The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is in a real mess. California is in financial trouble and CDCR has taken some serious hits. While trying to implement a court mandate to release 40,000 state prisoners to county jails and California communities, its internal inmate gang problems are exploding.
The CDCR's Internal Gang Investigators (IGIs) are some of the best in the nation, but they are only "plugging their fingers in the dike" and getting no help from the courts, institution administrators and the California politicians. Organizations such as the ACLU and Prison Law Collective are also working against them.
Over the last 50 years, the CDCR IGIs have become proficient in identifying and segregating prison gang members and security threat groups into Security Housing Units (SHU). This has somewhat reduced the power of these violent groups and lessened their control over the other inmate populations. They have disrupted and dismantled important criminal groups and their leaders operating in and out of the prison system. They are cooperating with local, state and federal law enforcement investigators and prosecutors.
Over the last dozen years, partly due to this effort and partly due to power group rivalries inside the big four California prison gangs, the CDCR has presided over the unprecedented wave of 30,000 prison gang members and their associates who have dropped out of these prison gangs. These frustrated defecting former gang members have become disillusioned with prison gang politics and have sought protective custody (PC).
CDCR has pledged to protect these inmates from their former gangs. The dangerous defectors are screened and debriefed by CDCR staff and placed into protective custody facilities or Sensitive Needs Yards (SNY). Whole sections of some facilities have been set aside to house protective custody inmates, but space is extremely limited in California's overcrowded prisons.
The sheer numbers of dropouts, jail informants, child molesters, and other "softies" who need protection has taxed CDCR's ability to properly protect all these inmates. Without CDCR's institutional protection, the inmates will find ways to form their own self protection groups. Given the nature of the criminal minds involved these self protection groups soon devolve into SNY gangs.
As far back as 20 years ago at Chino California Institute for Men (CIM) about a dozen inmates housed in the Birch Hall section formed a self-defense group. These men had grown tired of the bullying tactics of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, and had openly defied the most powerful gang in the system. Most of these men were former gang members themselves and were not strangers to criminal violence. Since most had sought PC protection from staff, they were considered snitches by other inmates. In Spanish, the slang term for informant or snitch was peseta, which was also a slang term for the Mexican silver 25 centavo coin.
Today, that peseta organization has grown into an organization numbering 1,500 members and associates and has been validated by CDCR as a gang. These pesetas, or 25s, are also called Dos Cinco. They tattoo the number 25, the name peseta or the letters DC on their bodies to identify themselves. Well trained and experienced in criminal sophistication these hardcore dropouts continue to sell drugs, extort other inmates, and assault their enemies.
Some of these individuals flourish on the sensitive needs yards. Unencumbered by the big four prison gangs that control the main yards, they use their criminal skills and the power of intimidation of their new dropout gang to rob, extort and victimize the other SN inmates.
Another gang spawned from the prison gang drop outs are the Northern Riders. These Norteño dropouts who identify themselves with the symbol of the Playboy Bunny, a falling star, or the word "rider" tattooed prominently. CDCR has identified more than 800 members.
The growing numbers of gang dropouts being placed in SNYs has resulted in numerous new gangs forming and warring with rivals on the SNYs. Gang violence has grown so bad that some SN inmates have asked to return to mainline yards rather than continue to face the SN gangs on the SNYs. SN gang activity has been identified on 32 of California's 33 prisons.
The pesetas and the Northern Riders are not alone. There are dropout gangs in 32 of the 33 California prisons. Here are just a few others identified by CDCR staff—187 Ride or Die, Against the Grain, Bad News Banditos, Ballers and Gamers, Brothers by Choice, Cut Throat Family, Down South, Drop Out Squad, FTS, Full 60, Gay Boy Gangsters, Independent Riders, Little Unity, Mexican Outfit, Nueva Flora (New Flower), Player Club, Presidents, Red Hand Mafia, Skins 4 Life, Sucka Free, and $ Gang.
Theses SN gangs operate inside and outside of prison. They can be mixed racially and structured in a looser less-rigid hierarchy. Members often flip in and out of active membership, but they can be just as dangerous as any traditional prison gang. Sometimes SN gang members pose as Sureños, Norteños, Crips, Bloods or AB-NLR members, because that's what they were.
They have spread from California to Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and Idaho. These dropout gangs need to be identified and segregated into the SHU just like the other security threat groups. All dropouts should be screened more thoroughly and debriefed with an eye for possible sympathizing loyalties with one of these drop out gangs. Once identified, these SN gangs need to be treated like traditional prison gang members.
Another aspect of this phenomenon of gangs forming in the SNYs is the danger posed to other true defectors. Ignoring former promises made to defecting inmates who left their prominent positions in the prison gang hierarchy and who have a perpetual "green light" death warrant from their former gangs, CDCR is attempting to "reintegrate" some of these hardcore PC cases back into the prison system by dumping them into the supposedly safe SNYs.
Throwing PC inmates, who have truly disassociated themselves from any of their former prison gangs, into these dangerous shark tank SNYs will force these cooperating defectors to protect themselves. This is a train wreak waiting to happen. In reality, they will be like Christians thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, they must kill or be killed, and neither choice is acceptable.
Author's Note: Much of this article was inspired by a recent FOX 11 Los Angeles report on the SNY gang problem by investigative reporter and close friend Chris Blatchford.