Prison Gangs

November 18, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: When these two white men were arrested in June and charged with the murder of a black man in Jasper, Texas, people were stunned. Police say the suspects, along with another man, chained James Byrd, Jr. to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him down this country road to his death, and police say they did it because he was black. Walter Diggles is a life-long resident and community leader in Jasper.

WALTER DIGGLES, Jasper Resident: Well, you know, you have that feeling of outrage and you just can’t believe that there are people living this close to you who would commit that kind of a horrendous crime. I mean, it was just total shock.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Police say suspects John William King and Lawrence Russell Brewer first met at this Texas prison, and while they don’t know exactly when the two joined a splinter white supremacist group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, officials say they do know the suspects left prison covered with racist tattoos, a clear sign of gang membership. A possible connection between their prison experiences and the Jasper crime has brought attention to what’s become a nationwide problem in prisons: white supremacist gangs. Prison officials say part of the reason is the tensions created by more crowded prisons, and in Texas, a court-ordered integration plan has placed increasing numbers of Hispanic and black inmates in the same cells with whites. Warden Kevin Moore says white prisoners, who are a slight minority in the prison population, feel more isolated, more fearful of violence, and most important more vulnerable to the lure of gangs.

KEVIN MOORE, Cofield Prison Warden: I think what causes people to join these disruptive groups when they initially come into the system primarily is fear. You know, they don’t know what to expect; they’ve never been locked up before. These gangs go to them and they tell them what they can do for them, that they can protect them and they can provide for them. And if you take a person that’s not strong-willed and doesn’t seem to be an individual, they’re susceptible to falling in these groups.

SPOKESMAN: These are some of the house rules.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Robert Grant, a gang intelligence officer, says prison gangs are highly organized, with sophisticated rules and regulations. This is a gang charter seized by authorities. The gangs not only provide protection; they become a way of life, driven by strong ideological convictions. Troy Rodgers is a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood at Cofield Prison in East Texas.

TROY RODGERS, Aryan Brotherhood: The white race is so outnumbered in here any day room that you walk into in this system, if you’re white, you’re going to catch hell. They’re going to – black inmates, they’re going to try to hog you, they’re going to try to take your money. They’re going to try to make you ride. They’re going to try to make you do homosexual acts because you’re white, not because you’re weak, not because you got money, because you’re white.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What does the Aryan Brotherhood believe in that appeals to you?

TROY RODGERS: That the white race comes first. If we don’t do something about our race now, it’s going to become extinct.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Donny Ruthart is also a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.

DONNY RUTHART, Aryan Brotherhood: This place here breeds racial hatred. This place – this prison system teaches racial hatred. It breeds it, and it stuffs it in you. You know what I’m saying?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What is it about prison that can turn someone into a killer?

DONNY RUTHART: Survival. You know, as far as me as a white man, I’m going to put it straight to you like this: Most of your racial killings involving a white man killing somebody in this system is pure survival.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Prison officials say black and Hispanic inmates are just as fearful of the whites, and that’s why they form their own gangs. Warden Moore disagrees that it is the system that’s responsible for turning some whites into killers.

KEVIN MOORE: I don’t think that the facility that they’re in breeds this type of behavior. I think it’s within them from the start. And, you know, once they do join a disruptive group – in this case, you know, a white supremacist group – I think that it probably does enhance the hatred a little bit more towards the particular races. But I think there had to be something there initially, or, you know, they wouldn’t have participated in that type of behavior.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Prison officials are able to control some of the activities of gangs by keeping their leaders isolated from the rest of the prison population. Acknowledged gang captains, like Troy Rodgers, spend 23 hours a day in administrative segregation. Officials say since they’ve imposed administrative segregation on large numbers of gang leaders and violent inmates, homicides in the system have practically stopped. But others say there is a down side to this kind of isolation, because it also helps feed racist ideology. Kerry Noble spent 18 months in a federal prison as a leader of a white supremacist group.

KERRY NOBLE, Former White Supremacist: They get to prison. They find a people that they can belong to that supposedly has some answers. And, of course, they have the isolation. Coming out of prison, they still have the isolation because they’re covered with the tattoos. How are they going to fit in society? It’s very common in the hate movement if it’s a minority and especially if it’s black, they tend to think of them not as people, not as humans, as dogs. They’re just lower creations, and you get to the point in the hate movement where a black man is no different than a dog.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That attitude toward blacks makes gang members particularly dangerous when they leave prison. According to Sam Buentello, who monitors gang activity for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, crimes all over the state can be traced to gang leaders calling the shots from inside the prisons. He says besides being involved in hate crimes, gangs are involved in multi-million dollar gun and drug rings.

SAM BUENTELLO, Texas Department of Criminal Justice: When they get released, they are bound to this organization to continue illegal activities. There are basically ongoing criminal organizations. They make no bones about rehabilitation. They know what they’re involved in; they know what they’re going to do; and they go do it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Buentello says prison officials across the country are now identifying branches of the same gangs originally found in Texas prisons, and to try and track the problem, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice recently announced the creation of a national information clearinghouse on gang members in and out of prison.