Anthony Skeens, The Triplicate

Even behind bars, they can leave their mark on streets

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


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."

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


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."


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.

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.


Inmates can manipulate the mail several ways.

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.


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.

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


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


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


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



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.

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.


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.

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.


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


"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."


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.

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.


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.


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.

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


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


"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.


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.

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


"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


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