Note from Richard Valdemar: The following opinion was written by a former member of the Mexican Mafia. He addresses the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) policy to reintegrate Secure Housing Unit (SHU) and Protective Custody (PC) inmates back into the general population if after four years they avoid write ups or violence.
In hearing about the new amendments to the existing gang validation/SHU placement policy, I thought how often the next reform is always the perfect one. Whether one admits it or not, each reform is an experiment in progress. Every experiment is easy to start, but no one knows all the different variables and chain of events that lead to unforeseen developments. The only thing we know for sure is what was and what is. These are the only facts. All else is opinion and hopeful theory.
As someone who was intimately familiar with the gang validation/SHU policy ("LAPD Jail Probe: A View From the Inside"), I know how and why the current SHU policy came into existence. During my capital murder penalty phase, the district attorney declared that "prison for the law abiding citizen and civilized person is a terrible place because it is a jungle, but for the men who live by the laws of the jungle and those who live by no laws at all, prison can be tolerable, and yes, sometimes an even enjoyable place."
The open prison yard was a world within a world where reputations were made, fear and respect was earned, and the men were separated from their perceived lessers. That allowed us to branch out and secure strongholds in gang infested areas and into the flourishing drug trade, which was long before the recent innovations in communication of cell phones and internet access.
The SHU policy struck the heart of the prison gangs in two important arteries—access and communications. By isolating prison gang leaders and associates, the brains of the operations had to use intermediaries in the field. These trustworthy gang affiliates would then take care of business on the prison yard and beyond the prison walls.
This took time and there was added risk of detection and exposure when a smuggled kite in someone's rectum gave up the names and the plans of some mission, or when an intercepted phone call from someone's visitor (or just some clumsy human error by those not watchful or not cunning enough) allowed law enforcement to foil some plot. This isn't even including the treasure trove of information gathered from those wanting to leave behind the gang life (for whatever reason, and there are many), which led to numerous state and federal indictments and convictions that forced the prison gang cancer to constantly regroup, adjust, and find new means and methods of furthering criminal activity.
Of course, no one is naïve in thinking that the new CDCR SHU policy has somehow cut the head off the prison gang serpent. Far from it, since prison gangs are first of all an outgrowth of the street gang culture, a natural consequence of free world criminal enterprise, there can be no talk of elimination at this point. But the SHU policy holds the gang serpent by the throat by limiting its breathing. What the new four-year plan will do is simply release the snake into its natural habitat.
Most of the prison gang leaders will be released into the terrible jungle where they are most comfortable because it is in these awful yards they obtain two things they care about the most: drugs and power. Everything else revolves around these two epicenters, and once the titans come down to dwell with gang mortals the gangland utopia will usher the next prison gang golden age.
And the last will be greater than the first because of easy access to cell phones (thousands are confiscated each year in the so-called maximum security facilities), means of communications, and the large amounts of dope and money that is flooding the nation through Mexican cartels, who will find (and have already found) ready partners on our side. All of these are merely the natural and quite practical consequences of the new policy: there is nothing lofty or complex about it. Simple survival of the species will suffice.
How hard is it to stay discipline free in the SHU? As it is, most prison gang leaders are on single cell status, and usually have a trusted secretary nearby who writes all the hit lists and kites for them, so they're not directly implicated. Bearing special circumstances, it is usually someone else doing the hit through another intermediary, so that everyone but the gang leader is implicated in case things go wrong.
Be sure that the same network of helpful angels is already in place on the mainline yard. The major difference is there'll be no need for kites. Gang leaders and associates with cell phones that are on the yard eliminate the need of a paper trail. And since debriefing is thrown out the window along with the bath water, now the validated gang member needs to keep his mouth shut for four years, and that's the end of it. In prison, we say we can do four years standing on our heads. What's that when you're doing life?
The best and most effective approach to dealing with prison gangs is to see them as home-grown terrorist networks. Whereas the latter are driven by religious or political ideology, prison gangs are built around a pseudo-revolutionary ethos of the cause, the "us vs. them" mentally, or some other foggy justification (whether cultural or personal) that allows every means in order to attain to the goal of gang proliferation and success in criminal undertaking. As I was taught by seasoned prison vets, and as I often repeated to other prison soldiers in our case, "Your mothers, your friends, your family, your wife, and girlfriend will not go to death row for you. But I will!"
And I almost did. I should have, but for the undeserving mercy granted me by a jury, which—guided by their humanity—refused to do to me as I had callously and unhesitatingly did to others without any regrets. This is because when I lived for la causa, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.