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Inside the SHU Part 2: Prison gangs

Even behind bars, they can leave their mark on streets

Del Norte Triplicate illustration / Bryant Anderson
Del Norte Triplicate illustration / Bryant Anderson
Sitting at his desk tucked in the Institutional Gang Investigations office, Capt. Dave Barneburg’s brown eyes widen as he explains the history of prison gangs and their tactics to circumvent Pelican Bay State Prison’s communications safeguards.

He gets excited. His arms move to emphasize points, a smile testing the elasticity of his cheeks. His shaved head shines in the fluorescent lights.

Barneburg is working to shed pounds from his big frame and build endurance — something he needs to play defense in this blood sport that terrorizes prisons and urban streets alike.

The IGI is tasked with combating prison gangs by monitoring and thwarting communications and identifying the players within California’s most notorious criminal organizations. It also helps to keep men locked away in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit for years.

Almost 60 percent of all “validated” prison gang members in California are housed at Pelican Bay — for some gangs all of its leadership is here, court documents say.

The SHU used to be where gang leaders ran affairs with a certain impunity. That changed when the IGI switched strategies, starting in 2004.

The IGI is reviled by SHU inmates, their families and prisoner rights advocates, who say prison gang investigators are “vindictive” with a “class A personality,” walking around with a “rooster chest.”

“The IGI tends to draw that personality in,” says lifer Antonio Guillen, a San Jose native who has been identified by investigators as a leader in Nuestra Familia (“Our Family”), a Northern California Hispanic prison gang. He denies having gang connections.

“Not all correctional officers are bad. A lot here are cool,” says Guillen. “The IGI ... they’re like a little gang. They’re listening right now. Every time I get a visit they’re on me.”

Inmate Antonio Guillen
Inmate Antonio Guillen
Guillen talks through a phone behind a thick glass window in the SHU visitation area. To bring him there, correctional officers escort him in handcuffs from his “home” to a smaller cell, where he places his back against the sliding metal door after it shuts. His chainlinked hands go into a slot; officers on the other side unlock them. They hand him a napkin with sanitizer on it. He wipes the phone and sits down on a fixed stool.

There’s an 8-inch brick-colored barrier painted on the bottom portion of the glass to prevent hand signals sneaking by a surveillance camera peering down from the visitor’s side of the glass. And, yes, the conversations are recorded.

SHU inmates are afforded 2-hour visits on Saturdays and Sundays — a vulnerability in the IGI’s security measures that otherwise keep them under closer scrutiny than those in the prison’s general population.

A recent indictment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office highlights ways inmates use visitation to their gang’s advantage. Pelican Bay SHU inmate Danny Roman was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in a case involving the arrests of 29 people linked to the Harpys street gang in southern Los Angeles. He was accused of passing coded messages during visits from his daughter and son-in-law to give directives to the gang.

Barneburg and the IGI worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in decoding messages and providing evidence for the case.

“The Mexican Mafia’s control over street gangs, in California, particularly Southern California, is very powerful,” says Ben Barron, assistant U.S. attorney in California’s Central District. “For their security, they pay tax up the chain to the Mexican Mafia. Danny Roman received profits from drug sales from prison and the streets, which guaranteed the safety of the Harpys.”

 

TALKING BASEBALL?

Inmate mail is another vulnerability.

Prison gang leaders use veiled language in an attempt to bypass IGI monitoring and get orders, hits and drug trades to street gangs under their control, Barneburg says.

Capt. Dave Barneburg, a prison gang investigator, walks down a SHU corridor. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Capt. Dave Barneburg, a prison gang investigator, walks down a SHU corridor. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
With the Mexican Mafia in mind, he conjures a simplified version of a hypothetical message sent through prison mail:

My Grandma has let her yard get out of control. Send a gardener over to clean it for her.

But Grandma has nothing to do with it, Barneburg says. It might actually mean:

One of the street crews in L.A. is subpar. Deal with the members who are running afoul.

Another hypothetical: The Dodgers are struggling because of the manager. They should think about replacing that guy.

In other words: The leader of the street gang isn’t putting in enough work. Kill him.

A mention of “Giants” would be used by Northern Hispanic gang members, like the Nuestra Familia or its subordinate gang, the Northern Structure, Barneburg says.

And when the author is questioned by the IGI, his response is: “What are you talking about? I’m just talking about baseball,” says Barneburg.

The IGI reads all mail that flows from the SHU on a daily basis. The result delays delivery, and in some cases mail privileges are revoked. This is a major gripe of inmates.

A letter sent to Guillen by his sister was confiscated in 2010. It mentioned a man named “Beto,” who was initially identified as a gang member. Also included were several news articles regarding Nuestra Familia-related arrests in the Bay Area and information posted on the Internet about Guillen.

Guillen unsuccessfully appealed confiscation of the mail through Pelican Bay’s internal process, then took the matter to Del Norte Superior Court in 2011, when he asked Judge William Follett to order the IGI to deliver the letter and articles. Before the conclusion of the case, it was deemed by IGI that “Beto” was not the person originally suspected and the letter did not contain gang information, so it was delivered. However, Follett ruled that the news articles could still be withheld.

 

‘BOOMERANG’ LETTERS

Inmates can manipulate the mail several ways.

General population inmates are affected by leaders of gangs, including the Mexican Mafia (“La eMe”), investigators say. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
General population inmates are affected by leaders of gangs, including the Mexican Mafia (“La eMe”), investigators say. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
There’s the “boomerang” tactic to get around the fact that in most cases, inmates can’t send mail to each other. Write a non-existent address on the envelope and put the intended recipient’s name in the sender corner. Ultimately it’s “returned” to the intended recipient.

To get the contents of a boomeranged letter past IGI, inmates may use “ghost writing,” in which ink is removed from a pen and secret indentations are made on a seemingly innocuous message. Later the recipient can color over the indentations with a pencil to read the secret message.

Inmates also boomerang ghost writings through the prison’s internal administrative appeals process. A simple appeal that will likely be rejected without much thought from a correctional officer is returned to the “sender,” actually the intended recipient.

Mail drops are another method. Veiled or coded messages are sent to a person on the outside, a friend or family member, who then copies the letter — possibly without understanding the ultimate intent — and resending it to another inmate.

Mail pertaining to inmates’ legal matters poses the biggest vulnerability. Legal mail is considered confidential and while the IGI can open the envelope to check for contraband, it isn’t allowed to read the contents.

An inmate may label an envelope as legal mail, put an attorney’s name on it, but send it to another address on the outside.

Or an attorney might willingly pass along messages.

In 2003, the sister of a Mexican Mafia member was admitted to the California State Bar. She began receiving legal mail from her brother and other members and associates. The attorney was relaying messages of operations, orders and instructions that led to three dozen murders, including gang members and other people, investigators said. When authorities caught on, they launched “Operation Jokers Wild,” resulting in more than 100 arrests in L.A. The attorney was disbarred.

 

CONFISCATED ORDERS

Investigators say the author of some of these letters was Pelican Bay SHU inmate Arturo Castellanos. He has been validated as a Mexican Mafia member, and investigators say he is the leader of the Florencia-13 street gang based in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood north of Watts.

Inmate Arturo Catellanos
Inmate Arturo Catellanos
Castellanos is also one of the four members of the “Short Corridor Collective,” which has taken credit for coordinating the largest hunger strikes in California prison history in an attempt to force reform of gang “validation” procedures that placed them in the SHU for indeterminate terms.

Two members of the Short Corridor Collective, including Antonio Guillen, agreed to talk with the Triplicate for this series. Castellanos did not respond to an interview request.

In a report that concluded a four-year investigation into his mail and trust account, the IGI calls Castellanos the “kingpin” behind the crimes.

Castellanos was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in “Operation Jokers Wild.”

The following are excerpts of a confiscated letter that investigators say was written by Castellanos in August 2004 to the attorney to be passed to another Mexican Mafia member. The letter is contained in a prison rule violations report against Castellanos found in court documents.

The first part addresses how money should be divided among street crews and gang members. Another part deals with how to approach unaffiliated street gangs in Castellanos’ territory, investigators say:

“All the crews are to always conduct themselves as businessmen with a lot of finesse when dealing with anyone in the District. There’s no need for threats. If they refuse to participate while in our Districts, they are to be calmly told that they have 10 days to think it over. At the end of that time, they are either to participate or leave the district for good, no in-betweens.”

The final part talks about local businesses and plans for the future:

“Also, all legit businesses are to be left alone in our district, no taxing — This includes bars, etc ... Also, some of our feria (money), ... is going to be used by us to open legitimate businesses in the Districts for family and homesters. All those in the crews are welcome to do the same with theirs. This is for future plans so all can come together.”

Investigators documented dozens of letters to and from Castellanos. His inmate trust account was frozen after the IGI concluded he was using it to launder money. It also led to a severe mail restriction that allowed only his sister to correspond with him. He has since had several other relatives added to the list. His visits were restricted, but they were also loosened.

After Castellanos’ mail was restricted, he began stuffing notes in clothes to be washed in the hopes they would get to an inmate who worked in laundry to pass on to others in the general population and ultimately to the streets, investigators claimed in their 87-page report.

 

KITES THAT DON’T FLY

Then there’s communication within the SHU, a place designed to prevent it. Inmates escorted through a pod past another man’s cell may blink or gesture to pass messages. In the law library, where inmates are in two rows of small cells, they can speak or gesture to each other.

They can also yell to each other through the drain pipes snaking underneath the SHU.

Inmates in a general population yard. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Inmates in a general population yard. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Kites are commonly used to pass messages. A kite is a small piece of paper passed from one inmate to another, either from cell to cell or, in other instances, smuggled during transfers.

Barneburg pulls out folders of material the IGI has intercepted through the years. One is a legal document with micro-writing (tiny-lettered messages) of the Nuestra Familia Constitution: the rules and guidelines its members must follow.

Other kites are long slivers of paper about two fingers wide with micro-writing. Their contents have lists of inmates, their aliases, their CDCR number, their standing with the gang, jails and prisons in which they’ve lived. Some of the inmates are “green-lighted,” giving permission to any other members of the gang to kill them.

Kites might include population counts of members on a specific yard in a certain prison, information about which prisons are lax on security measures and details about rival gangs on yards. Kites are often smuggled from prisons through an inmate’s orifice; an inmate transferring prisons will be given the kite to pass on to the member who runs the yard to which he is being sent.

“They take everything out of their ‘suitcase’ and give it to their chain of command,” says Barneburg.

 

WELCOME TO PELICAN BAY

In Administrative Segregation Units, inmates awaiting placement in the SHU have more leeway in communicating. An inmate might commit an assault or other rule violation that will land him in the SHU for a determinate sentence just to pass on information once he gets there.

“Ad-seg is a big hub of communications,” says Barneburg. “They filter it up from Ad-seg to security housing.”

Ad-seg is where he got interested in gangs, Barneburg says. It provided him a firsthand look at the underworld of “the Bay.” He began spotting the nexus between inmates’ criminal activity and gangs. The more time he spent there, the better he was able to identify the players.

“We kind of grew up in the department together,” says Barneburg. “I promoted and so did they.”

Barneburg went from working in Ad-seg to one of the Bay’s two general population yards. Then he could see the men in action.

“It’s kind of where I cut my teeth,” says Barneburg. “When I came down here to SHU you could see gang influence on a state level. Back here, the influence these guys have, they can affect neighborhoods.”

Each prison gang was started to provide protection against other inmates, Barneburg says, but “they rapidly became something that preyed on other people as well.”

The Nuestra Familia developed after the Mexican Mafia began victimizing northern Hispanic inmates in the 1960s, but it has since adopted the vices of its enemy: murder, extortion, drug trafficking, prostitution.

“To this day, that war is still going on,” says Barneburg.

The two major Hispanic prison gangs are the most powerful and pose the greatest threat inside the prison walls and on the streets due to their structure, discipline and numbers, Barneburg says.

An inmate sketched his nickname, southern Hispanic affiliation and neighborhood on a cell’s shelf. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
An inmate sketched his nickname, southern Hispanic affiliation and neighborhood on a cell’s shelf. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
The Mexican Mafia is more egalitarian — any member theoretically has as much power as the other, Barneburg says. Its membership numbers are low, but it has thousands of associates doing its bidding in an attempt to become a “carnal.”

The Nuestra Familia has a structure ranging from soldier to general.

“Coming into the adult system, inmates get wrapped up into these gang hierarchies,” says Barneburg. “It’s very, very paramilitary.”

New inmates on the yard are going to be immediately challenged, Barneburg says. Some will steer clear of gangs, others won’t. But if a race riot breaks out, the inmate just trying to do his time may have to join in or face consequences.

A yard leader for a specific gang will approach a Hispanic inmate and ask questions.

“They do a background check,” says Barneburg. “They take that new arrival questionnaire and cross-reference it with the Bad News List.”

The latter is produced through kites and inmates keeping track of each other, with information eventually passed up to leaders in the SHU. One Bad News List the IGI confiscated had information on 1,400 inmates at Pelican Bay and elsewhere, Barneburg says.

 

THE MISSIONS

Inmates will be cleared or “instead of being embraced by the gang you will be stabbed by the gang,” says Barneburg.

Once an inmate is cleared, he then will be assigned a teacher who will indoctrinate him on code of conduct, history of the organization, weaponry and communications, as well as physical training, Barneburg says.

“Everyone finds their own niche,” says Barneburg, such as specializing in coded messages or weapon-making.

Then come the missions.

“As you are willing to do tasks, you’re naturally going to rise through the organization,” says Barneburg. “Gang members who go along to get along won’t go as far.”

As an organization grows on prison yards, its leaders begin thinking about taking control, taxing for drug sales, running gambling rings and controlling contraband.

“They’re taking young men and breaking them down mentally and physically,” says Barneburg. “They’re a very predatory organization.”

Young inmates who become errand boys for gangs — smuggling drugs or assaulting other inmates on the gang’s behalf — begin accruing more prison time, Barneburg says.

“A relatively short term could turn into a life sentence because they have been exploited by the gangs.” 

 

FROM BURGLARY TO MURDER

Inmate Todd Ashker, a validated Aryan Brotherhood member and a representative for white inmates in the Short Corridor Collective, was first sent to prison on a six-year term in 1985 after he pleaded guilty to burglary. He was originally placed in a SHU in 1986 for a determinate term for rule violations. In 1987, Ashker was charged with the first-degree murder of another white inmate.

Inmate Todd Ashker
Inmate Todd Ashker
A 94-page handwritten lawsuit that he filed in 2009 challenging SHU conditions and policies states he was defending himself, but at the time investigators theorized it was an ordered hit by the Aryan Brotherhood. The prosecutor did not use the theory because it relied on informants he did not find credible, court documents state.

In 1990, Ashker was found guilty of second-degree murder with use of a knife and special allegations of having committed two previous felonies. He was sentenced to a term of 21 years to life. The following month he was sent to Pelican Bay’s SHU, where, aside from a few temporary transfers for medical reasons and civil court proceedings, he remains.

His 2009 lawsuit caught the attention of prisoner rights attorneys after the 2011 hunger strikes, and it has since been amended, with other SHU inmates added.

Ashker did not respond to a request for an interview. 

 

PINNACLE OF POWER

Being a current or former Pelican Bay SHU inmate establishes credibility in the streets. Its gang leaders are housed there, and it’s considered the hardest of all California prisons. One court document said Nuestra Familia members refer to it as the “White House,” where inmates looking to become leaders need to live.

It’s that credibility that allows gang leaders to control neighborhoods hundreds of miles away through smuggled-out orders and directives. A Mexican Mafia member or associate working on behalf of inmates locked in the Bay can approach a street crew and begin demanding a tax to operate in the neighborhood. In exchange, the crew gains protection backed by other Mexican Mafia crews and members.

“These guys are doing it to control street crews. Street crews are important for the Mexican Mafia,” says Barneburg. “That name holds power. It holds authority.”

The protection also extends to street crew members when they land in prison. Those who refuse to pay taxes are either run out of the neighborhood or killed. And if they escape the ordered hit on the street, they could still face consequences if imprisoned.

 

‘COULDN’T WAIT TO GET HERE’

SHU inmate Javier Zubiate was validated as a Nuestra Familia member in 1995. Last October, he began debriefing: the process of dropping out of a gang and turning over gang information to investigators for the chance to get out of the SHU.

The 40-year-old Peruvian native grew up in Santa Rosa. He has a slim, athletic build and until recently a shaved head. He’s now growing his hair out for Locks of Love. His body is covered with gang tattoos.

Inmate Javier Zubate
Inmate Javier Zubate
Before he decided to debrief, Zubiate says he was a street regiment leader in the Nuestra Familia, controlling street crews from north of the Richmond Bridge. Zubiate also participated in the 2011 hunger strikes.

Speaking about his previous life, Zubiate is matter-of-fact.

“If you want to move through the organization you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get sent to the Bay because that’s where it’s at. And then once you get here you’ve got to get to the Short Corridor ... by the time you get here the streets aren’t even a question. We didn’t need the streets. It’s not an issue. We can do everything from here.”

He started gangbanging in his early teens and had his eyes on Nuestra Familia by age 16.

“I just loved the game,” says Zubiate. “I got a rush thinking every day, ‘I’m going to go out banging or I could be killed.’”

He learned about the history of the gang, that it was protecting northern Hispanics. He “couldn’t wait to get here” — to Pelican Bay.

“As soon as I got an opportunity to get a murder for the NF I did it.”

And that’s when he caught a life sentence for second-degree murder and attempted murder.

The orders came from the Bay. One of Zubiate’s friends needed to be murdered because he kept socializing with one of his cousins who had a falling out with the gang.

“He was a good friend of mine,” says Zubiate.

He figured if anyone was going to kill his friend, it should be him, out of respect.

“It was a weird way of thinking. I felt I was doing the right thing.”

Zubiate began earning his “bones,” working to move up within the gang. In prison he spotted someone he thought was a southerner, reported it to his chain of command, volunteered to do the hit and got the green light.

“I ended up cutting a guy’s throat and they put me in the hole,” says Zubiate. “I didn’t kill him, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort.”

The blade was dull.

When he was promoted to a regiment leader, he was conducting street business from Pelican Bay’s SHU through the mail. At his peak, he says, he was earning thousands of dollars a month. The Nuestra Familia was getting 25 percent of the take, and the rest was divvied up how Zubiate saw fit: cars and guns for his crews, and funding visits.

Then the IGI flipped the switch.

 

‘CUTTING THE HEAD OFF’

By the early 2000s the SHU units had turned into minihubs for prison gangs. Validated gang members had manipulated cell transfers and special diets to begin building pods full of their crews. Florencia-13, the Avenues, Border Brothers, Aryan Brotherhood, San Diego Crew — they all situated members near each other.

The leaders surrounded themselves with subordinates who could write letters on their behalf, says Barneburg. Seven inmates write similar letters and maybe one would get past the IGI, all the while leaving no physical evidence linking the leaders to gang activity.

A southern Hispanic inmate plays soccer on a general population yard. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
A southern Hispanic inmate plays soccer on a general population yard. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
The IGI passively monitored and documented gang activities and communications — often through the mail, but it wasn’t until around 2004 that the IGI began to stop gang communications. Prior to the clampdown, drug trades, assaults, murders and extortion were being documented, but they were still occurring.

In 2006, the IGI came up with another idea, and the gang members weren’t expecting the outcome. The prison relocated all of the “alpha dogs” to the SHU’s Short Corridor. It limited cell transfers. It broke up the concentrations of gang members. Leaders were separated from subordinates.

“Once we concentrated the power in one area we really started to scrutinize their communications,” says Barneburg. “We isolated them as much as possible.”

There were some initial concerns about what would happen next. Then all of a sudden, “all the subordinates go quiet.”

“Some people didn’t like that,” says Zubiate. “It was almost impossible to communicate with my people in the streets ... I don’t think anyone expected the pressure they put on us. Every single one of my avenues got shut down.”

For Zubiate, at least, the flow of money slowed to a trickle.

Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis arrived after the Short Corridor was implemented.

“I think it was one of the most forward-thinking, proactive steps taken,” says Lewis. “I’ve heard it called cutting the head off the snake.”

The intense monitoring of communications led to large indictments and the busting up of street gangs around the state, Lewis says.

With indictments and arrests raining down on foot soldiers and validated gang members starved of street communication, long-warring inmates found some common causes.

The Short Corridor Collective was formed, and soon its members were planning hunger strikes.

Reach Anthony Skeens at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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