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How Powerful Are White Supremacist Prison Gangs?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We've been talking a lot about college readiness on this program. Often the focus is kids from tough backgrounds. Now, though, we're hearing that even some high achieving college students just aren't college ready. We'll talk about why that might be later in the program.

But first we're going to talk about an issue that's back in the news because of the murders of three top law enforcement officials in Colorado and Texas. And that issue is white supremacists, gangs. These groups have been around in some form or another, really, since the end of slavery. They're back on the spotlight now, though, because an alleged member of the 211 Crew, a white supremacist gang, has been arrested in connection with the murder of Colorado's top prison official.

In Texas, the district attorney and assistant district attorney of Kaufman County were both shot in recent months, along with the DA's wife. There have been no arrest in those cases, but one group under suspicion is the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a gang that was indicted in a massive racketeering case last fall. Now, we want to note again, that authorities have not made a concrete link between the Texas deaths and that gang.

But the investigation is raising questions about those gangs, how they operate, and just how far they reach in and out of prison walls. Laura Sullivan is NPR's investigative correspondent. She's been covering issues inside the nation's prisons for years. So we've called her for some insights. Welcome, Laura. Thanks so much for joining us.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Now, you have interviewed a couple of former gang members and you've concealed their identities because of the fear of retaliation, but I just want to play a short clip. Then you can tell us more about it.


UNIDENFITIED MAN: If you're 90 days at the house and a gang members tells you, you go stab that dude right there or you go back in and stab your cellie, you're going to do what you're told because if you don't, you're going to be killed.

MARTIN: You know, that's the kind of thing that makes people wonder how is it possible that inside prison - which is by definition, supposed to be a controlled environment - that a criminal can have that much power over another person in that environment?

SULLIVAN: You know, I stood on the yard once with a top prison official at Pelican Bay Prison in California and he basically said, you know, there are hundreds of inmates on this yard. They're dealing drugs. They are running gangs. They are all segregated by race and there's just a couple of us. You know, we - this prison runs at the consent of the inmates. And that was terrifying to me.

Because I said, well, I think we all have this idea that prisons - you know, that you guys are in charge and that you're doing this. And he said we're just getting through this, day by day, here. I mean, they are really outnumbered. And at the same time, you know, there's not a lot of other activities for inmates to do in prison. So this is something that goes on every single day at every moment.

One thing that you see inside prisons is inmates who are simply bored. And it's very easy for them to come up with very dangerous ways to operate with their gangs, or with their fellow inmates or protect themselves. And they can do this. I saw a guy make a, you know, weapon out of a piece of metal and the elastic from his underwear. And this is something that he shot into the neck of a correctional officer.

MARTIN: Tell me about this Aryan Brotherhood. As I understand it, this was started in California San Quentin prison in the 1960s. Does it exist - is it mainly within the prison? And does it have, you know, I don't know even what word to use - chapters? - in other prisons?

SULLIVAN: It sure does. So it was - most people believe that the Aryan Brotherhood started in California's prisons and then expanded to other states. Or that prison gangs started in other states and they tried to get together and the - you know, the lore is that the California Aryan Brotherhood didn't want the Texas Aryan Brotherhood in its gang and so they went their separate ways.

They are distinct and separate, but they operate pretty much the same way. These are inmates in confined environments operating their gangs. The difference now is that, I think for the past 20 or 30 years, most people involved in prisons will tell you that these are gangs that operated just solely inside of prisons. This was to attack and protect. You know, it was basically a way to protect themselves from very violent environments.

So people would racially segregate and create a gang. And it was just - it was very internal. I mean, especially when you talk to inmates in some of these solitary confinement type environments. This is their whole world. They don't know - they're not paying attention to what's going on out on the street. They're not interacting. This is their whole world and the slightest little things create a war.

And this is their daily environment. What's changing a little bit now is this feeling that these gangs' reach is coming out into the streets and it's reaching beyond the prison walls.

MARTIN: Is there a connection with this group, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, that is allegedly or could be linked? I know it is important to understand, because often initial reporting around these kinds of incidents...


MARTIN: ...in or out of prison are wrong.


MARTIN: Is it believed to be linked? And is it believed to have some, you know, broader method involved?

SULLIVAN: Right. Well, in Colorado it seems a very clear link between the inmate who allegedly killed Tom Clements - he was killed two days later in a police shootout - he was a member of an Aryan gang inside Colorado's prison. And in Texas, they're investigating that link.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

SULLIVAN: They're not sure yet. There are some people who believe that this is actually too bold a move for the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. That the repercussions for the gang inside the prison is so severe and so swift, I mean, when you're spending 23 hours a day in a cell, which most of these inmates are when you're in a gang in prison, the littlest amount of freedom that you have is everything to you.

And it does matter to you that you don't actually get to go into your cage in the yard. And you don't actually get to - you know, your food changes or the environment becomes so much worse and everybody's cell gets tossed. And, you know, all kinds of stuff get pulled away. And so...

MARTIN: You mean any kind of personal items that you may have accumulated. All those.

SULLIVAN: Exactly. Everything is taken away. And that is their life. This is their daily life here. So that's a big deal to them. And even some of the prison gang members that I have spoken with said that to make - to do something so bold like that, that it actually makes their life so bad for a while...

MARTIN: It's counterintuitive.

SULLIVAN: It's counterintuitive.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

SULLIVAN: That they are aware of that. You know, that they try to keep their actions among themselves and their gang. And they try not to stir up too much trouble where their life becomes even more miserable. So a lot of people are saying that this does seem a little bit too bold.

MARTIN: Out of character. We're talking to Laura Sullivan, NPR investigative correspondent. We are talking about white supremacist gangs that may or may not have a connection to recent killings in Texas and Colorado of law enforcement officials. This group in Colorado where there has been an arrest, though, the 211 Crew, can you tell us more about them?

SULLIVAN: So the 211 crew operates very similarly to the Aryan Brotherhood in California and in Texas, where you come into the prison and you have to pick a side. And if you're in one of the maximum security prisons where most of these gangs are operating, you're walking into a violent environment that you have to figure out. Now, it's not - I mean, I think the idea that anybody who walks into prison is immediately going to have to pick a side is a little bit hyperbolic.

But at the same time, there are particular prisons that have particular problems with this. And there are inmates walking in and within days - what team are you on? Do you want protection or not? - and you have to - you know, the Aryan Brotherhood's saying is blood in, blood out. You have to kill somebody or attempt to kill somebody to get in and the only way you can get out is by dying.

MARTIN: Hmm. So what would've been the motivation in this Colorado killing? Does anybody know?

SULLIVAN: They don't know yet. Some people have come forward and said that they believe that this was a lone wolf kind of thing. That he just was angry at authority and that he took it out on the head of the Department of Corrections. Other people are investigating. There is an investigation underway of whether or not this was a personal hit by this prison gang. They just don't know yet.

MARTIN: Laura, a difficult question but I'm going to try to ask it this way. Is that - prisons have been, you know, are a difficult thing for people to talk about, because unless you have a family member involved, unless you're involved in some way, they're really out of sight and out of mind.


MARTIN: The question - you know, and various groups have tried to call attention to conditions in prison for decades, for all kinds of reasons. Reasons for racial equity, reasons of human rights. I mean, you know, there are groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center that talk about the fact that people are kind of cultivated into these supremacist attitudes and that eventually they're going to come out into the general population and bring those attitudes with them, so that's one reason that people should be concerned.

But I'm asking you, as a person who spent a lot of time reporting on prisons and you're one of the people who brings these stories to the rest of the world, why should people care about this?

SULLIVAN: OK. So every single member - former member - I interviewed all former members of the Aryan Brotherhood - told me that they actually never - and to this day - do not consider themselves racist. It's the strangest thing. I mean, they said, I wasn't like this before I got here. I had lots of friends. I had a very multicultural neighborhood, this and that, but I got to prison and it was very dangerous and I was scared and I needed a team, and these are the teams and that's the only thing that you have.

The thing that most people who've been in corrections for 20 or 30 years will tell you is that, to them, prison gangs are not about race and that they actually even weren't about prisons desegregating. It's about prison overcrowding. And 30 years ago, our prison population exploded. We have people stuffed into prison cells that they can't - there's no room for them and because we have so many people in prison, we have no money to spend on rehabilitation, education or any kind of an activity that would keep these people involved in something all day long.

And so, when there's no money for any kind of effort like that, you have people standing around all day long bored out of their minds and this is what created the prison gang problem.

MARTIN: Before we let you go - and we have about a minute left - is there any plan on the part of authorities to address this question in the wake of these killings, which are clearly very distressing to anybody in law enforcement?

SULLIVAN: Right. Well, it's very difficult inside prison to go after somebody who already has a life sentence and, I mean, unless you can put the death penalty on the table, you've got a lot of people who have life sentences already who are just going to get another life sentence for their bad behavior in prison. I think that the thing that will - that could actually affect these prison gangs and what experts are telling me, is that - if they go after the money because these prison gangs have turned a lot toward, you know, drug dealing and racketeering, things that can make them money; and if they cut off that spigot, it actually might make a difference.

MARTIN: NPR investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan has covered U.S. prisons extensively. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Laura Sullivan, thanks so much for joining us.

SULLIVAN: Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.


MARTIN: Coming up, it's that time of year. Those envelopes and emails from colleges and universities are starting to arrive, but getting in is just the first hurdle. Some students, even gifted ones, are finding out that college life is very different from what they expect.

ELAINE TUTTLE HANSEN: You hear story after story about not being ready for the kind of thinking and learning that college professors are going to expect.

MARTIN: We'll talk about why too many students are not college ready and what can be done to help them. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.