In the netherworld of corruption and violence, which exists perpetually inside the belly of the beast, prison administrators struggle to manage the violent proclivities of prison gangs. Unfortunately, for the powers that be, it’s not a perfect science. With all the shifting alliances, swirling gang activity and ever changing power structures that fill the vacuum of the prison gang spectrum- where greenlight lists and smash-on-site directives are issued from the top hierarchy career gangsters in 24 hour lockdown- the job of maintaining the safe, secure and orderly running of the institution can be tantamount to figuring out a Rubik’s Cube.
The truth of the matter is that prison gang management is a clusterfuck; a menagerie of conflicting ideas, strategies and view points, with no defined or successful right or wrong way to manage the problem. As the prisoner population has risen in the Bureau of Prisons, the pressures facing prison administrators have only gotten worse. An increasingly unstable situation has turned chaotic as correctional authorities try to cope and manage the combustible intersections of gang rivalries with dwindling resources, insufficient intel and undertrained staff.
With the influx of Mexican Nationals into the federal prison system, serving time for drug related or illegal reentry charges, a new conundrum has arisen for prison officials- where to house the rapidly growing Mexican prison population. Who have a subset of their own brutal and geographically related gangs such as the Pizas, Tango Blast and Border Brothers. Gangs that are willing and ready to fight to achieve dominance and prestige on any prison compound they are housed at.
Add these gangs to the already volatile mix of American based Mexican gangs like the Texas Mexican Mafia, Texas Syndicate, Aztecas, Surenos, Nortenos, Nuestra Familia and California’s Mexican Mafia, and the Bureau of Prisons has a recipe for disaster. A mishmash of gangs that have pre-existing beefs and unsettled rivalries that make housing them together on the same compound virtually impossible.
It is an insurmountable job alone trying to identify Mexican gang affiliations, their associations and rivals. On top of that the Bureau of Prisons has to decide where to house members of the various cliques. If that’s not a tough enough task, throw in the Mexican drug cartel members, who sit atop the pyramid of crime. Allowing them to cross all geographical, gangbanging and territorial boundaries, due to their ability to proliferate the flow of drugs and spread the wealth that all the gangbangers actively desire.
Even though the Mexican drug cartels regularly work with both the homegrown Mexican gangs and their cross border counterparts on the criminal, smuggling and distribution fronts, the rank and file of the cartel workers, namely gang members from both sides of the border, can’t seem to get along while incarcerated together. This conflict has led to a growing number of battles between the gangs that have escalated into outright warfare. In the Western and South Central regions of the Bureau of Prisons, battle lines have been drawn and gang violence has largely evolved into a Mexican on Mexican activity.
“In the fed joints in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, along with the West Coast, they have to split up the Mexican gangs, because certain groups can’t walk on certain yards,” a prisoner from Texas, who has been in the feds for a decade tells us. “You got groups they call the families- the Texas Mexican Mafia, the Texas Syndicate and the Aztecas, comprised mainly of Mexican Americans, who are at war with the Piza’s, Border Brothers and Tango Blast. Its different factions, with alliances, that group together for criminal and protection purposes.”
With these gangs having smash-on-site orders on their enemies, it’s on and popping like a UFC cage match whenever the gangbangers encounter each other. That is why most prisons in the feds are referred to as gladiator schools. Because it’s going down no holds barred and with whatever weapons are in hand- shanks, pipes, locks, rocks, tuna cans, broom sticks, mop ringers- the combatants will use anything to smash their opposition.
“If the families control a yard, the other click as like the Pizas can’t walk,” the prisoner says. “If they come out on the yard they get beat down, sometimes severely. It’s a do-or-die situation. If you are on either side of the beef and you don’t handle your business or smash your enemy on site, your own people will turn on you. These vatos are really serious and passionate about these beefs. There is a lot of history between these gangs. There are no truces and they don’t fuck around.”
The continuous gang wars in prison present numerous and tangible problems for prison officials, because the Bureau of Prison administrative staff, who work at the region and are in charge of designating prisoners to facilities, don’t know or disregard individuals gang affiliations when they make the crucial decision on where to house a prisoner in the system. To them it’s just a numbers game and they are far removed from the violence their lack of detail causes.
The main factor they utilize in making their determination on where to house a prisoner comes down to the policy of placing an individual within 500 miles of where they were convicted at. The other determining factor is whether an individual has separation due to them testifying in court against codefendants. These factors lead to most Mexican Nationals and their Mexican American counterparts to be housed together in the Western and South Central regions, creating a combustible atmosphere for local prison officials to deal with. The snitches are protected; everyone else is just thrown into the criminal justice machinery.
“This makes for some fucked up situations,” the prisoner says. “These dudes are at war with each other. They don’t give a fuck. They hate each other.” The designation process leads to a terrible mess that staff at the destination prisons are left to sort out. Understaffed, undertrained and not having the correct intelligence on gang members, staff are sorely pressed to manage the crisis and often make mistakes. Often times of a devastating and deadly nature, at least for the prisoners involved in the skirmishes and their families who have to receive the phone call pertaining to their loved one being in the hospital or worse yet, stabbed to death.
Local officials do their best at intake, asking incoming prisoners who they run with or to declare their gang affiliations, but being criminals by nature, most would rather not say. This is due to the fact that the information is transcribed on their official record and could hinder future program placement or early release opportunities, even leading to possible placement in a 24 hour lockdown or gang program unit. Most gang members would rather take their chances on the compound.
At one federal prison in the South Central region so many Piza gang members were being designated to the facility that officials had no choice but to lock them in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), a 24 hour lockdown unit prisoners call the hole, rather than put them on the yard with their sworn enemies, members of the families. Prison officials knew if they put the Pizas on the yard it would be a bloodbath. But regional officials didn’t care, they disregarded the information they were getting from their own local investigators, creating a situation for the local prison administration.
“The yard had been a long time stronghold of the families and the Pizas and their allies couldn’t walk, so the SIS had to lock them in the hole,” the prisoner says. “But the Mexicans were complaining to their consulate about the harsh conditions of 24 hour lockdown. Because for real, the hole sucks. Especially because they were locked down without doing anything wrong.”
Despite the presence of their enemies on the yard, some Pizas wanted to be released to the compound. They complained to their embassy about being held in the hole with no pending incident reports. As the pressure mounted and the consulate filed complaints with the Justice Department, prison officials caved in and started letting the Pizas out on the compound. “Just as quick as they came on the yard they got punished,” the prisoner says. “The families had the numbers and due to the long standing beef they smashed the Pizas on site. A couple of Pizas even got smashed in front of the chow hall at mainline. The Warden and administrative staff were standing right there as two Pizas got their heads smashed in. They didn’t even try to stop it. Just let the Mexicans get beatdown. It wasn’t pretty.”
A lot of the beatdowns were so vicious that the victims ended up in the hospital. The BOP is reactive rather than proactive and this policy creates avoidable problems. It was difficult for prison officials to identify the perpetrators because the victims didn’t even know them. After coming back from the hospital the victims would be placed back in SHU. The prison administration would then put them on Protective Custody (PC) status, so they were unable to go back out on the compound. By doing this, officials could justify holding them in SHU.
With the SHU bursting at the seams with Pizas, and the regional office unwilling to transfer the prisoners, institution officials were forced to come up with a workable solution. A solution they struggled to come up with. It got so bad at the prison that even unaffiliated prisoners who looked like Mexican Nationals were beat down on site. A direct result of prison officials’ complacency.
“This one Indian came out from the hole and got smashed real bad,” the prisoner says. “They had to airlift him to the hospital.” Anyone who was remotely associated with the Pizas or resembled them was punished. The families were holding ground, defending their territory and refusing to give an inch. The compound was their stronghold and they let the administration know exactly where they stood with their violent attacks.
“Every Piza they put on the yard got smashed so they decided to empty one unit on the compound, move everybody out, round up all the Texas Eme, TS and Azteca members and house them in one unit,” the prisoner says. “This unit was on lockdown and separated from the rest of the compound. When they went to chow, rec or anywhere else, nobody else moved and vice versa. Slowly they started letting the Pizas out of the hole to the other units.”
But prison officials had erred, because not all the Texas Mexican Mafia, Texas Syndicate and Aztecas, or “family members” as they were known, were identified accordingly and put in the secure unit. More beatdowns and altercations ensued as the Pizas were released from SHU and entered the housing units. Although this time the Pizas weren’t as out numbered and faired more evenly in the attacks. Still the vicious melees upset the orderly running of the institution and caused the prison to revert back to lockdown status for weeks on end.
“They had to round up the rest of the family members they had missed and put them in the lockdown unit,” the prisoner says. “Finally all the Mexicans were released from the hole and onto the yard. The SIS staff went to the families and tried to get them to declare a truce, but the family shotcallers weren’t having it. ‘What about all the times the Pizas smashed our brothers and wouldn’t let them walk different yards? Fuck that, no truce, ever.’ They told the SIS.”
Faced with the volatile situation, growing more chaotic by the day, prison officials operated the compound with the families’ unit isolated and separated from the rest. It made the day-to-day operations more difficult and required additional staff, but it was better than the alternative and prison officials only option to keep the institution from erupting into a full scale riot.
It worked for several weeks, but the tension was thick and staff knew things could jump off at any moment. All it would take was one staff error. The gangbangers waited cautiously, as life for the other prisoners went on, waiting for the inevitable to happen, because everyone knew it was going down, it was just a question of when. A mistake was finally made by a recreation cop, who didn’t secure a gate in time, and finally all hell broke loose.
“It was a rec move for the families unit, they would go out on the yard with only their people,” the prisoner says. “After they got to the yard, the gate wasn’t locked behind them. A few noticed and told the rest of their homeboys. Then the compound opened for a regular move for the remaining units. Prisoners flocked out on the move, going about their business, numerous Pizas among them, completely unaware that they were about to be attacked. The families waited in the yard until the compound was full and then busted out of the gate, jumping on the surprised Pizas, who were totally unprepared for the assault.”
Many of the family members had weapons buried on the recreation yard, these were quickly recovered when the word was passed, to let the gangbangers know it was time to strap up and move on their enemies. Everybody from the lockdown unit was on count and ready to go at all times. The gangbangers physically and mentally prepare themselves for war at a moment’s notice.
“It was a free for all,” the prisoner says. “Mexican attacking Mexican. The family members had bone crashers and ice pick like shanks. All types of weapons. They slaughtered the Pizas, cut them up bad, it was a bloodbath. It took a minute for the C/O’s to regain control. They were caught totally unaware. It was a chaotic scene. Then it was lockdown time again as the Pizas were carted off to the hospital.”
Eventually prison officials took every family member off the compound. After the brazen attack and semi-riot they had no choice but to transfer them to different prisons. With the large scale gang fight, the regional office designators were forced to come to their senses and perform their job duties appropriately. It was time for a bold move on their part. The BOP is very reactive to situations, never proactive. That is just how they operate. Some say BOP stands for Backwards on Purpose.
“They flipped the yard, gave it to the Pizas,” the prisoner says, “No family members could walk. But now it’s getting so bad between the Pizas and the blacks, they say they’re going to bring all the family members back and ship the Pizas. It’s crazy for real. Seems like they don’t know what the fuck they are doing.” And this is prison gang management at its finest.