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Reporter's Notebook

By Michael Montgomery


American RadioWorks producer Michael Montgomery at Pelican Bay Prison.

For months before I first visited Pelican Bay State Prison, reporters with the Center for Investigative Reporting had been documenting an unusual phenomenon in central California: street gangs that drew inspiration and even took orders from gangs based in prison.

The street "bangers" were men in their late teens or early twenties who had spun the familiar cycle of family dislocation, school failure, and juvenile hall, and were now deeply involved in guns and drug dealing. What was most striking was how incarceration (and release) for these young men was routine. Moreover, juvenile hall, jail, and even prison had become places where they could prove themselves, get "schooling" from older gang members, and advance their careers.

While street gangs are well documented, this seemed to be something new, at least for radio. How, and more importantly, why, would a teenager living in a town in central California look up to a convict like a rock star and even aspire to join a prison gang? The question was especially important because it raised the possibility of exploring one of America's most hidden and least understood institutions: prison.

By the time I first visited Pelican Bay, I knew that dedicated street gang members from places like Salinas looked to the prison as a sort of center of higher learning. On the one hand, it's logical. Pelican Bay was built to house not only the state's most violent criminals, but also members of prison gangs involved in violence and drug dealing in California and in other states.

Build it, and they will come. And the gang leaders came to Pelican Bay, by the bus load: whites, blacks, and Latinos, from groups like the Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi Low Riders, Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia and Black Guerrilla Family.

On my first tour of Pelican Bay's supermax section, known as the Security Housing Unit, or SHU, I saw a relentlessly dull world; just concrete and steel filled with a cacophony of sliding steel doors, fastening chains and locks and flushing toilets. The monochrome landscape seemed to permeate even the faces of the inmates here; men I encountered (usually through perforated steel doors) had a pasty, ghostly pallor. It was difficult to imagine any kind of sustained life here. "These men must all be nuts," I told myself as the prison spokesman, Steven Perez, led me into an 8-by-10 cell.

But when I started talking with inmates who had devoted their lives to the gangs, it was clear that they were not dummies and they were not crazy. These were men who had committed violent acts (some were murderers) but they had also spent long hours in study and contemplation.

"Some of the most intelligent people I've ever met came out of this place," says Dante Kun, an instructor who works with gang dropouts at Pelican Bay. "These are meaning-of-life conversations that we have. They are grappling with what it's all about."

In seven visits to Pelican Bay, I learned of many exploits: how inmates memorized long gang-related documents almost like passages from the Bible and then taught them to young recruits; how some gang leaders communicated in exotic languages to foil guards; and how just about any kind of contraband can be stored in a man's rectum.

I also encountered prison staff with widely diverging attitudes. Some seemed to truly care about the inmates, while others clearly believed that few Pelican Bay inmates could ever change.

Of course, outfoxing and outmaneuvering staff is one of the great games that convicts have always played. And prison staff clearly relish the challenge of breaking the gang's coded messages and plots, says David Ward, a sociologist who's conducted one of the only long term studies of inmates in supermax-type prisons.

"In a place that is deadly dull and boring, a place where nothing is supposed to happen, you have all this intrigue and excitement (with the gangs): who's up, who's down, who's rolling over, who's going to be hit. It gives purpose for both the inmates and the staff."

In moments of candor, prison staff marvel at the gangs' ingenuity.

"You throw away the key and these guys have nothing else to do," Daniel Vasquez, a former warden of San Quentin prison and 30-year corrections veteran, told me. "You can lock up their body but you can't lock up their minds. I have met young men that have nothing but the gangs. They have no nuclear family. They were raised on the streets. Most of the time, they raised themselves. They've been in trouble since they were youths. The gang is their life, it's their family."

Prison gangs also keep a man's mind and body alive in a stark, seemingly soulless world. One question that was never adequately answered by prison staff was why there are no windows in the SHU, not even views of the sky. The prison's spokesman told me it was for security. But there are windows in many cells in Pelican Bay's other sections (they house maximum security inmates) and we don't hear about security breaches there. David, a former member of a white prison gang who spent five years in the SHU, had a more compelling answer. "You don't have a window in the SHU because they don't want you to see the world," he told me. "Having a window is a privilege, and you don't have any privileges in the SHU."


Back to Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax