by C. C. Simmons
Deep in the bowels of the 4,000-man H. H. Coffield State Prison in east Texas, a young prisoner is locked in a telephone-booth-size holding cage. He screams obscenities at everyone. In the next corridor, a squad of guards attired in helmets, gas masks, and padded vests attempts to extract a prisoner from a cell where he has possession of a mop and is threatening to harm someone.
Moving to a parallel hallway, a guard walks quickly with a plastic shield in front of him to deflect feces and urine that shouting prisoners throw through their cell bars.
Further along, in a hallway where scores of the most dangerous prisoners are housed in one-man cells, the silence is eerie. Here, members of the Barrio Azteca prison gang enforce a code of silence and mutual respect. "We know how to do time," explains one gang member.
The decrepit Coffield facility holds about 1,000 of the 5,000+ confirmed gang members confined in Texas' 100 state prisons. While prison officials' purported goal is to break up the gangs, entire cellblocks are set aside for mutually exclusive occupancy of Barrio Azteca, Mexican Mafia, Hermanos Pistoleros Latinos, Raza Unida, Texas Mafia, or Texas Syndicate prison gang members. "We house the members together because they're easier to manage that way," say prison officials.
In response to the law enforcement agencies' growing concern about the pervasive influence of gangs inside and outside prison, some legislators are questioning the wisdom of collectively segregating gang members.
"If we cage them in administrative segregation, label them `gang members,' and never deal with them, never offer them any programs to change their attitude or lifewhich is what we seem to be doing nowwe're probably going to see worse criminals when they come out," said Texas State Senator John Whitmire, Chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Texas prison administrators, always loath to admit they're wrong, defend their system as practical and proven, one that avoids the bloody consequences of mixing gang members even in small groups.
Linda Reeves, former Executive Director of the 5,000-member Texas Inmate Families Association, takes a different view. "In some cases, I think guards are encouraging and allowing gang activity to happen," she said. "And that's not right."
While prison officials pay lip service to suppressing gang activities, they have in some instances enlisted gang leaders in an effort to maintain order.
Nor do the perennially underpaid Texas prison guards ignore the enormous sums of cash generated and controlled by the gangs. Federal agents claim the Texas Syndicate distributed over 100 kilograms of cocaine in the Austin, Texas, area alone between January 1998 to February 2003.
"A prison system is only as strong as its weakest guard," said one penological wizard. "Money is acid to integrity," he added.
The Texas Syndicate originated in California's Folsom prison in the early 1970s. It was established there by native Texas prisoners to defend against California prison gangs which preyed on Texans. The gang has since expanded and now has a national presence. The gang's main activities are drug trafficking, extortion, pressure rackets, and internal discipline.
In 1999, as state officials did little to abate gang activity, federal officials moved in and arrested 23 members of the Texas Syndicate and sent them to federal prison. Undeterred, the gang members continued their villainy of assaults, drug trade, armed robberies, and killings.
Four years later, because the state of Texas (whose top cop, former Attorney General Dan Morales, is now in federal prison himself) failed to subdue the flourishing prison gang activity, federal agents again moved in.
In May 2003, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton of Austin unsealed a 44-page federal indictment naming 19 Texas Syndicate gang members who were variously charged with crimes of murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking, assault, robbery, and burglary. Many of the crimes were done to discipline disrespectful gang members, initiate prospective gang members, punish those who were seen as a threat to the gang, or to raise cash to fund continuing gang operations. Fourteen of those who were indicted were already in prison, three were arrested in Austin, and two remained at large. Sutton stated he intended to charge the gang members under the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations act and seek long prison terms.
Sources: Austin American-Statesman, Florida Department of Corrections, Fort Worth. Star-Telegram, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, U.S. Attorney's office.
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login