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Experts: Prison Gang Reach Increasingly Extends Into Streets

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer speaks in Houston on Nov. 9. Officials announced the arrest of dozens of alleged members of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood of Texas gang on federal racketeering and other charges.
Cody Duty
Houston Chronicle via AP
Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer speaks in Houston on Nov. 9. Officials announced the arrest of dozens of alleged members of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood of Texas gang on federal racketeering and other charges.

Prison violence is getting out of prison.

Authorities are looking into the possibility that white supremacist prison gangs may have been involved in a series of shootings of public officials in Colorado and Texas. If so, criminologists say, this would be part of a larger pattern of prison gangs extending their reach.

"Increasingly, these prison gangs are spilling out onto the streets," says Mark Potok, an editor with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

On Friday, police in Colorado took into custody James Lohr, a known associate of a white supremacist prison gang called the 211 Crew. Lohr and another associate of the gang had been wanted for questioning in last month's slaying of Tom Clements, Colorado's chief of corrections. Another man linked to the crime died in a shootout with Texas authorities and also had 211 Crew ties.

Members of another such prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, have fallen under suspicion in the killings of a Kaufman County, Texas, district attorney and his wife last Saturday and the assistant district attorney in January.

There's still a great deal of uncertainty about who committed the Colorado and Texas slayings. But law enforcement interest in prison gangs reflects a sense that they are becoming more of a danger to the society at large.

"Their reach beyond the prison has tended to be relatively minimal, but that has started to change," says Pete Simi, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. "With so many people circulating in and out, you're seeing that with gangs of all races and ethnicities."

The Birth Of The Brotherhood

Last November, state, local and federal law enforcement agencies announced the indictments of 34 alleged members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, including four of its top leaders, on charges of murder and numerous other crimes.

Some officials have speculated that the indictments may have provided a motive for revenge in the recent killings of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, as well as his top deputy, Mark Hasse.

Like a number of racially based prison gangs, the all-white Aryan Brotherhood of Texas started about 30 years ago in response to changing prison conditions.

An unrelated Aryan Brotherhood was formed in the 1960s at California's San Quentin prison. Inmates in Texas petitioned to be part of that group but were denied, so they started a gang of their own.

"It's not a chapter or sub-unit, it's a completely distinct gang," Potok says.

Conditions in Texas prisons in the 1980s were ripe for racially based gangs to form. In response to a 1970s court decision, facilities underwent enormous changes, says James W. Marquart, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Texas prisons previously employed minimal staff and a trusty system, with dominant inmates managing the cellblocks and living areas. A court found this arrangement unconstitutional.

"You had to replace those strong inmates with correctional officers, and an authority vacuum developed," he says.

The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, along with other gangs such as the Mexican Mafia and the Black Guerrilla Family, developed in part as mutual protection societies, with prisoners of various races protecting each other from threats.

"The gangs went from protecting themselves in prison on racial lines to evolving into criminal enterprises," says Terry Pelz, a criminal justice consultant and former Texas prison warden.

A Giant Leap

The 211 Crew was founded in 1995 for similar reasons. Benjamin Davis started the group after claiming his jaw was broken by a black inmate.

He is currently serving time in a Colorado prison. The Denver Post reportsthat Davis recently had been placed in solitary confinement due to his connection with Evan Ebel, a suspected 211 Crew member who has been linked to Clements' death.

The 211 Crew is not known to have previously operated outside of Colorado, but Texas authorities are looking into whether Ebel, who died in a shootout with Texas law enforcement, had anything to do with the Kaufman County killings.

Along with some other experts, Pelz is skeptical that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas would be involved in something as daring as the twin slayings of public prosecutors.

The planned nature of the assassinations would represent a different approach for a gang like the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, Simi says, noting that much of its violence is directed inward, toward disciplining members.

To Pelz, the Kaufman County killings seem more like the work of a Mexican drug cartel than the Aryan Brotherhood. "Having studied them for 30 years, this doesn't seem like their style," he says. "If it is them, it would be an extremely giant step for them to make."

But gangs evolve. And law enforcement officials have noted increasing connections between Mexican drug cartels and gangs in the U.S.

"Federal, state and local law enforcement officials are observing a growing nexus between the Mexican drug cartels, illegal alien smuggling rings and U.S.-based gangs," the FBI noted in its 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment.

"It may seem puzzling that a white supremacist gang would work with a Mexican criminal organization, but the collaboration is not unusual for the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas," Claire O'Neill McCleskey wrote last year for InSight Crime, which covers organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean. "In the past it has collaborated with the Mexican Mafia in Texas and with Mexico-based drug-trafficking organizations in a number of criminal activities, including human trafficking, cross-border arms dealing and drug smuggling."

Crime Follows The Money

Pelz notes that regardless of their initial ideology or racial motivations, prison gangs invariably end up caring most about their incomes. "It's all about money," he says.

"There is an enormous underground prison economy," Simi says. And the size of the economy prison gangs can hope to control has been growing, based on their increasing interest in enterprises outside the prison walls.

Former prisoners are expected not only to answer to leaders on the inside, but also to provide earnings through the drug trade.

"Their business is running drugs," Potok says. "A lot of white supremacist gangs basically control the meth trade in the United States."

What's sobering, he says, is that the leaders of prison gangs can continue to issue orders even if they are confined to solitary due to their known status as gang leaders. They use girlfriends, wives and sometimes attorneys to get their coded messages out, he says.

"They are building a real criminal empire out on the streets, not just within the prison walls," Potok says. "People are aging out of their terms and getting out on the streets and prison gangs are increasingly demanding that people stay in the gangs as earners."

Pelz, the former warden, says other white supremacist gangs are far more violent than the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. And he says regardless of what gang you're talking about, no amount of indictments or arrests ever seems to deprive it of the leadership it needs to keep going.

"You take the leaders out, there are others to replace them," Pelz says. "We've seen the same types of [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] indictments against other gangs, and they're still healthy enterprises, as far as criminal enterprises go."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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