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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
"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.
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
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.
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.
'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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .