Although the United States prison system remains extremely dangerous due to overcrowding, guard and administrator abuse, and widespread detention and isolation practices that would be considered torture by the United Nations, they also serve as fertile breeding grounds for dangerous gangs, and in fact, American prisons have given rise to some of the most dangerous prison and street gangs of the twenty and twenty-first century. Of these, five stand out for their violence and resilience. The Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerilla Family, the Folk Nation, the Mexican Mafia, and MS-13 have all made a name for themselves in the prison system due to their violence, and although some have declined in scope and power as a result of concerted law enforcement efforts, all of these gangs remain a threat to security and safety, both for prison employees and the general public. By examining the foundations and spread of these gangs individually and in conjunction, one is able to see impact of these groups on the correctional system.
The Aryan Brotherhood was founded in 1967 in the San Quentin State Correctional Facility in California, and although the precise founders are not known, the gang was undoubtedly begun by a group of white inmates in response to the desegregation of prison populations and the emergence of predominantly black prison gangs, such as the Black Guerilla Family ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011). As the name would suggest, the Aryan Brotherhood identifies with a number of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist symbols and ideologies, but in practice, the gang has generally shown itself to be more concerned with profitable criminal activities ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011). In fact, according to the Florida Department of Corrections, the Aryan Brotherhood "utilizes black associates to buy and sell drugs to elements of the black prison population," and has been known to "give moral support to black groups in an effort to encourage possible prison disturbances," demonstrating the gang's interest in money and power over any particular racial ideology ("Gang and Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011).
According to the FBI's 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment report, the Aryan Brotherhood's "main source of income is the distribution of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine within prison systems and on the streets" (p. 28). In addition to the smuggling and selling of drugs, however, the Aryan Brotherhood "is notoriously violent" and has a proclivity for murder-for-hire to the extent that it has been responsible for a hugely disproportionate amount of murders in the federal prison system ("Prison Gangs" 2011). According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, the Aryan Brotherhood "is primarily active in the southwestern and Pacific regions," which makes sense if one recalls its founding in San Quentin, and although the hugely explosive growth first seen has tapered off, the gang remains so well represented both inside and outside of the prison system that one may not confidently claim that it is in decline ("Narcotics Digest Special Issue," 2005, p. 7).
In stark contrast to the Aryan Brotherhood, which seems to use pseudo-political and ideological trappings mainly as a means of recruitment and solidarity, the Black Guerilla Family maintains an explicit commitment to political goals and organizes itself more along the lines of a paramilitary group than a traditional gang ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011). Founded in San Quentin State Correctional Facility a year before the Aryan Brotherhood, in 1966, the Black Guerilla Family was created by former Black Panther George L. Jackson and "has an established national charter, code of ethics, and oath of allegiance," the most important goals of which are to "eradicate racism, struggle to maintain dignity in prison [and] overthrow the United States government" ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness," 2011, "National Gang Threat Assessment," 2009, p. 28). Although Black Guerilla Family members have been frequently involved in "auto theft, burglary, drive-by shooting and homicide," the main activities inside prison consist of "the distribution of cocaine and marijuana," which is often supplied by Mexican gangs, most frequently La Nuestra Familia (an offshoot and rival of the Mexican Mafia) ("Prison Gangs" 2011).
Consistent with its San Quentin roots, the Black Guerilla Family maintains a presence in California, but it also maintains a notable presence in Maryland, although at this point in time it is nowhere near as massive as its main rival, the Aryan Brotherhood (government estimates put the number of members at 100-300) ("National Gang Threat Assessment" 2009). With this in mind, one may easily describe the Black Guerilla Family as being in decline, especially considering that Marxism and black resistance movements, which originally constituted its central motivating ideologies, are far less relevant today than they were during the 1960s.
Of the prison gangs considered here, the Folk Nation is most likely least well-known and the least influential, at least in terms of prison violence and control over the illicit drug trade. The Folk Nation grew out of a collection of gangs which organized themselves in the 1960s. Two large Chicago-area gang conglomerates emerged over throughout the 1960s and 70s: the Black P-Stone Nation and Black Gangster Disciple Nation. As the leading members of these gangs were sent to prison during the 1980s, they began to organize themselves into rival factions, of which the Folk Nation was one, formed by the members of the Black Gangster Disciple Nation ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011). Obviously, the Folk Nation is strongest in the Midwest, and the group maintains a strict code of solidarity, with members promising to hold "Folk before family" and claiming that they will "not let my brother fall to a knee" ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011). As the focus is much more on solidarity and the social structure provided by the gang, criminal activities in prison focus on protecting "their members from violence perpetrated by rivals," although the grouping up also offers the opportunity "to maximize drug profits" (Allender, 2001, p. 6).
The truly dangerous nature of the Folk Nation comes from the fact that seemingly trivial offenses warrant violence and even death, from "showing rival's hand signs upside down or crossing out a rival's hand-signs with another finger" to "drinking from a plastic cup belonging to a rival gang member" ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011). Nonetheless, the size and scope of the Folk Nation remains limited, such that while it is difficult to ascertain whether or not it is necessarily in decline (especially since the constituent gangs might themselves grow and shrink at regular intervals), one may at least argue that the Folk Nation remains far less dominant than the other four prison gangs considered here.
The Mexican Mafia is one of the oldest prison gangs under consideration here, begun in the Deuel Vocational Institution in California, a youth offender facility, in the 1950s by Luis Flores ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011). Flores convinced a group of rival Latino gangs to unite inside the prison system, and the gang truly flourished once Flores and others were moved from Deuel to San Quentin, cementing the prison's title as the birthplace of the three major American prison gangs. Like other gangs, the Mexican Mafia maintains a strict code of conduct for its members, and the gang's "philosophy centers on ethnic solidarity and control of drug trafficking" ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011).
According to the Department of Justice, "the Mexican Mafia's main source of income is extorting drug distributors outside prison and distributing methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and marijuana within the prison systems and on the outside streets," although the gang also engages in "other criminal activities including controlling gambling and prostitution within the prison systems" ("Prison Gangs" 2011). The Mexican Mafia is strong throughout the southwest, with its primary base of operations in California, and is one of the most dangerous prison gangs to the point that the Federal Bureau of Prisons currently considers it the most active prison gang, "in terms of incident frequency rather than severity" ("Gang & Security Threat Group Awareness" 2011). Although official government reports list the gang as having 100-300 members, this does not fully demonstrate the gang's real influence and power, because the Mexican Mafia maintains control over numerous smaller gangs, often ordering hits to be carried out by these smaller organizations ("National Gang Threat Assessment," 2009, p. 29). For all intents and purposes, one may consider the Mexican Mafia to be growing, as it has maintained dominance in the prison system for at least half a century.
One of the more recent gangs to make itself known in the prison system, and one of the most vicious, is the relatively new MS-13, which is short for Mara Salvatrucha, a largely Salvadoran gang responsible for some of the most vicious gang activity of the last decade. MS-13 was founded in Los Angeles in 1980s, but did not truly expand to the massive organization it is today until MS-13 members were arrested and deported back to Salvador or other home countries, where they recruited…