Tom Diaz

Posts Tagged ‘Black Guerrilla Family’


In Corruption, Crime, Gangs, Informants and other sophisticated means, Latino gangs on April 22, 2009 at 8:17 am

I woke up this mornin’,
There were tears in my bed.
They killed a man I really loved
Shot him through the head.
Lord, Lord,
They cut George Jackson down.
Lord, Lord,
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

George Jackson Founded the Black Guerrilla Family in a California Prison.  His Book -- "Soledad Brother" -- Was a Cultural Icon for Some During the Racial Turmoil of the 1970s

George Jackson Founded the Black Guerrilla Family in a California Prison. He and His Book -- "Soledad Brother" -- Were Cultural and Political Icons for Some During the Racial Turmoil of the 1970s

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.

BGF Tattoo of Watch Tower and Dragon

BGF Tattoo of Watch Tower and Dragon

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.


In Corruption, Crime, Gangs on April 19, 2009 at 5:48 pm

An "O.G." (Original Gangster"), "Iron" Felix Dzerzhinksy Was the Intelletcual Architect of the Soviet Secret Service That Became the KGB

An "O.G." ("Original Gangster"): "Iron" Felix Dzerzhinksy Was the Intellectual Architect of the Soviet Secret Service That Eventually Morphed Into the KGB

From their prison cells and with the help of corrections staff, authorities say, members of a violent gang were feasting on salmon and shrimp, sipping Grey Goose vodka and puffing fine cigars – all while directing drug deals, extorting protection money from other inmates and arranging attacks on witnesses and rival gang members.

Justin Fenton , “Indictments reveal prison crime world: Officers, inmates charged in drugs, extortion,” The Baltimore Sun, April 17, 2009

Situatsiya verbovochnaya — Recruitment Situation

The main circumstances which give rise to a recruitment situation include: the target’s psychological state is propitious for exerting influence on him in order to induce him to cooperate secretly; external factors which make it possible to achieve the recruitment covertly; circumstances which compromise the target and put him in a position of dependence vis-a-vis the intelligence or counter-intelligence agencies, thus creating an effective basis for recruiting him; or the availability of data offering a real possibility of a recruitment on an ideological and political basis, or on the basis of a desire to secure material or other personal advantages.

Vasil Mitrokhin, KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officers Handbook , p. 373

What distinguishes a corrupt prison guard from a gangster when he (or she) is working with — or for — an incarcerated gangster?

Probably only that the gangster is making a lot more money than the guard.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Median annual earnings of correctional officers and jailers were $35,760 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $28,320 and $46,500. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,600, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $58,580. Median annual earnings in the public sector were $47,750 in the Federal Government, $36,140 in State government, and $34,820 in local government. In the facilities support services industry, where the relatively small number of officers employed by privately operated prisons is classified, median annual earnings were $25,050.

Better than pushing cheeseburgers.  But in a case I write about in my forthcoming book — No Boundaries:  Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press, June 2009) — a Mexican Mafia boss running a street gang operation from prison had a box containing half-a-million dollars in cash stored in his girl friend’s closet.  He was also receiving thousands of dollars of income monthly from a street gang operation “taxing” local dealers.

Many cases of corruption in prison are just another facet of the enormously corrosive effect of the modern drug traffic.  The most lucrative business in history is a river of acid at flood stage.  It rolls over obstructions in its path, seeks out alternate courses, and above all eats at the foundations of everything it comes in contact with — from families, to prisons, to governments.

This examination of prison corruption is no “dis'” on the many fine public servants working in our prisons.  It’s just a look at stark reality.  As of September 30, 2008, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice’s  Office of the Inspector General reported to Congress that it had 238 open cases of alleged misconduct against federal Bureau of Prisons employees. “The criminal investigations covered a wide range of allegations, including introduction of contraband, bribery, and sexual abuse.”  That is a very low rate,  considering that the BOP has about 36,000 employees (not all of whom, of course, are in contact with offenders).

Working in a "Correctional" Institution Can Be Stressful and Hazardous

Working in a "Correctional" Institution Can Be Stressful and Hazardous

Prison guards are also known as “correctional” or “detention officers.” Here is how the BLS survey describes the work:

Working in a correctional institution can be stressful and hazardous. Every year, correctional officers are injured in confrontations with inmates. Correctional officers may work indoors or outdoors. Some correctional institutions are well lighted, temperature controlled, and ventilated, but others are old, overcrowded, hot, and noisy. Although both jails and prisons can be dangerous places to work, prison populations are more stable than jail populations, and correctional officers in prisons know the security and custodial requirements of the prisoners with whom they are dealing.

Job prospects in the field are “excellent” according to BLS:

Employment of correctional officers is expected to grow 16 percent between 2006 and 2016, faster than the average for all occupations. Increasing demand for correctional officers will stem from population growth and rising rates of incarceration. Mandatory sentencing guidelines calling for longer sentences and reduced parole for inmates are a primary reason for historically increasing incarceration rates. Some States are reconsidering mandatory sentencing guidelines because of budgetary constraints, court decisions, and doubts about their effectiveness.

The problem is that in the wake of the era of law and order  — “longer sentences and reduced parole” ought to teach them a lesson — there is so little correcting and so much warehousing going on in America’s prisons, the staff are little more than widget production line drones.  Many law enforcement officials refer to prison as a place for higher education in crime.  It is certainly true for gangsters, where a spin in prison is regarded as a prestigious life passage.

Warehouse:  Not Exactly A Stimulating Environment

Warehouse: Not Exactly A Stimulating Environment

Imagine a life in which your job is to move a monotonous series of what “the system” views as so many interchangeable product models from Point A to Point B, then to Point C, then to Point D, then back to Point A — then repeat — at more or less the same time in a monotonous cycle every 24 hours.  Now consider that the products are human beings — or, unfortunately in the view of much of today’s society, humanoid — with actual internal lives and external relationships.

Yes, they think, they feel, they bleed.  And they don’t get to go home between shifts, so imagine the boiling pressure inside your average con.  (I have visited one prison and several jails as a lawyer or journalist, and the sense of regulated confinement I felt even as a visitor was suffocating to the point of claustrophobia.  It’s hard to imagine what it must feel like to actually live or work in such a place.)

On occasion, one of these human inventory products may try to kill or maim you or — more often — another product.

Your work environment is supposed to be sterile — a sanitized place where access to life’s easy pleasures is strictly controlled or prohibited.  No drugs.  No sex.  Even rock and roll is rationed.

But some of the product forms you move about inside the concrete and steel box every day are organized into criminal enterprises — mostly prison gangs.  There is big money to be made in contraband, and the gangsters are making it.  They run prostitution, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, access, whatever you want, they have it — for a price.  On the outside these mobsters would be driving Cadillac Escalades and sporting diamonds in their teeth.  Every now and then one of them makes a pass, figuratively waving a roll of bills in your face.  The temptation to supplement a middling civil service paycheck is seductive.

Recruiting a prison employee into corruption is not overly different than recruiting a spy.  In fact, one might say that the environment is ideal.  All that remains to be found is the person with — in the KGB’s felicitous phrase quoted above — a “propitious” state of mind.

Sean Connery Was An Incorruptible Space Marshal in Outland

Sean Connery Was An Incorruptible Space Marshal in Outland

A bit of dialogue from the 1981 film Outland comes to mind.  Sean Connery stars as federal marshal William T. O’Neil, one lone man fighting pervasive corruption (drug smuggling) in a futuristic but incisively metaphoric outer space prison colony:

Station Manager Sheppard: If you’re looking for money, you’re smarter than you look. If you’re not, you’re a lot dumber.
Marshal William T. O’Neil: Then I’m probably a lot dumber.

Most corrections officer are, as expressed in this film’s equation, “dumber” rather than “smarter.”

But some significant minority succumb to the wiles of Delilah and take the bait.  And, as the KGB and other such organizations know, once you bite for the little bribe — what could it matter? — you’re hooked for the bigger payoff to whomever is holding the other end of the line.  How does one explain that night with Delilah to a grim-faced administrator?

Delilah's Embrace Can Be Deadly in Prison ("Samson and Delilah," School of Rembrandt, c. 1630, Rijksmuseum)

Delilah's Embrace Can Be Deadly in Prison ("Samson and Delilah," School of Rembrandt, c. 1630, Rijksmuseum)

In succeeding parts, Fairly Civil will examine some examples of corruption inside the Big House.  These cases run the gamut from the recent Maryland case involving the Black Guerrilla Family — one of the oldest prison gangs and mortal enemy of the Mexican Mafia — to corruption instigated by correctional officers themselves.  The latter include a spectacular prison lobby shootout in 2006 that took the lives of a federal agent and an indicted federal  prison guard.

Read Part two here.


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