Personal Voices: Life in the Prison War Zone

In California's prisons, you're either a civilian or a soldier. But when a race war breaks out, everyone fights.

I'm 29 years old and have been to prison four times. The first time was for 16 months, for possession of a sawed-off shotgun in a robbery. Later, I got a two-year term for assault with a deadly weapon. The last time was for violating parole, for possessing explosives without a license on the Fourth of July.

In prison I was a soldier, a Muslim. Civilians are inmates who aren't joined up with any of the prison groups. The groups are usually divided along race lines, but not always.

The California Department of Corrections (CDC) keeps prisoners segregated much of the time, and prisons segregate themselves, too. Whites sleep, exercise and shower with whites, blacks with blacks, and so forth. But prison is still a war zone. Anything can happen to you or around you, at any time.

One day at breakfast during my last time in prison, an older black guy was walking down the center aisle of the main chow hall. When he went beyond the row of tables where the blacks were sitting, a Sureno -- an inmate belonging to the "Southern" Mexican group -- jumped up and BAM! knocked him smooth on his back.

Within a second the whole chow hall zoomed in, and braced for a race war between the Surenos and the blacks.

The correctional officers (COs) patrolling the hall hit the chow hall alarm, which brought in more COs, who handcuffed both guys and took them to the hole. Everyone was told to sit back down. But a black guy standing near me refused, because his back would have been vulnerable to about six rows of tables filled with Surenos.

"I ain't sittin' there, I don't feel comfortable sittin' there like that," he told the CO. The CO, a known white racist, knew exactly what was going on, but insisted the black guy sit down or get pepper-sprayed and sent to the hole. He sat down.

Soon a Sureno sitting directly behind him starts whistling and whispering to his comrades. Next thing I know most of the Surenos in that section start mean-mugging the black guy like they're about to make a move.

To understand what happened next, you've got to understand prison life. Every prison group has soldiers and civilians. White soldiers include the Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi skinheads, the KKK and other groups. Black soldiers include 415 (based on the Bay Area's 415 area code), the Black Guerrilla Family and the Bloods and Crips. Mexicans are Nortenos and Surenos, Pisas and Border Brothers. "Others" are anyone not black, white or Mexican (Samoan, Asian, etc.)

If one white and one black get into a fight, then 99 percent of the time all blacks and whites get into a fight. Same with Mexicans and whites, Sureno and black, whites and Others. Word travels at light speed to other prisons, and sometimes riots take place there, too, between the same groups.

Everyone -- soldiers and able-bodied civilians alike -- must fight in a war. If you don't, when that war is over, when everyone comes off lockdown -- you're doomed.

Now, the blacks and Surenos don't get along. The Surenos, Pisas, Border Brothers and whites are allies. The Nortenos and Surenos really don't get along. The Nortenos and the blacks get along just fine. The Muslims -- Sunni, Shiite, Ansar El Mohammeds, and the F.O.I. (Fruit of Islam) -- are cool with almost everyone, but are seen as soldiers due to their strong belief in jihad (holy war). Generally, the Muslims are peaceful and avoid being transgressors. All the groups know that. But if a non-Muslim gets into a fight with a Muslim, the Muslims will investigate. If the non-Muslim party was at fault, there could be hell to pay.

Back to the story. The black guy with his back turned to the Surenos, a civilian, wasn't aware of all the attention being paid to him. But I saw it, and being black and Muslim I had to respond. I changed seats to get closer to the main guy whistling. "What up?" I asked the Sureno. "You got a problem with the brother? You want to make a move, move now!" All the while, the Surenos, whites and blacks are again bracing for war.

The Sureno stood up and started yelling, and immediately the COs hit the alarm and grabbed fire extinguishers filled with mace. Another CO on the catwalk above the chow hall aimed his Mini 14 rifle at us. "GET THE F--- DOWN...NOW!"

The blacks were outnumbered four to one, not counting the whites, Pisas and Border Brothers, so for them to get down first would have been suicide. The Surenos didn't want to go first and look weak. But no one wanted to catch lead from the gunner. So in silent consensus, everyone slowly got down at the same time.

After that incident, blacks and Surenos went on lockdown for a month.

Later, on the way back to our cells, the black guy came up to me and said, "Thanks, youngster, but you didn't have to do that." But he knew as well as I did that if they had attacked him without my notice, I would have been disciplined later. Why? A soldier must be aware of his surroundings at all times.

Abdul Shareef, 29, is a founding member of YO! Youth Outlook (www.youthoutlook.org), a magazine by and for Bay Area youth.

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