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The Plot From Solitary

Antonio Guillen  

This means that most convicts sentenced to prison in California are also sentenced to a relationship with a gang. Each of the four major gangs in the system enjoy something close to a racial monopoly on membership: the Aryan Brotherhood for whites, the Black Guerrilla Family for African-Americans, the Mexican Mafia for Hispanics from the southern part of the state, and Nuestra Familia for Hispanics from the Central Valley and farther north. Prisons sometimes institute separate exercise schedules for each racial group, and it is very rare to find two cell mates in California from different ones. These practices have helped to reduce gang conflict but also, obviously, strengthen the gang system. ­Corrections officials at Pelican Bay will often switch, sometimes in midsentence, between referring to a “gang” and a “race” and a “group.”

This ambiguity has long been institutionalized in the “validation” process through which alleged gang members are committed to the SHU. Investigators must document three pieces of evidence confirming an inmate’s gang membership. Often this is a tattoo or the statement of an anonymous informant. But expressions of ­ethnic identity and radicalism—black nationalist writings, for instance—can also be counted as gang-related. Even social ­relationships between members of the same ethnic group can be outlawed: Some prisoners have been validated for speaking with a known gang member from their own racial group. The prison officials, Jamaa told me, “blur the line between what is a gang and what is a racial group. They have to, because they don’t understand where a gang ends and a racial group begins.”

Pelican Bay is a strange hybrid of a place: Systems of isolation and communication vie constantly for control. SHU prisoners learned the architecture of the toilet drains and have used them to shout messages to other pods. Members of Nuestra Familia developed a system of information exchange through the law library—ghostwriting messages in legal books and then sending coded messages in letters to family members explaining which page in which book fellow gang members ought to consult. In gang lore, Pelican Bay has assumed a mythic place: The Mexican Mafia calls it La Playa Azul (“the Blue Beach”), and the bylaws of Nuestra Familia stipulate that its core leaders must be housed there. When a court order temporarily increased mail monitoring at Pelican Bay last fall, Frisk heard from gang investigators in the Los Angeles area: The crews were saying that there were no instructions coming from headquarters, that they did not know what to do. But most of the time, despite extreme restrictions, gangs find a way to function. “All Aryan Brotherhood decisions, including membership and the decision to murder another member, are conducted by vote,” says Bryan Elrod, a former Aryan Brotherhood member who recently “debriefed” and was transferred out of Pelican Bay. “Sometimes it could take months to complete voting in SHU.” But the votes did happen.

The central mystery of this summer’s hunger strike lies in its scope. Why did 30,000 prisoners around the state join a protest called by four men in the SHU? Most prison officials contend that these prisoners were prodded by the gangs. “There was a high element of coercion going on,” Stainer says. Many of the inmates who went on strike lasted just three days—proof, another senior prison official told me, that many participants were only joining to get credit from their gang. Javier Zubiate, a former Nuestra Familia member, was asked during his debriefing interviews why he had joined the strike. He said that he had seen the public letter from Antonio Guillen, and “we took that as an order from a general.”

Even so, prison officials had documented only one example of explicit coercion: an inmate at Corcoran state prison who was beaten after he refused to help his cell mate participate. Beyond that, there was nothing violent. In Pelican Bay, things were quiet. “They had said that they wanted the protest to be peaceful, and by and large it was,” says Clark Ducart, the chief deputy warden. Which suggests that perhaps the protesting prisoners were motivated by something other than simply pressure and that the allegiance they feel to their gang is not only a matter of intimidation and racial supremacy.

At every stage in the criminal-justice system, its basic moral complexity recurs: What part of a criminal act is an individual’s responsibility alone, and what part is the consequence of his circumstances—of poverty or racial alienation? In Pelican Bay, the prisoner is treated not as an individual but as a soldier for the group to which he belongs. The crucial question the validation process has asked, for years, has not been “What has this man done?” but “To what does this man belong?” But there has been a self-fulfilling element to this approach: Treat prisoners as racial blocs and all social networks as if they are gangs, and for all of its essential violence and brutality, the gang will retain some of the warmth, the underlying human attachment, of the social network on which it is built. “To this day, I love some of those men,” Elrod told me earlier this month from the secure unit at Kern Valley State Prison where he is now housed to keep him safe from the revenge violence of his former brothers.