Imprisoned California gang members are increasingly tiring of doing hard time to satisfy gang leaders demands to enforce dogmatic, self-serving obeisance to the perpetuation of in-prison violence. Today, 13,000 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) prisoners (8%) are housed in protective custody (PC) sensitive needs yards (SNY), with a waiting list of 1,400 more.
Formerly the sole realm of child molesters, rapists and snitches, protective custody is being increasingly requested by members of prison gangs who wish to drop out of the life of stabbings, retribution and hit lists. Under the rules of many such gangs, opting out is an automatic death sentence. But with many such gangsters now doing life sentences for killings they only did under orders, the specter of doing the rest of their lives under constant fear and pressure from gang leaders, and therefore enduring the harshest of prison conditions, is getting old.
Gang warfare has been legion in California prisons for almost 40 years, when an argument at Soledad State Prison began the rift amongst Latinos that today is manifested in the Norteño (Northerner) and Sureño (Southerner) schism that woodenly pits brother against brother solely based upon the region of the state they came from. Subcultures within these groups, based upon drug cartels extending to Cali, Colombia, have put a huge financial imprimatur on the current factions of these gangs, including Nuestra Familia and the Mexican Mafia (EME).
Not be outdone are parallel structures among blacks (Crips; Bloods; numerous gangs identified by their home telephone area codes), whites (Aryan Brotherhood; Nazi Low Riders), Asians and Pacific Islanders. Each gang has its own hierarchy, with killings ordered upon many hundreds of disobedient members over the years.
Whole prisons have been converted to SNY camps, as have separate yards in many other prisons. In fact, the SNY population in CDCR has grown from just 1,000 in 1999 to over 13,000 today. Former single-cell isolation in harsh SHU housing at supermax Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) has been traded for SNY double-cell living, even among former deadly enemies.
Prison officials hold out the carrot to gang members, offering to let them live a better quality of prison life in exchange for defecting their gang affiliation. Cost savings are obvious, just on the single-cell to double-cell housing change alone. Moreover, the revolution in protective custody is slowly breaking the stranglehold gang-imposed rules place on prison life. Officials literally asked members to opt out, when responding to unconstitutional gang/ethnicity based lockdowns at PBSP that the courts ordered CDCR to abate, according to former PBSP Warden Joe McGrath (who now heads all adult prisons within CDCR.)
Living in SNYs offers prisoners another carrot, the hope of eventual parole. Gang affiliation is a guaranteed death-knell from Californias parole board, which rarely grants parole to anyone, even non gang members.
Recently, CDCR took the ultimate step in breaking gang leaders, even at fabled PBSP, by farming them out to do hard time in distant federal lockups, where they have, in theory, no friends or connections. Governor Schwarzenegger recently conditionally commuted the life sentences of five such Nustra Familia leaders just to isolate them outside the state.
You start seeing things, after doing so much time, said dropout Gerardo Fuentes, a lifer. After watching people fight for power and backstabbing one another, you say, This is all B.S. [Gang leaders] are up in Pelican Bay. Youre their pawn. This is their chessboard.
What goes unsaid is the tremendous power this gives prison officials who can then transfer SNY prisoners back to other prisons should they fall into disfavor with their keepers. The divide and conquer strategy successfully carried out by the CDC, using gangs, has ensured a docile and manageable prison population unable to unite on even the most basic of issues directly related to their own daily welfare.
Source: Los Angeles Times.
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