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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 12:54 GMT
Divided by bars and colour
Federal prosecutors in the United States say they have smashed the country's most powerful whites-only prison gang. But why are America's inmates so racially antagonistic? BBC News Online's Chris Summers looks at the racially segregated tinderboxes inside America's jails.

History of Aryan Brotherhood (AB)
1964: AB formed by inmates at San Quentin, California
1973: Federal faction formed
1980-82: Two "commissions" set up to rule federal and California factions
1981: One of AB's leaders, Tommy Silverstein, kills DC Blacks member Raymond Smith
1987: Silverstein convicted of killing prison guard and sentenced to "no human contact"
1994: AB's Donald Riley given life for murder of black Desert Storm veteran
2002: 40 AB members indicted under RICO Act; 23 face death penalty

In one fell swoop the federal authorities believe they have removed the leadership of America's most powerful whites-only prison gang.

It will be at least a year before they go on trial, but the arrest in October of 30 inmates and another eight people outside - one of them a former prison guard - was certainly a blow to the Aryan Brotherhood (AB).

Twenty-three of those arrested face the death penalty.

But cynics say the gang will recover and continue to exert power in a prison system which, they say, is inherently racist.

Eighty search warrants were executed on homes, offices and jail cells in California, New York, Illinois, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Washington.

It was the culmination of a six-year investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

A total of 40 people - two of whom have gone on the run - were named on the indictment, which contained details of 16 murders, 16 attempted murders and numerous assaults behind bars.

They were charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which has been used in the past against everyone from the Cosa Nostra to the Hell's Angels.

Those arrested include four women accused of relaying information for the gang and a man accused of distributing its drug profits.

Other US prison gangs
Mexican Mafia, known as La Eme. Strongest in California
Black Guerrilla Family (BGF): Formed by former Black Panther with left-wing agenda. Recruits incarcerated Bloods and Crips
Nazi Low Riders (NLR): White supremacist skinheads. Strongest in California. Younger than AB
DC Blacks: Engaged in long-running feud with AB
La Nuestra Familia: Rival to La Eme
Texas Syndicate: Formed by Texan hispanics
The Neta: Highly secretive Puerto Rican patriots

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the US attorney's office in central California, told BBC News Online: "We have cut the head off the snake, but the snake has a habit of growing a new head.

The AB's ringleaders, according to the indictment, are:

  • Barry Mills, 54, an inmate serving a life sentence at the federal maximum security or "supermax" penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. Mills, said to be joint leader of the AB in the federal prisons, faces the death penalty if convicted on a new murder charge.

  • Tyler Bingham, 55, who is also incarcerated at Florence. He is said to be Mills' joint leader and also faces the death penalty.

  • John Stinson, 48, an inmate at California's Pelican Bay state prison. Said to be the leader of the California faction. He is accused of ordering murders and assaults and could face the death penalty.

    Chuck, a California lawyer and expert on prison gangs, said: "The problem is that our prisons are segregated by race. You have to join a gang to protect yourself even if you aren't racist.

    "In Lompoc [federal prison in California] it is forbidden for people of different races to share cells."

    Chuck said many AB members were not inherently racist but banded together for protection.

    He said incarcerated members of the Ku Klux Klan were forbidden from joining the AB because the latter welcomed Jews.

    Another source within the US Attorney's Office, which indicted and successfully convicted 12 members of another prison gang - the Mexican Mafia - in 1997, said: "These gangs developed along racial lines 30 years ago.

    AB tattoo
    This tattoo denotes an AB member
    "Originally it was for protection. White guys protected white guys and black guys protected black guys.

    "But over time they got involved in rackets, such as drug trafficking."

    The New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has kept a close eye on the AB.

    ADL spokesman Mark Pitcabage said: "In states like California and New York Caucasians are a minority and some will join gangs like the AB for protection.

    'Pressure to find a group'

    "There is pressure to find a group so that you will not be isolated and vulnerable. It's part of human nature to look to people who look like you."

    But he said that while the AB followed a white supremacist agenda its raison d'etre was organised crime and it would deal with blacks and Hispanics if it meant making a profit.

    BGF tattoo
    Black Guerrilla Family members often sport this dragon tattoo
    Mr Pitcabage said: "When a white supremacist is in prison they are shocked by the less than pure motives of the AB."

    A spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons said he could not comment on the indictment but said: "The bureau closely tracks prison gangs, street gangs, terrorist groups, and other gang-like criminal organisations.

    "We continue to protect society by pro-actively managing disruptive, aggressive inmates include enhancing communication between staff and inmates, improving agency staff training programs, revising inmate threat assessments, and expanding liaison and intelligence collection efforts."

  • See also:

    05 Dec 02 | Americas
    10 Aug 01 | Americas
    19 Feb 99 | Americas
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