Monday, March 8, 2010


Part II—Gang Investigations
Interview: Brian Parry
Consultant, FBI's National Gang Intelligence Center

Evil does exists behind the walls of our prisons. Mystery writers strive to capture these human hunters on pages of fiction, these predatory creatures that prey on the weak and helpless. We return today for a closer look at a problem that is welling up behind the walls of these institutions and spilling into the streets of our communities. Understanding the problem will allow fiction writers to write with more clarity, capturing the heart of this problem in stories that entertain, educate and ring with authenticity. 

On our last gang post, prison gang expert Brian Parry shared with us some of the challenges and success of the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) headquartered in Washington, DC. In this interview, Brian will give us a closer look at these prison gang organizations and the trouble their members carry into our communities.

Brian Parry has lived and breathed prison gang intelligence for years. He is currently a consultant to the FBI’s NGIC, providing expertise on the federal State Correctional Gang Intelligence Initiative. He sits on the Executive Leadership Council-National Major Gang Task Force, providing consultation and direction to an informational gang task force representing fifty states, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Since his retirement in 2002 as Assistant Director of the California Department of Corrections (CDC) , Brian consults with state and federal correctional facilities across the nation on prison gang issues. He has testified as an expert in many state and federal trials, including a case for the Attorney General in the State of Washington.

Brian witnessed many of these gangs rise to power, and he has been on the front lines trying to stem their tide of brutality and bloodshed. He began his law enforcement career on the streets of Los Angeles as a parole officer, and later as a supervisor and Special Agent in Charge of CDC’s Special Service Unit while liaison with national  criminal-intelligence units across the country. In his position as Assistant Director of CDC, Brian managed and directed all that agency’s investigative units consisting of over one hundred staff in eight field offices and gang investigators in thirty-three prisons.

MARK:  Brian, let’s begin with a quick history lessons as to how the prison gangs emerged in California and who they are?

BRIAN: The prison gangs started in the California prison system in the 1950’s. The Mexican Mafia was the first gang to form. They originally began with the leaders of fifteen to sixteen street gangs from Los Angeles. They wanted to become the gang of gangs. They wanted to control all of the prison rackets including drugs, contraband, prostitution, gambling and extortion. Later, they decided to move to control the drugs on the streets. The Nuestra Familia (NF) formed to protect itself against the Mexican Mafia. Most of the original NF members were from rural communities across California

These two gangs clashed in the 1960’s and have been at war with one another since. The warfare between the Surenos and Nortenos in California dates back to the problems between the Mexican Mafia and the NF. 

The Aryan Brotherhood also formed to protect the white inmates from the blacks and Hispanics. They were originally called the “Diamond Tooth “gang or the “Blue Birds”. Some of the original members had pieces of glass embedded between their front teeth and some had the tattoo of a bird on their necks. Some of the original members were biker types. 

The Black Guerilla Family (BGF) was formed to protect themselves from the other gangs and to organize the black inmates. The BGF was formed from a number of splinter groups which were active in the country. The BGF considered themselves as political prisoners and developed a Marxist philosophy. Later, other gangs formed including the Texas Syndicate, Northern Structure and Nazi Low Riders. In the late 1980’s the emergence of the street gangs such as Crips, Bloods, and Hispanic gangs only exasperated the gang problem.

MARK:  What is the status of these gangs today? For example, there have been many state and federal RICO prosecutions of these gang leaders who’ve subsequently transferred to the federal system. What challenges has this raised in law enforcement?

BRIAN: Despite vigorous suppression efforts these gangs continue to wreak havoc on the prison population and of course the communities in the state. Part of the problem is a seemingly unlimited supply of young street gang members who aspire to be in prison gangs and are more than willing to put in the work necessary to gain recognition and acceptance. And of course the work includes violence and drugs. Another problem which was unanticipated occurred when a number of gang leaders from the Mexican Mafia and NF went to federal prison. A division or rift now occurs between the leaders in the California prison system and the ones now in the federal prison system. So that has become a new challenge.

MARK:  How does CDC work to limit gang influence once these gang members enter the prison system? How have the prisons evolved to house these gangsters?

BRIAN: The policy that initially worked was to identify and isolate the leadership from the rest of the prison population. That worked for awhile. But, the gang leaders recruited the street gangs to do their work in the communities and on the main lines in most of the California prisons. So the leaders now could direst the gangs activity from some of the most secure prisons in the country. The number of street gang members entering the system is overwhelming. The prison system is dangerously overcrowded and is at 200% capacity. And it is estimated that at least half the California prison population is involved to some degree with the gangs. So the housing options for controlling gang members have diminished tremendously rendering the system very dangerous.

MARK:  People are always amazed as to how these gang leaders—isolated in places like Pelican Bay’s Special Housing Unit—can supervise and control thousands of criminal street gangs. What has law enforcement learned from operations like Operation Black Widow, the Aryan Brother prosecutions, and other cases as to how these criminals control others from the inside?

BRIAN: These gang leaders control others through threats, fear and intimidation. They assault and kill those who do not follow orders. They have an uncanny ability to communicate their directions by using correspondence and visitors. They also send messages with other inmates who enter and leave the lock up units or who parole to the streets. They abuse their legal mail privileges by sending directions in bogus legal mail. They have used compromised attorneys and employees of attorneys. They have compromised prison staff as well. They write in codes and use sign language to pass messages.
MARK:  How did these prison gang leaders come to be leaders? How did they rise to the ranks of leadership?

BRIAN: They instill fear and loyalty through violence. Many are street smart and have been “state raised”, meaning they have grown up in juvenile halls, county jails and state and federal prisons.

MARK:  Not all gangs members stay locked up in prison. Many are released to parole and re-enter our communities. How do CDC and law enforcement agencies cooperate to monitor these gang member’s actions?

BRIAN: California law enforcement does an incredible job of sharing information and working cooperatively against the gangs. They form informal task forces and formal task forces to combat gangs. Parole agents and correctional prison gang investigators now have a seat at the crime fighting table. They have vast amounts of intelligence on these gang members and have some supervision and operational tools such as warrantless searches to aid in the fight against gangs. Most police officers in California know they need to work cooperatively with prison and parole staff to investigate these gangs effectively.
MARK:  How do gang leaders, released to the community, operate on the street and communicate with those inside prison to conduct gang activities?

BRIAN: These gang members form street crews or regiments consisting of willing gangsters to conduct the gang business. They sell drugs, do contract hits, robberies, drug rip offs and extort legitimate business owners for protection money. They also tax local drug dealers to increase their profits. They often communicate through correspondence with the leaders through visits by a trusted confidant. They also send messages with other gang members who are returning to custody. There is a 70% recidivism rate in California leading to a revolving door of parole violators going in and out of prisons and county jails. They carry important messages for the gangs.

MARK:  What kind of threat do these gang members pose to parole officers and law enforcement in general? Are there hits and contracts placed on prosecutors, cops CDC staff? Are there threats against witnesses? Can you share any particular cases that might illustrate the problem?

BRIAN: Gangs routinely threaten and intimidate witnesses and victims. They have killed witnesses and victims and the families of both in efforts to silence them. In the last decade threats to law enforcement have increased tremendously. I have been threatened three times in my career. In one such case a Crip set got fed up with me arresting its members. An influential member sent out a letter from prison ordering another gang member to kill me, and if they couldn't get me —kill my family. The gang leader didn't know he sent the letter to a police informant.

MARK:  What is the size and scope of these gangs on the street and  inside the prison?

BRIAN: The numbers are staggering. The California prison and parole system is the largest in the country with about 175,000 in prison and about 125,000 on parole. It is estimated about 150,000 of them are involved with the gangs. The street gang population is also very high. The numbers are fluid but very high.

MARK:  Rehabilitation of gang members has been a political hot potato in the past. Does rehabilitation work? If so, how?

BRIAN: Rehabilitation is a personal desire and effort to change. It works when the individual makes the decision to change and has the support to assist him with the desire to change. The support can include a job skill and a job paying enough to live on. Some 80% of the prisoners today have an addiction problem. So they will need some counseling to deal with drugs and/or alcohol issues. Family support is a major key in determining success. Many inmates have distanced themselves from their families through their criminal behavior. Some never had a family or come from extremely dysfunctional families and only return to those families and to the crime infested neighborhoods. But, despite the problems rehabilitation is a personal decision and journey. Most don’t make it because they either lack the determination or the needed support.

MARK:  There have been rehabilitation groups who’ve gained a lot of political support for their work, so much so that they become almost untouchable—even when they’re involved in criminal activities themselves or facilitate criminal activity. Have you experienced these cases? What can be done to curtail their activities?

BRIAN: There are a few well meaning groups who started out with the right intentions but got infiltrated by street and political savvy gang leaders. These gang leaders then take over the group for personal gain or to benefit the gangs. I have investigated several of these groups during my career. Most groups don’t have this problem. The only way to curtail the activity is exposure through good investigations.

MARK:  As we look to the future, what are some of the challenges faced by CDC and other state and federal agencies across this nation in the coming years? Will there be enough room to house all these offenders? What are the plans to meet these challenges?

BRIAN: There isn’t enough room to house the offenders now. Many county jails in California already have population caps monitored by courts. Other state prison systems are struggling with budget and space issues. The US incarcerates more people than any other free country. This country needs a national incarceration policy. US Senator Jim Webb of Virginia has proposed a bill to form a committee to review this problem. The Senate Bill is still pending.


NEXT MONDAY: On March 15th, best-selling novelist Brandilyn Collins joins us to discuss her latest novel, Exposure. Brandilyn, known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense®, again brings her readers to the edge of their seats with another psychological suspense thriller. Kaycee Raye, a syndicated newspaper columnist, believes she is being stalked in her home town of Wilmore, Kentucky. Police appear skeptical as the story unfolds until the lives of several people are threatened. Kaycee must finally learn whether the threats are real or whether she is losing her mind. And, of course, time is running out. Join us as Brandilyn talks about the art of writing.

MARCH 22: Detective and novelist Mark Mynheir will re-join us in two weeks to share  us about his job as a homicide investigator for the Palm Beach Bay (FL) Police Department and his career in law enforcement. If you missed our March 1 interview with Det. Mynheir, click on the archives to learn more about his writing career. He is the author of four published novels, the latest is The Night Watchman, the story of Ray Quinn, a tough, quick-witted homicide detective. After losing the love of his life in an ambush, Ray struggles to survive his own physical injuries and severe depression until he's thrust into the case of his life.

MARCH 29: D. P. Lyle, MD is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar® Award nominated author of the non-fiction books, Murder and Mayhem, Forensics For Dummies, Forensics and Fiction, and Howdunnit Forensics: A Guide For Writers as well as the fiction thrillers, Devil’s Playground and Double Blind. His next medical thriller, Stress Fracture, will be released in April, 2010. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law and Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, and 1-800-Missing.


  1. Interesting interview and scary information. As a middle class American you remove yourself from such places, but it brings home that it is everyone's responsibility to change the situation now, or everyone's problem later on.

  2. OK, I'm an ex-zoo keeper and know nothing at all about prisons. Naive question coming up! How is it that prison management has so little control over prisoners? I'm sure overcrowding makes it more complicated to determine who gets to talk to whom, which people are housed together, etc., but apparently gangs, murder, rape, etc. are problem in all prisons. Why is that, given that these people are confined and controlled?

  3. Good questions, Ann. Many of these prisons are running at 200 percent over capacity. This fact alone is staggering when authorities are trying to keep the lid on violence. Here are some of the challenges faced by those running the prisons:

    •Many groups of people who need to be separated from each other—rival gangs; gang member within the same gang vying for power with their gangs; PC inmates (those needed protection because they testified against other inmates or gangs) need special housing to stay alive; inmates with sexual orientation that conflicts with the mainstream need protection; child molesters need protection against the main population; those who are aging or weak need to be separated from those would might prey up.

    •Facilities that are aging or filled to the max, no longer equipped to handle all these rival groups.

    •Trying to maintain control while still allowing inmates constitutional rights such as legal counsel; access to law libraries; access to courts when scheduled to appear; right to subpoena (and sometimes sit down with witness) regarding ongoing court trials; access to medical attention; and other rights or privileges granted to inmates.

    All these factors create a nightmare for prison authorities in trying to keep the violence to a minimum. Every time an inmate exercises one of these rights—access to law library, for example—security is breached, messages are passed, conversation are conducted, gang strategies furthered. I’ve seen video tapes from Pelican Bay maximum security prison where prisons—isolate f.rom each other—are able to “fish” lines of cloth to each other passing messages, weapons, and narcotics to each other.

    And lastly, Ann—since you worked in a zoo—you can understand what happens to man or animal when they are crowded into a cage. Violence inevitable erupts.

  4. Thank you for the explanation. As I said, I know zip about prisons. But something is deeply wrong here. We incarcerate a tremendous number of people, really bad things happen in prison (I just read the 2 articles on prison rape in New York Review), and then we turn them out. More funding and better facilities would help, but there have got to be other options as well. This is a real black eye to the US. I'd love to read more about it.