March 14, 2006

Aryan Brotherhood

The Times headline today, "Trial Begins for Members of Aryan Prison Gang," offers as good excuse as any to re-read one of my favorite New Yorker stories of all time, David Grann's 2004 investigation into "How the Aryan Brotherhood became the most murderous prison gang in America." Being able to store homemade ten-inch knives up your rectum, it turns out, is a key survival skill:
By 1975, the [Aryan Brotherhood] had expanded into most of California’s state prisons and was engaged in what authorities describe as a full-fledged race war. Dozens had already been slain when, that same year, a fish named Michael Thompson entered the system. A twenty-three-year-old white former high-school football star, he had been sentenced for helping to murder two drug dealers and burying their bodies in a lime-filled pit in a back yard. Six feet four and weighing nearly three hundred pounds, he was strong enough to break ordinary shackles. He had brown hair, which was parted in the middle, and hypnotic blue eyes. Despite the violent nature of his crime, he had no other convictions and, with a chance for parole in less than a decade, he initially kept to himself, barely aware of the different forces moving around him. “I was a fish with gills out to fucking here,” he later said.

Unaligned with any of the emerging gangs, he was conspicuous prey for roaming Hispanic and black groups, and several of them soon assaulted him in the yard at a prison in Tracy, California; later, he was sent to Folsom, which, along with San Quentin, was exploding with gang wars. On his first day there, he says, no one spoke to him until a leader of the Black Guerrilla Family, a trim, angular man in shorts and a T-shirt, began to taunt him, telling him to come to the yard “ready” the next day. That night in his cell, Thompson recalled, he looked frantically for a weapon; he broke a piece of steel off his cell door and began to file its edges. It was at least ten inches long, and he sharpened both sides. Before the cell doors opened and the guards searched him, he said, he knew he needed to hide the weapon. He took off his clothes and tried to insert it in his rectum. “I couldn’t,” he recalled. “I was too ashamed.” He tried again and again, until finally he succeeded.

The next morning in the yard, he could see the guards, the tips of their rifles glistening in the sun. The leader of the Black Guerrilla Family circled toward him, flashing a steel blade, and Thompson lay down, trying to extricate his weapon. Eventually, he got it and began to lunge violently at his foe; another gang member came at him and Thompson stabbed him, too. By the time the guards interceded, Thompson was covered in blood, and one of the members of the Black Guerrilla Family lay on the ground, near death.
Gruesome. Relatedly, Kendrick Blackwood wrote a piece in The Pitch which has a few extra details about the various difficulties federal prosecutors have had in building a case against the Brotherhood (a "web of perjury" is one obvious obstacle).

One thing worth noting, judging from Grann's piece, is that organizations like the Aryan Brotherhood are able to grow so large and get so out of control partly because law-enforcement officials have little interest in investigating prisoner-on-prisoner crimes ("officials often dismiss such crimes as N.H.I.—'No humans involved'—because the victims are considered to be as unsympathetic as the perps") in the first place. It's not until, say, paroled Brotherhood members continue their activities outside of prison that anyone decides to try to put a stop to it.
-- Brad Plumer 9:49 PM || ||