Prison Gangs Violence

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Gang violence within the prison system is not only an issue in the United States, but all around the world. Issues revolving around prison gangs often relate to racially based problems that occur in and out of prison. This paper will explore the well-known prison gangs which are racially divided, found in America and how race drives a large part of the violence occurring. I will touch base on how these gangs have taken over the prison system. They are used as a way of protection for many at first but turn into a life time commitment eventually.

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Even once you are outside the prison walls again.

The stories of murders driven by prison gangs can haunt you. They are gruesome and savage in a way that many people do not understand. For instance:

In 2009, Edward Schaefer was convicted of second-degree murder and vehicular manslaughter of a 9-year-old girl. Schaefer, who had a dozen prior convictions, hit the young girl with his motorcycle as she crossed the street. His blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. Schaefer was sentenced to prison for 24 years to life, but his sentence was short-lived. After only 10 days at San Quentin, Schaefer walked into the prison yard and was stabbed seven times in the neck and chest by an affiliate of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. His attacker, fellow inmate Frank Souza, had manufactured a 7-inch “bone crusher” from a piece of a metal bunk bed. When authorities asked him why he killed Schaefer, Souza responded, “All I got to say, 9-year-old girl.” (Skarbek, David, et al. “To End Prison Gangs, It’s Time to Break up the Largest Prisons.” The Agenda).

In David Skarbek’s book “The Social Order of the Underworld”, he discusses three different levels of gang affiliation, however the group I will be focusing on is labeled “Security Threat Group One”. Skarbek explains, “this category includes members of the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family, Mexican Mafia, Nazi Low Riders, Northern Structure, Nuestra Familia, and the Texas Syndicate. These are some of the oldest and most notorious prison gangs” (Chapter 4.” The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, by David Skarbek). These types of inmates are said to be the “most serious” and hold their status/role in the gang very high. They are also some of the most racially divided prison gangs known in the United States.

The Aryan Brotherhood Past & Present

The Aryan Brotherhood was originally formed at the San Quentin State Prison in California in 1964. The motivation for this gang began when white inmates started to be integrated with the African American inmates at the beginning of the 1960’s. The Aryan Brotherhood is known for their white-nationalistic viewpoints; believing that they were the superior race and above all others. An elderly prisoner who served time in California stated that, “in the beginning, the AB had one true purpose, to stop blacks and Mexicans from abusing whites. If you weren’t picked up by the AB, you were dead” (“Running With the Aryan Brotherhood: ‘You Have to Kill a Black to Get In.'” Real Crime). The original members of this gang were Irish bikers who use to be deemed as the Diamond Tooth Gang, this was until they combined themselves with other small white extremist groups within the prison community, originally for protection purposes. The Aryan Brotherhood isn’t only a functioning gang behind bars, but also in the free life outside the prison walls.

They ran drug rings, realizing that drug trafficking was highly profitable. Which helps them profit from other gangs within the community (Latino mainly). However, the race war did not go to the back burner. To join the Aryan Brotherhood, you would have to earn clout as they call it “make their bones,” by assaulting a rival gang member (African American/Latino) or attacking a correctional officer, quoted, “thus the “blood in” part of the gang’s motto; “blood out” indicates that once a person is part of the gang, the only way out is death” (site2-Aryan). This quote basically lets us know that, once you are initiated you are in for good, and the only way out is to die or even die trying. It didn’t take long at all for the gang to earn their reputation all over the nation.

In the 1980s, there were a series of attacks on correctional officer by the AB gang members. For example, “On Oct. 22, 1983, AB member Tommy Silverstein stabbed corrections officer Merle E. Clutts to death in the Marion, Ohio, federal penitentiary with the help of another inmate. Hours after Clutts was murdered, another AB member, Clayton Fountain, stabbed corrections officer Robert Hoffman and assaulted two other officers because he did not want Silverstein to have a higher body count than him” (“Aryan Brotherhood.” Southern Poverty Law Center), this incident happened in one of the supposedly high security prisons in the country, but it just wasn’t enough to stop the Aryan from making things happened. The members that were known to be a part of a criminal incident was relocated to supermax units or facilities around the U.S. but that still didn’t stop them from doing their dirty work. This gang didn’t get the name “notorious” for no reason, when they have a mission set they will get it done, while locked up they had found multiple ways to commit their crimes, they are known to use highly sophisticated written codes and invisible inks, along with communication during visits from loved ones such as wives or siblings.

In recent years, officials have started to become frustrated at the fact that, the leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood, are still able to organize these crimes while incarcerated. Keep in mind that the majority of the members are located in the ADX Florence prison in Colorado, so these crimes and attacks shouldn’t be so easy to pull off. There have been leaders in the past that have been accused for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act also known as “RICO”. The RICO Act is a United States federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. The act was put into place to stop criminal behavior committed by gangs or other organized groups. It has been reported that in 2002, “they indicted 29 leaders of the federal AB organization for violations of federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Twenty-one of the leaders were charged with death penalty offenses, even though many were already serving life terms, because prosecutors felt that was the only way they could stop their criminal activities” (“Aryan Brotherhood.” Southern Poverty Law Center). The death penalty charges are meant to help deter other gang members.

With the number of Aryan Brotherhood members climbing (over 20 thousand), they are also growing more confident. Recently, an outside confirmed AB member named Christopher Copson took a plea deal and was charged with violating the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, along with aggravated assault, possession of a firearm by a felon, criminal damage to property and other counts. As reported:

On Sept. 18, 2016, Copson and two co-defendants happened upon the victim, who had inadvertently blocked a driveway the defendants were trying to leave in their car, authorities said. After driving by, the defendants stopped about fifty yards away and Copson fired two rounds from a .38 pistol at the victim’s vehicle. The victim called 911 and followed the defendants’ vehicle, only to be fired upon again. The additional rounds only struck the victim’s vehicle. Moments later, when law enforcement officers stopped the defendants’ vehicle, Copson “repeatedly uttered heinous racial slurs directed toward the victim, making clear that the victim’s race was [Copson’s] only motivation for this cowardly act of violence,” Cranford said in his statement. (“Hatewatch.” Southern Poverty Law Center)

As you can see, the race war is still existent among the Aryan Brotherhood. It is an issue that will continue to be persistent in this nation.

The Black Guerrilla Family Past & Present

The second most notorious prison gang known for their hand in the race wars behind bars is the Black Guerrilla Family. They were was brought up on beliefs of political views back in the late 60s. The gang originated back in 1966, it was formed by an activist that was a part of the Black Panther Party, this prison gang was formed with intentions to help fight against the racism that was going on in the west coast. Eventually, the gang ended up doing things for their own good after losing faith in the Black Panther Party and beginning to secure the African American inmates from prison-made racism and violence. The member’s oath that must be lived by is as follows:

If should ever break my stride, and falter at my comrades’ side, this oath will kill me. If ever my world prove untrue, should I betray this chosen few, this oath will kill me. Should I be slow to take a stand, should I fear to any man, this oath will kill me. Should I grow lax in discipline, or in time of strife, refuse my hand, this oath will kill me. Long live comrade George Jackson! Long live the Black Guerrilla Family! (“The Black Guerrilla Family Prison Gang.” Police Magazine).

After having a bad reputation, the Black Guerilla Family have decided to call a truce with gang violence. Their goal is trying to fight for prisoner equality, “While the gang never completely renounced their criminal activities, recent history saw members of the Black Guerilla Family actively working towards achieving both prisoner equality for different races and the reduction of prison-related violence” (“Black Guerrilla Family.”,). They also now have a book now available called The Black Book and this book was distributed amongst the inmates to at least try to spread the word of peace throughout the facilities. The book has also made it to gangs on the street, to try promoting peace between all the gangs. We see that gangs promotes a lot of problems in our correctional facility, but there are some inside and out of prison who try to look at the idea as a whole. In order to get the point across it would have to take someone that’s a member of the gang to stand up and encourage others to stand up for what is right. Afterall BGF was not originally based off of racist acts, the main focus was protection. Which is similar to the start of the AB.

The Black Guerrilla Family fell silent for many years in the race war, but a recent spike in police brutality has called for the gang to reappear and be heard once again. In 2016 there was a warning sent out to correctional officers across the country that in August of that year members of BGF were seeking revenge by attacking officers for the death of one of their gang members. The warning read “attacks in prisons and on the streets could see an escalation of violence after a member of BGF was stabbed to death during a prison riot in Sacramento last year in what the gang believes was an attack orchestrated by police and members of the Aryan.” (Sinclair, Harriet. “Black Guerrilla Family Vow Revenge against Prison Officers and Aryan Brotherhood.” International Business Times UK). With police brutality cases on the rise, I believe the violence surrounding Black Guerrilla Family will continue, along with their involvement in the race war against the Aryan Brotherhood.

Barrio Azteca Past & Present

The last gang that I will be talking about is the “Los Aztecas” gang now known as Barrio Azteca gang led by the FBI most wanted Eduardo Ravelo. The gang originated in El Paso, Texas prison system in 1986, ten years later they grew tremendously across the United States in reaction to deportation of imprisoned Mexican criminals by the United States. The estimated number of members is at least 3,000 just in the United States alone but the number of members may have increased by now since 2013. In 2013 FBI, has reported that they found possible affiliates located in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas, and maybe New Mexico. This gang was known to be involved in a lot of criminal behavior that was requested by Juarez Cartel, “The Juárez Cartel’s armed wing, “La Linea”, recruited members from Barrio Azteca to fight the Sinaloans in 2008, and many gang members were killed or arrested. The group also helped the Juárez Cartel to move people and drugs as well as to acquire weapons and vehicles” (“Barrio Azteca.” InSight Crime,). The gang has very strict guidelines, they’re known to use a ranked structure, so they are somewhat similar to the army.

They have multiple ways of committing they’re crime most of their crimes aren’t even done by the actual members. The way that they get their drugs around is by using “soldiers” who are normally underage children that would locally distribute out the products. While incarcerated the gang communicates over the phones by using code names. They also use postal service to send their product. As though it seems that this gang focuses purely on drug trafficking, they also separate themselves from others based on race. However, unlike the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerrilla Family, their crimes are not hate driven. They are not afraid to kill anyone who steps in their way, even of that is one of their own.

Conclusion: Possible Solution

As you can see from the information above, prison gangs driven by race cause a large issue for our criminal justice system. The violence has gotten out of control and I believe it will just get worse. A possible solution to the prison gang violence may be to break down the prisons into smaller sections. Davis Skarbek believes that prison overpopulation is the cause of prison gang race wars for the most part. For example, “California’s prisons went from housing a small, well-known group of inmates to housing a large, diverse population of strangers. The norms that facilitated a broader social cooperation behind bars were no longer effective. Violence went unchecked, and prison personnel were overwhelmed” (Skarbek, David,The Agenda). Skarbek argues that if prisoners feel safe from the very beginning of their sentence, then there would be no need to turn to prison gangs looking for protection. The fear is what’s fueling the gangs and had helped them ride to the level they are today. “Small prisons also limit the size of the illicit marketplace, leaving fewer profits for gangs. When officials do not govern inmate life, inmates will turn to gangs for a brutal but effective source of order” (Skarbek, David,The Agenda).

To accomplish the goal, you could build smaller sized prisons and set a low max capacity of inmates. Another option would be to enforce laws such as California’s Proposition 47, which is also know as the three-strike rule. This will make nonviolent drug related offences worth shorter sentences for the offender, causing the overcrowding of prisons to decrease.

Work Cited

  1. “Chapter 4.” The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, by David Skarbek, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  2. “Aryan Brotherhood.” Southern Poverty Law Center,
  3. “Running With the Aryan Brotherhood: ‘You Have to Kill a Black to Get In.'” Real Crime,
  4. “Hatewatch.” Southern Poverty Law Center,
  5. “The Black Guerrilla Family Prison Gang.” Police Magazine,
  6. Sinclair, Harriet. “Black Guerrilla Family Vow Revenge against Prison Officers and Aryan Brotherhood.” International Business Times UK, 5 Aug. 2016,
  7. “Black Guerrilla Family.”, 8 July 2017,
  8. Skarbek, David, et al. “To End Prison Gangs, It’s Time to Break up the Largest Prisons.” The Agenda, 13 May 2015,
  9. “Barrio Azteca.” InSight Crime, 9 July 2018,
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Prison Gangs Violence. (2019, May 06). Retrieved from