I woke up this mornin’,
There were tears in my bed.
They killed a man I really loved
Shot him through the head.
They cut George Jackson down.
They laid him in the ground.
“George Jackson,” Lyrics by Bob Dylan, sung here.
[Metropolitan Transition Center Guard Musheerah] Habeebullah is quoted as saying it used to be that just one officer on a shift might smuggle contraband.
“Now you got, like, seven, eight people,” she said. “Soon it’s the whole [expletive] shift.”
Henri E. Cauvin, “Inmates, Md. Prison Guards Face Drug Smuggling Case,” Washington Post, April 17, 2009
A task force of federal, state, and local law enforcement agents fanned out at the crack of dawn one day last week in Maryland and arrested a singular mix of miscreants: Black Guerrilla (also spelled “Guerilla” in some sources) Family prison gang members — and some of the correctional officers charged with guarding them. The case — led by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein — is a current example of the problem of corruption in prison, often (but not always) driven by the corrosive trade in illicit drugs. (See Part One here for an introductory overview.) The Washington Post described the scheme:
Prosecutors said the gang known as Black Guerilla [sic] Family recruited prison employees and used hidden compartments in shoes to smuggle heroin, ecstasy, tobacco, cellphones and other contraband into prisons in Maryland and elsewhere.
The gang members sold the drugs to other inmates, prosecutors said. They allegedly used the cellphones to communicate with associates outside, approving targets for robberies and arranging attacks on cooperating witnesses.
There is no doubt that the enormously profitable drug trade is corrupting some prison staff. The question is, how widespread is the problem? According to the reported excerpt from a federal wiretap quoted above, Maryland guard Musheerah Habeebullah apparently thinks it is widespread, at least where she works. She may be right, or she may have been rationalizing her alleged actions — thinking something like, “Everybody’s doing it, so I’d be crazy not to get my share!”
Gary D. Maynard, the head of the Maryland agency that oversees prisons, said at a press conference that, while the allegations in this case are serious, he does not think they are widespread. “I strongly believe that the majority of our staff are good,” he said, “but it only takes a few bad seeds to make everyone look bad.”
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General reported last year that it had 238 open cases of alleged misconduct against federal Bureau of Prisons employees. This is a mere fraction of the agency’s approximately 36,000 employees (of whom about 26,000 are male, and 10,000 are female), supervising about 167,000 inmates in BOP facilities.
But given that many modern prison gangs control a bigger criminal structure outside of the prison walls — as is apparent in this case — even just a few corrupt corrections officers may be “force multipliers.” Their cooperation is the fulcrum to a lever of violent gang criminality that affects victims in the “free world” as well as in prison.
Power of Prison Gangs
Retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Richard Valdemar explained to me that he only began to understand fully the dimensions of his rookie assignment at the Los Angeles County Jail when an older inmate (a cop-killer, by the way) took him aside to explain the facts of jail life. The inmate explained that gangs ran the world inside the wall. From that incident — described in my forthcoming book No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press June 2009) — Valdemar learned that he had to “see” two different worlds inside the walls: the official world and the gang world.
In the Maryland case, it appears prison authorities would not disagree. This is from the Washington Post story:
“The BGF runs the prison system when it comes to controlling contraband,” said Capt. Phil Smith, assistant director of the state prison system’s intelligence unit.
This is also confirmed by a tidy description of the power of prison gangs from the web site Into The Abyss: A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs,by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.:
In gang-dominated prisons, gangs rule the roost. Which inmates eat at what times and where they sit in the dining hall, who gets the best or worst job assignments in the prison, who has money and nice clothes, who lives and who dies – all of these things, and others, are determined by gangs in the prison. Their very presence requires special attention from prison authorities.
The Black Guerrilla Family
Corrections officials call prison gangs “security threat groups,” and the Black Guerrilla Family is one of the earliest. Here is a description of BGF from the National Gang Intelligence Center’s National Gang Threat Assessment 2009:
Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), originally called Black Family or Black Vanguard, is a prison gang founded in the San Quentin State Prison, California, in 1966. The gang is highly organized along paramilitary lines, with a supreme leader and central committee. BGF has an established national charter, code of ethics, and oath of allegiance. BGF members operate primarily in California and Maryland. The gang has 100 to 300 members, most of whom are African American males. A primary source of income for gang members comes from cocaine and marijuana distribution. BGF members obtain such drugs primarily from Nuestra Familia/Norteños members or from local Mexican traffickers. BGF members are involved in other criminal activities, including auto theft, burglary, drive-by shootings, and homicide.
Here is another, more historical description from an article by Alfonso J. Valdez, “Prison Gangs 101” in Corrections Today, February 2009:
The Black Guerilla [sic, throughout] Family is the most politically oriented of all the California prison gangs, following and espousing Marxist Leninist Maoist revolutionary philosophies. The Black Guerilla Family was established around 1966 by a Black Panther leader, George Lester Jackson, in San Quentin prison. Jackson established this group because he believed the Black Panther Party was not responding to the needs of black prison inmates. First called the Black Family, prospective members were solicited by suggesting their crimes were a result of white oppression.
Jackson soon changed the name to the Black Vanguard after a sizable membership was established. This name remained with the gang until 1971, when Jackson was killed during an escape attempt. Since that time the gang’s membership has grown and the its name changed to the Black Guerilla Family.
The Black Guerilla Family has a very close relationship with a splinter group of quasi-criminal revolutionaries, the Black Liberation Army. Some prison gang experts believe the Black Guerilla Family is just an extension of the Black Liberation Army.
There are two tattoos that are commonly associated with the Black Guerilla Family. One is a prison watchtower surrounded by a dragon with a quarter moon depicted in its body. The second shows the silhouette of a rifle with a sword lying over it to form an X, and includes the initials BGF.
It is worth noting that although most large, national prison and street gangs are essentially criminal enterprises fueled by the illegal drug trade, many of them profess or were rooted in aspects of political ideology and mythic history. The touchstone of these ideologies is the perception that the members of the gang are victims — even “political prisoners” — of the dominant culture’s racial or ethnic exploitation. This is true even of the white gangs, in which case the dominant culture is not perceived as “white” but as an impure mixture dominated by “lesser” groups.
The following excerpt from a long and detailed affidavit filed with an application for a search warrant in the case contends that BGF has a national presence and is seeking to expand its power outside of prison, at least in Maryland. The excerpt also describes some of the gang’s leadership structure:
During a series of debriefings in late 2008 and early 2009, a reliable confidential informant (CS1)who is a member of BGF advised investigators that BGF is a nationwide prison gang with a presence in every correctional institution in the country. CS1 related that he/she has been in various prisons throughout the country and at each institution there has been a faction of BGF. CS1 related that BGF is violent both inside and outside prison, but that historically BGF has not been well-organized outside of prison. CS1 stated that currently, BGF is attempting to change this within Baltimore, Maryland by becoming more organized and effective on the streets.
CS1 explained that within the prisons, BGF has a group of individuals who are in leadership roles/positions of authority and that this leadership group is known as the “Supreme Bush.” All members who are not in the Supreme Bush are considered “members” of the Bush or Mansion. The only place Bush members hold rank is within the correctional system; once a Bush member is back out on the streets, he or she is considered a regular BGF member.
Also worth noting is the insight this case gives on modern “sophisticated means” of investigation. The 100-plus page affidavit is a classic for study of how the DEA uses Title III wiretaps to let traffickers fashion handcuffs out of their own words. These operations were alluded to in the press release issued by the Md. U.S. Attorney’s office:
Mr. Rosenstein added, “Inmates are cautious about using monitored prison phones to run their criminal enterprises and intimidate witnesses, but they have not been as concerned about their smuggled cell phones. We want the inmates to know that we also can listen in on their cell phone calls.”
“This is the first time that DEA Baltimore provided real time inside intelligence information to the Maryland Department of Corrections,” stated Ava A. Cooper-Davis, Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Washington Division. “Our joint effort resulted in the seizure of drugs and various contraband by DOC officials.”
Another interesting point about BGF: Because of their blood rivalry, the two Latino prison gangs in California — the Mexican Mafia (La Eme) and La Nuestra Familia — made allies inside the walls with strange bedfellows. Thus, the Black Guerrilla Family became an ally of La Nuestra Familia and the white racist gang Aryan Brotherhood lined up with La Eme, confounding usual racial and ethnic distinctions.
The Maryland prison case is by no means the first, last, or only such case of prison corruption driven by the drug trade. Fairly Civil will examine several more such cases in the next post in this series.