The Ambiguities of Prison Gangs

Guards aren't all heroes, and inmates aren't all villains.

Here at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood recently wrote at length and with great texture about how gangs maintain order in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The article, “How Gangs Took Over Prisons,” is engrossing, rich in detail, reflective—and fatally flawed: It’s an attempt to write about gangs in a particular prison without explaining how prison policies and practices, not to mention court orders, shape the ways gang members are identified, treated, aided, and disciplined in that prison. It’s an attempt to write about them without using the terms “solitary confinement” or “mental-health treatment,” or any reference to ongoing federal class-action litigation over anti-gang actions in that prison. In other words, it’s an attempt to write about prison gangs without some of the most important context you need really to understand them and the reality that shapes them.

Wood’s argument seems to be that prison gangs are operating, and operating successfully, through an intricate series of tactics and strategies that take place even within the most confined areas within the prison. With great specificity, Wood tells us (citing corrections officials, mostly) how inmates communicate with one another and with the outside world, how pecking orders are established and maintained between and among gang members, and how beleaguered prison officials seek to maintain some semblance of order amid the chaos. The view Wood paints is stark: The guards are heroes. The prisoners are villains. The rules are the rules. And deep theories explain it all.

The central problem with this account is that an accurate picture of this prison, or any prison for that matter, is not nearly as stark. Not all of the corrections officials are heroes. Not all of the gang members are villains beyond the terms of their original offenses (in fact, not all the gang members are even gang members). And some of those rules, and the theories behind them, have been discredited in law or fact.

For these reasons, and others, a number of experts in what I like to call “prison law” have sharply criticized Wood’s piece. Their criticism is rather uncomplicated: By excluding dissident voices—failing to quote advocates, mental health counselors, defense attorneys, or even inmates—Wood’s piece is incomplete and ultimately misleading. It privileges the perspective of corrections officials and their supporters, which perpetuates some popular and unfortunately facile stereotypes about gangs and prisons.

Wood’s defense of his approach (and I take him at his word) is that the scope of his article is limited to how gangs operate and that he therefore had no obligation to dive into topics he would consider tangential. But a primer on the contentious legal issues surrounding prison gangs is integral to any story about those gangs. And any prison story in America today that does not include some reference to the mental-health care provided (or more aptly not provided) to inmates is, I would say, inherently problematic.

At Mother Jones, Shane Bauer has written what I consider to be a thorough and fair critique of Wood’s work, which I’d recommend to anyone. What I want to do here simply identify a few of the ways in which the piece was lacking crucial context.

Wood provides a colorful account of the contraband prisoners smuggle into their cells—lots of things stuffed into lots of orifices—but there is no mention in his piece about the role that prison staff play in assisting with that smuggling, even though there are plenty of stories, based in California and elsewhere, chronicling this phenomenon. Given Wood’s limited sources, this omission shouldn’t come as a surprise. No one would expect the warden at Pelican Bay or his spokesman to highlight or even mention the ways in which corrections officers aid and abet in the dissemination of contraband. But the truth is that officials at Pelican Bay are partly responsible for the contraband that flows into the facility. They know it. And the reader should, too.

The reader should likewise know about the complicated, evolving, and increasingly dubious relationship between “gang-control strategies” and the use of solitary confinement. Such isolation, on the downswing now across the nation, is one of the most controversial issues in criminal justice today. And we know precisely how most corrections officers feel about it. They like it, regardless of any long-term implications it may have for the inmate so incarcerated. But this entrenched view—that isolation is necessary, that it does more good than harm—has never been more challenged than it is today from virtually every corner of the criminal-justice community. The voices of these challengers were absent from Wood’s piece: He didn’t quote one judge or senator or state prisons’ chief. If you want good context about life in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, perspective that undermines Wood’s portrayal of isolation within the prison, read this excellent piece by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, published this past February in New York Magazine.

Wood also spends a great deal of space discussing life for gang members in the Security Housing Units, what are commonly known as SHUs. He even wrote this remarkable passage:

Walking into the SHU feels like entering a sacred space. After the clanging of doors behind you, a monastic silence reigns. The hallways radiate from the command center at the hub of the SHU snowflake, and each one has chambers on either side that sprout chambers of their own. The hallways echo with footsteps when you walk down them. There are no prison noises: no banging of tin cups, no screaming of the angry or insane. The silence is sepulchral, and even when you get to branches of the snowflake, where the inmates actually live, it seems as if everyone is in suspended animation, on one of those interstellar journeys that last multiple human lifetimes.

Branches of the snowflake? Wood is talking here about tiny cells occupied by men who are forced to stay in them for 23 hours a day—some for decades on end—in conditions the United Nations considers torture. More concretely, Wood also is talking about conditions that are the subject of ongoing federal litigation—involving gang members—that’s pending in California over Security Housing Units, including the one at Pelican Bay.

There was no mention in Wood’s piece of the 2012 complaint that initiated this litigation, or the September 13, 2013, hearing held in federal district court on the topic of certifying a “class” of inmates in California SHUs—including so-called “gang” members—who claim that their constitutional rights have been deprived by the very practices Wood chronicles. Nor was there mention of the June 2014 court order by a federal judge granting that lawsuit class-action status and permitting it to proceed. I don’t know if Wood reached out to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), whose lawyers are leading this litigation, but his piece neither cites nor refers to anyone from CCR.

This is critical context. It casts doubt upon Wood’s “interstellar journey” imagery. And it is completely missing from his essay.

Furthermore, nowhere in the piece does Wood address the great controversy over the way prison officials identify gang members. This, too, is the subject of intense litigation; some experts in the field are dubious about the way prison officials “validate” that prisoners are members of a gang. As a reader, wouldn’t you want to know that?

Then there is this passage:

On every cellblock at Pelican Bay, the guards post plastic identity cards on the wall, to keep track of which inmate is in which cell. These cards include each inmate’s name and photo. But the most-important information is conveyed by the cards’ color, which roughly correlates with probable gang affiliation: green for northern Hispanics, pink for southern Hispanics, blue for blacks, white for whites, and yellow for others, including American Indians, Mexican nationals, Laotians, and Eskimos. The information is crucial to the smooth running of the institution. Maintaining balance in a cellblock, and not putting a lone gang member in a situation where he might be surrounded by members of a rival gang, requires constant attention on the part of the corrections officers.

As one of my journalism colleagues with experience writing about prisons wrote to me: “The practice of color-coding inmates and the ‘race-based lockdowns’ that they facilitate are also being challenged by a current class action lawsuit (Mitchell v. Felker) and have been struck down by previous court orders. … The idea that doing so is ‘crucial to the smooth running of the institution’ ignores the practice’s history. When Pelican Bay tried to focus on isolating ‘enforcers’ (instead of labeling and locking down entire racial groups of inmates) in 2002, the prison spokesperson said they’d seen a drop-off in violence.” This also is critical context that would have balanced out the view from corrections officers (not to mention undermined their credibility).

If you want to understand what is happening inside our nation’s prisons, including and especially California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, by all means do read Wood’s piece. Even one-sided pieces can provide a good view of that one side. But then read Bauer’s strong response to it. Then read the Supreme Court’s landmark 2011 prison decision in Brown v. Plata, a ruling authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the only Californian currently on the High Court.

Then go to the CCR site and follow the proceedings in Ashker v. Brown. Then go to Jim Ridgeway’s site “Solitary Watch” and read about Coleman v. Brown, and another federal court ruling that is relevant to the life of gang members at Pelican Bay. Follow the work of Carl Takei and Amy Fettig at the ACLU’s prison project.

The truth is that you can read 12 hours a day for the next month from a thousand different sources and still not read all there is to read about the grim, complicated life inside those California cells. No one expected Wood to canvas all of these voices or to serve as a tribune for each of them. No one would have judged him for not explaining all the complexities of these topics when entire books have been unable to do the job. Yet even in 5,000 words, Wood could—and should—have included much more context and perspective. There is a there there in his piece. But sadly, the value of what’s there is overshadowed by all that is missing.