Race in the Anti-Society
Race is a difficult subject for me to write about. I am a prisoner, and during the many years that I have served I have tried to live race neutral, so to speak. But race is a big factor inside: your skin colour legislates who you can talk to and where you can sit; it can protect you, or get you killed.
I was raised in Lake Forest Park, Washington state, an affluent suburb in north Seattle. The schools I attended were predominantly white. Although my father had escaped from communist Cuba, and was thus of Hispanic origin, he married my mother, a white American of many generations, and easily adapted to her American way of life.
My parents owned a small business, and our family life was more American than Hispanic. We spoke English, spent time camping and fishing, ate our evening meals together, and were entertained with American music and television. None of the American friends my sisters and I grew up with were of Hispanic extraction.
My last name is Hispanic, but this background has conditioned me to feel out of place when immersed in communities that are other than American. I am not fluent in Spanish, have little knowledge of Spanish music or culture, and I have not identified personally with issues of importance to Hispanic Americans. Indeed, before my imprisonment I naturally gravitated to those who shared the same background, and my relationships generally were with white Americans.
Taking on colour
When I was imprisoned seventeen years ago, I instantly became part of an undesirable group: society's castaways. My perceptions of what to expect had been shaped by the stereotypical images I saw depicted in popular film. In high- and medium-security prisons, I came to observe, those images were remarkably accurate. Prisons are anti-societies, dominated by those who express hatred and disdain for the values that make for a prosperous, healthy, lawful community. Life reverts to a primitive culture that respects violence and encourages prisoners to at least cultivate the perception that they have the means to employ it with lethal force if provoked.
During that initial induction period, it also became clear that differences of background, speech, or values were clearly less salient as racial or ethnic category: black, Hispanic, white. In USP Atlanta, where I was confined, most of my fellow-inmates were from the southeastern United States, a long way from my northwest Seattle home. Around 2,000 of the 2,700 prisoners were black.
"Herberto in maximum security at California Youth Authority," by Joseph Rodriguez
Many urban blacks feel as though they have suffered oppression at the expense of the white power structure for their entire lives. To some extent, many black prisoners hold whites - not their own criminal behavior or the choices they have made - accountable for their difficult status in life. Whereas whites control the world beyond prison boundaries, blacks in prison tend to view the communities inside as their own.
Their numbers cement this dominance in many aspects of penitentiary life. The common areas, the television programming, even the basketball courts in every prison yard reflect it.
There are no formal policies of segregation, but prisoners segregate themselves voluntarily. They become territorial. In the chow hall, for example, as many as 700 people congregate, with blacks sitting in one area, Hispanics in another, whites in a third. Problems erupt when prisoners cross these racial lines. The same holds true for television rooms, and for benches located in open spaces on the compound.
In such a segregated environment, the smallest event can set off a chain reaction. For example, a new black prisoner sat at a table in the white section of the chow hall. A white prisoner, with all the tact possible for such a conversation, told him that he was in the wrong section. The black responded that he was free to eat in any area he chose. The result was a smashed food tray over the black's head and a vicious fight. Administrators responded with an institution lockdown, confining all prisoners to their cells.
Some hotheads welcome the immediate excitement that comes with such explosions of violence. But when small-scale race wars erupt, the shot-callers - prisoners who are considered leaders, controlling various cliques within each racial group - may come together in an effort to prevent it from spreading.
How does a man become a shot-caller? In societies beyond prison walls people earn distinctions and promotions through merit, and it is a twisted version of merit that operates here too. A shot-caller is generally a man who is known to have "put in his work" - that is, he is a man defiant of authority, one who has killed and has no compunction about killing again.
Photo by Joseph Rodriguez, published in East Side Stories: Gang Life in East LA
Meanwhile, prison officials have many tools at their disposal to quell prison tensions. They can impose lockdowns immediately, by force if necessary. No one wants the punishment of twenty-three-hour days stuffed in a tiny concrete room that they must share with at least one cellmate. If this sanction is not enough, administrators can transport troublemakers or instigators to other prisons across the country, separating a man further by perhaps thousands of miles from family and friends.
In an effort to prevent such inevitable administrative responses to violence, shot-callers in the prison forbid those within their group from launching major disturbances within the prison, especially over sensitive racial issues.
The currents of power
During six years behind the high walls of USP Atlanta, I came to know many gang leaders. Raven was the leader of a congregation of several hundred blacks who were allowed to meet under the ostensible guise of religious worship; others perceived them as a vicious gang.
"Muthafuckas listen to what I say 'cause if they don't, they know I'm a peel they skull all the way back to the white meat. Nothin' goes down in dis bitch I ain't know about," Raven boasted to me once. Raven had been convicted of several murders, including one in prison, and was serving a sentence of four life terms.
Whereas Raven's power came from the strength in numbers that he controlled inside the prison, the power of other leaders came from the control they continued to exert beyond prison walls. When I first arrived inside, the men assigned to the cell next to mine were a couple of older and highly-respected Mafia chieftains, and we developed a friendship. Although their group's numbers in prison were small, they exuded strength of personality and enjoyed a status that was widely respected inside maximum security. Others assumed that the group's protection extended to me. I did nothing to dispel those misconceptions, and my term proceeded without interference from gang thugs or predators seeking to exploit weakness.
Inside, many gangs and cliques form a kind of pseudo-family, frequently for the purpose of trafficking in prison contraband or the extortion of weaker prisoners. The long sentences and the absence of a parole system or opportunities for individuals to earn early release through merit encourage men to bind together to increasing their influence or power. The result can be racial gang warfare.
Gangs make alliances, keep delicate truces or live as sworn enemies with each other. They are immersed in exploitation, extortion, and illegal rackets within prison walls. Their members use tattoos, handshakes, hand-signs, and other covert methods to reveal their status to others. They employ tribal initiation ceremonies, with a blood-in, blood-out commitment. This means that gang members must spill the blood of a gang's enemy before they can be considered a full member; the only way out of the gang is death.
Gang members take offense when others impersonate authentic gang membership. Spider, for example, had been featured on one of America's true crime shows as a wanted bank robber who was not only extremely dangerous but a declared member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang formed by white prisoners in the 1970s with the ostensible goal of protecting whites from the growing black prisoner populations.
The television show was broadcast nationwide. When Spider was caught and sentenced to prison, he faced a life-threatening problem: he was not, in fact, a true member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Members of black gangs marked Spider for death; Aryan Brotherhood members not only refused to defend him, but threatened his life as well. In the face of such extremes, Spider feigned an escape attempt, in order to ensure several years in solitary punishment cells.
A way of life
The federal prison system is now so crowded that medium-security prisons have become very much like the high-security penitentiaries, with broadly the same racial tensions and group problems. But as prisoners move to low-security institutions, they form bonds according to class more than race. The pressure and agitation decline markedly. In minimum-security prisons, like the camp in Florence, Colorado where I currently am confined, racial tensions tend to dissipate, if not disappear.
When I entered the prison system with a forty-five-year sentence, it was important to me that I did not align myself with any particular racial group, because to do so would bring expectations that I would participate in group violence or crime. Instead, I focused on my own goals and kept my circle of friends and acquaintances very small.
The time in prison behind me and before me is long. Now that I have worked my way into minimum-security, where racial and other tensions are less pervasive, I no longer feel threatened by my environment. But then again, after so many years, prison has become a way of life for me.