Prison gangs and the study of ethnic roots: When is the search for identity a criminal enterprise?

By Julie Reynolds

Last year, hundreds of California prison inmates went on a statewide hunger strike to protest conditions in the system’s Security Housing Units, the most tightly controlled isolation cells known as the SHU. Among the occupants of the state’s two SHUs, which function as prisons-within-prisons, are those deemed to be members of any of the state’s validated security threat groups, more commonly called prison gangs. A chief complaint behind the 2011 hunger strike was that the criteria used for deciding who is a member of one of those gangs were unfair. One man quoted in the press said he was given an indefinite SHU term simply because he was heard speaking Swahili and he possessed a book written by the late Black Panther leader George Jackson.

In other words, he was trying to learn more about his identity and roots.

None of this surprised me when I heard about it. Whether that particular man was truly just a curious reader trying to learn his community’s political history or was part of something more nefarious, I will never know. But I am a criminal justice reporter specializing in gangs, and I have learned over the years that all the major prison gangs put great effort into schooling members about their ethnic identities and history.

A former Nuestra Familia leader in the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison.

A death row inmate named Steve Champion has argued in S.F. Bay News that corrections officials are motivated by much more than concerns about prison gangs. Champion sees a broader agenda of political suppression. “Prison administrators know that if even one prisoner shuns George Jackson’s books or other leftist material because he thinks he might be labeled a gang member and placed in the SHU, then the strategy of suppression is effective,” he writes.

The fuss over books in prison cells seems a bit extreme, perhaps Orwellian. To those of us outside the prison world, that kind of reading matter sounds like typical college homework assignments. Yet it is among the clues corrections officials rely on to decide whether an inmate is a member of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang—which, it turns out, was founded by George Jackson. While inmates, their relatives, and supporters of the strike say the system is stepping on prisoners’ rights to learn about their own history and identity, prison officials argue that a man’s possession of such materials can, along with other factors, indicate that he is a member of a violent criminal organization. It is a fact that the practice of studying ethnic and political roots is part of all the major prison gangs’ “curricula.” Along with the Black Guerrilla Family’s interest in Swahili and Jackson’s political theories, members of the Aryan Brotherhood learn about Odinist religion and write in Nordic runes. Nuestra Familia and Mexican Mafia members study the indigenous language Náhuatl and read biographies of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

The study of ancient, “exotic” languages is a good example of what prison investigators worry about. These languages are regularly employed in coded messages that convey criminal orders outside prison. I have seen handwritten letters in a mix of English and Náhuatl covering topics that ranged from the details of managing statewide drug-trafficking operations to orders to kill. So when prison guards find lists of Náhuatl words in a prisoner’s cell, they confiscate them and are likely to send that inmate to the SHU.

All of this has me wondering: when is a prisoner’s exploration of identity a legitimate search for knowledge and when is it a clever criminal ploy? How can any of us know the difference? A few years ago, I had to decide those questions for myself, and it was not easy. As a reporter on gangs, I write to various acquaintances and sources in prison, and I occasionally send them books. One young man asked me to mail him a copy of “An Analytical Dictionary of Náhuatl,” by Frances Karttunen, a research scientist in the Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. This sounded respectable enough, and I could appreciate that this man—a former gang member—might now truly be interested in his ancestors’ culture and history. I happen to love the rhythm and beauty of the Náhuatl language and always enjoyed overhearing a modern version of it when I lived in western Mexico years ago. I have picked up a book or two on it myself over the years.

But I hesitated. Would the mailroom officers put my name in some secret file as an alleged gang sympathizer? There was a bigger reason I held back, though. A part of me knew that, despite having left his gang, my young friend had not quite left the whole criminal mindset behind. My guts told me he would use his expanded knowledge of Náhuatl for some kind of illegal communication. In the end, I did not send it.

I hated myself for being so cynical. But even worse, the book- and learning-lover in me wondered this: since when had the thirst for scholarly knowledge become so dangerous?


Julie Reynolds reports on criminal justice and youth violence at The Monterey County Herald. Her writing has been published or broadcast in The Nation,, The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, PBS and other outlets.

Recently, she was a Three Strikes Reporting Fellow for John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Before that, she was a class of 2011 Steinbeck Fellow at San José State University specializing in creative nonfiction, and a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University, class of 2009.

She was a Justice Reporting Fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at USC Annenberg in 2007, studying the impacts of life sentences in California prisons. Her reporting on that topic earned the PASS Award from the National Center on Crime and Delinquency.

Reynolds co-wrote and co-produced the PBS documentary “Nuestra Familia, Our Family,” which among other awards earned Investigative Reporters and Editors’ highest honor, the Tom Renner Medal for Reporting on Organized Crime.

She was editor of the national Latino literary magazine El Andar from 1998 to 2002, and is currently completing a literary nonfiction book about rural California gangs


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