Understanding Inmate Codes of Conduct

I've always marveled at this irony. Young men who rebel against authority and parental control, who commonly hate school, hate memorizing verses and symbols, hate reading history, hate learning new languages, and hate participating in physical education, enjoy doing all these things for their prison gang leaders.

Valdemar 1 Headshot

Prison gangs ultimately control the criminal activity in most custody environments. Corrections officers control the containment and movement of inmates, but prison gangs and other security threat groups establish the inmate's code of conduct. Because custody staff members seek to disrupt this activity, gangs step in to enforce these inmate regulations and codes of conduct.

Contraband and drug debts are often collected by invoking the name and reputation of these gangs as an intimidation tactic. Drug debt "welchers" must be dealt with violently as an example to other inmates considering defaulting on their debts. The movie "An Innocent Man" includes a violent depiction of dealing with a "welcher" on the prison yard that introduces Tom Selleck's character to this reality. The movie gives the viewer an accurate glimpse of the inmate code of conduct. During the unfolding of this story, Tom Selleck's character makes a dramatic metamorphosis from an innocent man into hardened convict and killer.

There are hundreds of written and unwritten regulations that must be observed by inmates. Some are institutional regulations, but most are convict codes. Inmates learn these codes of conduct through extended schooling that takes place during periods of commitment, while serving sentences in juvenile hall (grammar school), youth authority (high school), and state and federal prisons (colleges and universities). This training is augmented by mentoring under gang "veteranos" (veterans) and OGs (Original Gangsters) in and out of custody. These systems vary, but most are dictated by the prison gang or threat group that represents the inmate's race.

I've always marveled at this irony. Young men who rebel against authority and parental control, who commonly hate school, hate memorizing verses and symbols, hate reading history, hate learning new languages, and hate participating in physical education, enjoy doing all these things for their prison gang leaders.

Some of these regulations can be compared to our own penal system. Among gang inmates, a gang member who acts or talks like a homosexual, dresses unacceptably or "sexually," or does any act in public that suggests a feminine side, will be disciplined by his peers.

I'll use this example to illustrate an inmate regulation. A Latino gang member sits with his peer inmates at the breakfast table in the mess hall. Bananas are served with his meal. The young unschooled Latino holds the banana with his left hand, peels the banana by pulling the peel down about half way with his right hand. He then raises the banana to his mouth and takes a big bite off the top of the banana. This is a misdemeanor violation of Latino etiquette.

In Latino gang culture, eating a banana or wiener by its end in this manner looks like the sexual act of oral sex. This unacceptable behavior in front of sexually supercharged inmates must be punished. The covert and underground inmate code of conduct has few fines, probation or demerit systems in place. Physical discipline is the general rule. The violator is rarely warned about his perceived mistake. He'll be treated normally until his peers have "held court" and determined a discipline appropriate to the crime. This system is sometimes called "marching," "check courting," or "discipline."

Without warning, the code violator will be "put in check" by several of his gang peers. This is sometimes called "showing love," because the parties doing this don't want the violator to go on shaming himself and embarrassing his home boys. If not corrected, the behaviors could result in more serious discipline. So he is beaten with love.

This could involve three or four home boys attacking him with saps made from socks filled with soap bars or batteries. Small shanks or broom stick clubs might be used to overcome any resistance. This is seen as minor discipline. Continued violations of this type might result in a "turn out." This discipline involves several gang members sodomizing the violator. He is then "excommunicated" from his street gang and considered an unprotected female. The gang might sell him, or one of the group might claim him as his "girlfriend." As horrible as this discipline might seem, it can get worse.

Serious violations of the convict code result in a death sentence. To ensure this, the prison gang or threat group produces hit lists to be circulated among inmates under their control. Child molesters (Chesters), defectors (drop outs), welchers, snitches and other enemies are "green lighted" to be murdered by any gang member loyal to the list makers.

On some occasions, a gang member betrayed his own group won't appear on a published hit list. Instead, his name will be passed around verbally within the inner circle. This is done to avoid warning the violator before he's killed. These lists come into a facility by telephone from a third party (three way) or by word of mouth and secret notes (kites) smuggled in by inmate transfers, visitors, and crooked lawyers. They are copied by inmates inside the facility and updated several times during the day. The lists are usually localized to the facilities where the intended victim might be housed.

There are generally two or three sections of these lists. The first section, called the "verdes" or "green lights," lists entire gangs that have disrespected the threat group or seriously violated prison gang edicts and codes of conduct. During the 1990-2000 probe into the Mexican Mafia in Los Angeles, investigators determined that Sureño and Paisa gangs who failed to pay tribute (taxes) to the Mexican Mafia or violated the ban against alliances with African-American gangs and violations of the "no drive by" shooting policy.

A second section on the list falls under the section called "personals" or "hard candy." This section was reserved for individuals who had personally offended the prison gang. Beside the violator's street gang affiliation, the list would give the gang AKA and sometimes the full name of the intended victim. The individuals on this list were singled out for special attention. Failure to move on these targets by any loyal Sureño in their proximity would result in that Sureño's inclusion on the Green Light list. The term "hard candy" derives from prison slang for the appearance of a jail-made knife that's been keestered and then removed. Inmates claim it looks like a chocolate candy bar.

A third section of the list might contain footnotes or special instructions.  Some inmates were listed as "passes." This would indicate that sentence was to be withheld because the intended victim's case was being appealed before the Mexican Mafia's leadership, or the listed member was currently on a "mission" benefitting the Mexican Mafia. This is sometimes called a "suicide mission," because the prison gang would often carry out the death sentence even after the listed member had completed the mission to redeem himself. Mercy is not a term in the prison gang lexicon.


VIDEO: Mexican Mafia Prison Debrief

Prison Shanks

About the Author
Valdemar 1 Headshot
Sergeant (Ret.)
View Bio
Page 1 of 20
Next Page