada … if you need anything, if anybody fucks with you, just let me know.”

I never spoke to this dude again for the next 18 months, until the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in downtown Oklahoma City about a week before I was slated to exit prison for the last time. Standing in front of the TV in the day room he turned to me and said, “This ain’t shit, just wait until we get started. They done took me from my family for over 30 years because of some of punk-assed drug-conspiracy bullshit, and eventually they’re going to have to pay … We’re going to make them pay.”

If these recent killings represent the Brotherhood’s twisted form of retribution, the fact that it has taken so long to begin is all the more chilling. To me this would demonstrate a hard-nosed determination that all citizens should find frightening. We shouldn’t be whistling past the graveyard on these killings.

These are men with a huge ax to grind. While few of them would argue they deserve no time behind bars for their crimes, virtually all of them feel the amount of time handed out under federal sentencing guidelines is far, far too punitive … way out of proportion; that punishments don’t fit the crimes, and some legal scholars actually agree.

America’s harsh judicial system, coupled with a growing national affinity for utilizing complete isolation at super-max prisons as a corrections tactic of first choice, in many cases turns men into monsters. And, truth be told, there is no such thing as truly locking away the gang leaders so they can no longer call the shots on the prison yard … or even on the streets.

Someone has to feed these case-hardened convicts three times a day, and who might you think carries this duty out? If you’re thinking it’s the guards, you’re wrong. They’re not about to be turned into waiters for men they often view as the scum of the earth no matter what. Instead, that duty falls to other prisoners known as “trustees.” And these trustees smuggle all of the messages the guards are not bribed (or threatened) into carrying back and forth. Hey, everyone’s got families, you know. 

The true terrorist wins because of his or her willingness to die for what they believe in—history has taught us that over and over again. Many of the first men locked up when our nation embarked on a policy of for-profit mass incarceration near the end of the last century are now returning into society. And, as predicted by numerous professionals, they are sicker and more dangerous than when they went behind bars.

While the U.S. population grew 2.8 times since 1920, the U.S. prison population grew more than 20 times, and most dramatically since 1980. The fear among law enforcement is (or at least should be) is that now we have dozens upon dozens—if not hundreds (who knows, maybe even thousands)—of murderous chickens finally coming home to roost.


Life lessons from a Texan jail

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.

I kept thinking of the above quote – from Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning – while reading Gary Mulgrew’s recent bookGang of One

The book details his time in a high-security Texan jail. Of course, I know Gary – he was my boss for nearly five years during my less-than-successful foray into banking. And I guess that’s what prompted me to read his book.

Yet it’s not what prompted me to write about it. That came from, firstly, being impressed by his writing style and candidness – two aspects of book writing I hold in high regard (for obvious reasons). But it also came from his Frankl-like observations of prison life. Here he was, an observant and articulate man at – after war – probably the sharpest end of contemporary life. Having been at the top of Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, Mulgrew had fallen to its floor – concerned only for survival and basic needs in a hostile environment.

Certainly, it’s rare to get such insight from an educated and articulate man experiencing life in the human basement. Frankl was an Austrian psychologist so was able to opine on the psychological impact on both himself and those around him. Mulgrew was a banker, and leader of large chunk of the old NatWest Markets. He too could offer a rare insight into the impact of such privation on the human spirit.

So here’s what I noticed from my reading of Gang of One – the 10 things that Gary’s book told me about surviving the Darwinian pit.

  1. The need for gangs. The first and most noticeable observation is, indeed, how Darwinian life becomes. One’s very existence is under threat, and certainly basic needs such as food and water are paramount. Revealingly, the guarantee of survival in this near-primeval existence comes from an unexpected collectiveness. The rugged individual of American lore could not prosper in a high-security Texan jail, it seems – especially one located only an hour or so from the banditry of the US-Mexican border. The unit that matters is the gang. Indeed, Gary is constantly pressured to “run with” one gang or other – hence the book’s title – as only through such a pack, it seems, is the inmate afforded any form of protection from existential threats.
  2. The racial divisions. A second observation has to be the power of race when it comes to the make-up of the gangs. The entire prison is segregated along strict racial lines. Such divisions are not officially sanctioned – the large rooms of bunks (known as “ranges”) are mixed. But, left to its own devices – in the food hall or TV room or exercise yard – the prison population immediately divides emphatically along racial lines. Here Gary’s dilemma is that he feels no affinity with “his race”, which is organized into the ludicrous and offensive “Aryan Brotherhood”. Indeed, he seems most at home with the Native Americans, although they are unwilling to be joined by someone from outside their ethnic pool. It’s all so primitive: groups guarantee survival and those groups divide emphatically along racial lines.
  3. Tattoos. Yet it’s not just race. This close to Mexico the Hispanics are a clear majority of the prison population – especially given the war-like levels of drug-gang rivalry occurring nearby. And this leads to tattoos being the primary marker of differentiation between rival groupings. Indeed, the prison authorities recognise this demarcation, with tattoo specialists noting various markings with anthropological zeal. Of course, the wrong markings can have fatal consequences, but that’s the point: tattoos are an immovable badge of affinity – a statement that, once in the gang, that’s that (especially when the tattoo’s on your face). This was a Faustian compact at the foot of the Maslow’s hierarchy: in return for the gang’s protection the gang demands your absolute loyalty – to the point where you’ll happily disfigure your face to prove it.
  4. Hierarchy is crucial. The prison authorities are noted by their absence – leaving the prison accommodation blocks to, pretty-much, run themselves. And run themselves they do, via a complex hierarchy involving “shot callers” from each gang. Such an elite co-operates to the point where regular meetings are held to settle disputes and keep the place ticking over. In fact, this set up is way too structured to be considered “informal”. It’s universally accepted, with the inmates happily deferring to the “shot callers” and the guards staying largely out of the way. Even Gary’s “which gang” dilemma is discussed at the “shot caller” level, with – amazingly – his notion of forming his own one-man gang requiring a quasi-formal approval.
  5. That humans remain human. When I knew Gary, we were both investment bankers, which meant life became irritating if our business class flight was delayed by an hour or our hotel room wasn’t quite to our liking. Yet here he had to endure the heat, noise, squalor and privation of life in a prison “range” – involving scores of hardened criminals living in close quarters without respite. And yet life became tolerable. More than tolerable: something in the human soul found laughter, joy, dignity, kinship and even privacy. These are more than the rudiments of existence – they are the very human qualities that put us above the animals. And, even here (as they were in Frankl’s Auschwitz), they were sought, sourced, relished – and respected by all.
  6. Kindness. One episode involves an inmate helping Gary change out of blood-soaked clothes in order to avoid his mistaken implementation in a gang beating. His aid put himself in considerable danger to help Gary, yet it was done instinctively and unquestioningly. Despite the privations – or maybe even because of them – the inmates help each other in all sorts of ways, big and small. Deeper than the layers of machismo that pervade the block’s every interaction there’s a kindness towards each other. Indeed, reading Gary’s daily tribulations reminded me of the more Golding-esque aspects of school life. Yet the prison was far from infantilised – adult civilities and even goodwill survived.
  7. Ratting. That said, in one respect prison and school are exactly aligned. The greatest crime is in being a “rat” – a “grass”. Gary’s worst moments come from the concern within his prison block that his comparatively light sentence was somehow won via betraying his accomplices. It concerns both his immediate friends – such as the Native Americans – and the gang hierarchies, including a particularly menacing character ironically named Angel. No matter what, ratting is beyond the pale – as he witnessed via the beatings handed out to the “rats” that entered the open-plan range.
  8. Sexual tension. Other than the rats, the lowest level of prison life is the “chomo”, or sexual offender. This group are subjected to a level of violence seemingly-sanctioned by both formal and informal authorities, although – as Gary points out – this seems more to do with finding outlets for anger and frustration than due to any sense of natural justice. That said, singling out sexual deviance was odd as a sexual tension seems to pervade prison life. Indeed, the prospect of rape was a major concern for Gary, as it would be for any self-respecting person thrown into such circumstances. He survived, although the prison’s obsession with sex answered a classic question regarding Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: does the primary physiological level include sex as a basic need? From my reading of Gary’s book, yes appears to be the answer.
  9.  The Aryan Brotherhood. Gary makes a great deal of rejecting their invitations, which – if true – was a brave move in such a racially-segregated environment (there being no other white gang to join). That said, they stand out for their ridiculousness, which included the gentle addition of swastikas for those facial tattoos. Even in such an asylum, it’s the Aryan Brotherhood providing a negative benchmark for others to measure their sanity. Most laughably, was their claim for racial superiority despite the fact they were clearly the most educational deficient of all the groupings present.
  10. Menace as a policy. Gary resists giving lectures – offering instead a personal and therefore unprejudiced insight into his experiences. Yet, in his final analysis, he couldn’t help questioning what seemed to be the official sanctioning – even in its passive acquiescence – of the brutality around him. Indeed, the treatment of the chomos and the rats, and even those that stepped out of line with respect to gang law – and the fact such treatment is ignored by the prison authorities (to the point that prisoner-on-prisoner brutality appears to be part of America’s deterrence towards criminality) – has to be worth questioning. As Gary rightly asks: is this a legitimate form for punishment for a civilised society? Add to that the fact 2.3 million Americans are currently in jail (more than one percent of the male population), with a further 5 million on parole, and America’s claim to be a moral beacon for humanity is surely undermined.

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