[Pnews] Rethinking White Men Behind Bars: Incorrigible Supremacists or Allies in Waiting?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 4 12:25:34 EDT 2016

**Rethinking White Men Behind Bars: Incorrigible Supremacists or Allies 
in Waiting?*

James Kilgore - April 1, 2016

Moments after I arrived in the living unit at the federal penitentiary 
in Lompoc, California, a young white man named Carl approached me. He 
seemed to be in charge of rolling out the welcome mat to all the white 
"new fish." He wore standard day room fare -- black work boots, white 
boxer shorts and no shirt. But the only thing I really noticed, while 
trying not to, was the six-inch, high ink portrait of Adolf Hitler on 
his upper arm. He asked me if I needed anything -- toothpaste, shower 
shoes, soap, Top Ramen Chili Beef. I politely declined the offers, shook 
his hand and thanked him for his hospitality. I did my best to keep my 
game face. People wearing Hitler on their arm was a new experience for 
me, but over the course of the next six years in prison, I would meet 
many Carls. Their tattoos came in many flavors: SS lightning bolts on 
the calf (a badge indicating a successful mission completed), "Skinhead" 
or "Peckerwood" in bold face across the chest, "thank God I'm white" on 
the back of the neck.

The most popular was the back arm tattoo in Old English letters, "white" 
down the left back arm, "pride," down the right. On one occasion, I 
would even receive an invitation to attend a party to celebrate the 
birthday of Martin Luther King Junior's assassin, James Earl Ray. 
Encounters with race hate became a significant part of my prison life. 
To survive, I had to acquire the skill of respectful conversation with 
people who sported a swastika on their forehead without indicating the 
slightest support for their ideology. In a moment when Donald Trump is 
opening the door to further public displays of white supremacy, I spend 
a lot of time thinking about the Carls of this world and their heirs, 
like young Dylann Roof. How do we halt the spread of their ideas of 
violent race hate?

For the most part, opponents of mass incarceration tend to ignore the 
presence of Carl and the hundreds of thousands of white men in our 
nation's prisons and jails. Doubtless large numbers of these 
incarcerated men back "The Donald." The complications of why some of the 
poorest sections of the white working class cast their lot with a 
bigoted billionaire instead of Black freedom movements or choose race 
war against fellow prisoners, rather than join forces to fight for 
better conditions, defy easy explanations. But it is time to again 
unpack the race-class paradox that at various key moments in US history 
has placed the racism of not very well-to-do white folks squarely in the 
path of societal transformation.

Rethinking White Men Behind Bars

A logical starting point in this analysis is recognizing that in the era 
of mass incarceration, the ranks of whites in prison have escalated 
enormously, from about 90,000 in 1980 to nearly half a million today. At 
about 450 per 100,000, white men are incarcerated at roughly three times 
the rate of the general population in the United Kingdom, the most 
prolific incarcerator in the G7. This is far less than the figure for 
Black (2,306) or "Hispanic" men (831). Yet, if considered as a nation, 
whites in the US would have a higher incarceration rate than every 
country in the world except for Thailand and Cuba, with more than 10 
million people. The reasons for rising white incarceration in many ways 
parallel what has happened to inner city communities of color. Situated 
at the bottom end of the white economic spectrum, the most vulnerable 
sectors of the white working class have lost their jobs to 
de-industrialization, lost access to welfare benefits, and been 
subjected to the vagaries of mandatory minimums and a secondary war on 
drugs -- attacks on methamphetamine use in small rural towns. While the 
scale of the activity of the militarized police in trailer parks and 
areas that elite Republicans are now calling "downscale communities" is 
not equivalent to what happens in the Black and Brown inner city, poor 
whites do not reside in police-free suburbs or university towns where 
cops turn a blind eye.

Delving deeper into this this issue necessitates eroding a few 
stereotypes. First of all, while white supremacy has a strong presence 
within certain prison populations, not all white men in prison are 
Carls. The strength and character of white supremacist organizations 
varies from state to state, from prison to prison. California has the 
most storied legion of white supremacist organizations and historically 
the most segregated prison system in the country. I will take a minute 
to describe this in detail, because while California may be an 
exception, it is important to understand the depths to which racial 
politics can descend in US prisons. Furthermore, as someone who lived in 
those California prisons from 2006-09, I feel an obligation to the men I 
left behind in those racist hellholes to keep telling their/our story.

California's "Old" Jim Crow

For the last three-plus decades, the California Department of 
Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has presided over an essentially 
"old" Jim Crow situation. During my time of incarceration, virtually all 
space was segregated. The institution set the tone by controlling all 
cell-sharing arrangements, making sure that no people of "different 
races" shared a cell. The leaders of the racialized prison 
organizations, referred to as "shot callers," went along with this and 
divided the space in the yard according to "race." There were Black 
pull-up bars and white pull-up bars, Black showers and white showers. 
One end of the basketball court was for Black men, the other for whites. 
Latinos divided their allegiance. Those who identified as "Northern 
Mexicans" aligned themselves with the Black population, while the 
"Southern Mexicans" sided with the whites, as did the Native Americans. 
Any violation of these spatial or social boundaries would result in 
discipline from the shot callers which, depending on the prison, could 
range from getting "checked" (maybe a punch in the face) to a fatal 
stabbing. The white shot callers talked about maintaining segregation as 
essential to advancing the "white race." Whites who deviated were 
labeled "race traitors." As revolting as I and some of the other whites 
on the yard found this segregation, we played mostly by the rules, 
opting to push the envelope in other ways rather than commit suicidal 
acts in defiance of the spatial status quo.

In 2005, a Federal court order mandated the CDCR to desegregate cell 
assignments, but officials dragged their feet. While they have managed 
to break down segregation on the lower security level yards, in the 
medium and high security facilities, much of the old ways still 
dominate. The authorities have argued that integration would precipitate 
too much violence. Because the anti-Black racism of white supremacists 
and of some Latino communities has such deep roots, there has been some 
truth to their claims, though authorities haven't tried very hard 
either. The CDCR created a segregationist monster that revives the days 
of the old South and, in political terms, fulfills the mandate to divide 
and conquer. In the past couple years, however, it has started to break 
down -- more on this later.

Other States

The California prison system represents an extreme. In other states 
different dynamics appear. After the 1954 Brown v. the Board of 
Education decision, which aimed to desegregate public schools, a sea of 
litigation arose concerning segregation in prisons. From the 1960s to 
the 1990s the federal courts heard more than 40 cases addressing prison 
segregation, consistently deeming it unconstitutional. Most state prison 
systems have moved, albeit very slowly, toward some form of 
desegregation. Texas likely implemented the most systematic 
desegregation of cell assignments. Beginning in 1991, Texas corrections 
officials began placing people in the first available and appropriate 
cell, eliminating race as a criterion for such assignments.

Other states have taken different paths to curb segregation, often 
leaving it to the dynamics of the population itself. Ultimately, the 
influence of racist ideology varies depending on both the demographics 
of the state prison system and the political evolution of prison 
organizations. In Illinois prisons, for example, white supremacists have 
less sway because two main organizations, popularly known as "Folks" and 
"People" exercise considerable influence, according to a number of men 
who served multiple terms in prison. Both of these grew out of an 
amalgamation of a range of predominantly Black street organizations.

The best known of these are the "Gangster Disciples," the "Black P. 
Stones" and the "Vice Lords." However, unlike their California 
counterparts, in Illinois these organizations have merged with Latino 
and white organizations. Race is not a primary factor in membership or 
in how daily life is organized. Prison organizations have considerable 
power to control cell assignment. Jobs and other benefits are also 
largely dispensed through networks controlled by the organizations, not 
allocated by race. With a state prison population that is 58 percent 
Black, white supremacists have very little influence in Illinois 
prisons. While a white supremacist group known as the "Northsiders" 
exercised some muscle in the 1980s, in more recent years their power has 
been eclipsed.

According to Cory Greene, who served time in New York prisons in the 
early 2000s, racial dynamics in New York prisons are much like those in 
Illinois, with Black street organizations occupying such a dominant 
position that white supremacists are largely pushed to the side.

Staff and White Supremacy

White supremacy doesn't only find expression in prison among the 
incarcerated. In many facilities, white supremacy also has strong 
footholds among guards. A recent case in Florida is instructive. In 
April 2015 the FBI arrested three white former state prison guards and 
charged them with conspiracy to murder a Black man who was previously 
incarcerated at a facility where the three worked. The media release for 
the arrest described the three as members of the "Traditionalist 
American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan."

Florida is not alone. A 2012 New York Correctional Association 
investigation of Clinton Correctional Facility, the institution from 
which David Sweat and the late Richard Matt escaped last year, reported 
"that racist attitudes play a significant role in the physical violence 
at Clinton." One survey respondent reported, "murder, assault, 
harassment, threats, intimidation, etc. is all motivated by race. For 
every time an officer or officers assault, kill, or maim an 
[incarcerated person], racial slurs are always hurled all over the 
place, and all this criminal behavior goes on directly under the eyes of 
an administration that looks the other way."

Similar sympathies surfaced during a 2015 investigation of guards in 
Camden, New Jersey, jails. An information act request for text messages 
between guards unearthed many containing racial epithets: "To me a 
really good high is stomping the shit out of a n----- for no reason" and 
"no matter how they look at things, no matter how dressed up they get… 
When they wake up tomorrow morning they're still just N------s," 
(original in caps).

All the men I interviewed for this article noted the presence of white 
supremacist attitudes among prison staff. Greene related that he once 
received a death threat if he got out of line from a guard who 
identified as a Ku Klux Klan member. Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in 
state prisons in Illinois and other states, reported receiving his 
property from a guard who had "KKK" tattooed on his fingers. In both 
California and Illinois interviewees reported that racist attitudes were 
most prevalent in prisons located in rural, predominantly white towns. 
According to Gregory Koger, one such prison in Illinois, Vandalia, had 
such a reputation for white supremacy that Black men renamed it 
"Klandalia." Manuel Lafontaine, who spent several years in CDCR 
institutions, recalled a form of white privilege where guards 
consistently favored whites in work assignments visiting access and 
dispensing of other favors.

Despite the strong presence of white supremacy, a number of white men 
described how they confronted racist practices in the prison. Mike Fore, 
who did time in Illinois, Indiana and Nevada, stressed that a lot of 
white men who affiliate to supremacist groups are far more the victims 
of "peer pressure" and "fear mongering" than dedicated racists. To Fore, 
the white supremacists were "just another class of citizen to avoid."

Nelson came into prison after having spent many years on the outside as 
part of Black and Latino street organizations. When white supremacists 
in New Mexico tried to recruit him, he rejected their offers. "I knew 
who had my back," he said, "and it wasn't the white boys." Koger, who 
spent 11 years incarcerated in Illinois, told a similar tale. For him, 
white supremacists held no attraction. While most of his cellmates were 
Black, on one occasion he shared a cell with a Nazi sympathizer. Koger 
took the trouble to research the history of the swastika, noting the 
origins of the word and symbol in Sanskrit and Asian religious 
traditions. His cellmate didn't appreciate the history lesson and the 
two ended up in a physical fight.

Solidarity in the Movement Against Mass Incarceration

In a period during which criticism of the prison-industrial complex is 
gaining increasing traction, a key question becomes how can a movement 
against mass incarceration gain adherents among incarcerated white 
people and their loved ones. One important example comes from the hunger 
strikes at Pelican Bay Prison in California in 2011 and 2013. The third 
hunger strike entailed the participation of some 30,000 incarcerated 
people in California (nearly one-fourth of the California prison 
population at the time) and hundreds nationwide. The catalyzing force 
for this mass action was the "Agreement to End Hostilities," a document 
circulated by the leadership of the strike.

This leadership, known as the Short Corridor Human Rights Collective, 
was a group held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. 
The document declared: "Now is the time for us to collectively seize 
this moment in time and put an end to more than 20-30 years of 
hostilities between our racial groups." The agreement went on to urge 
all people in the state prison system to "focus our time, attention and 
energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us (i.e. prisoners) and our 
best interests. We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other 
for their benefit."

LaFontaine, who is now an organizer for All of Us or None, a group that 
fights for the rights of the formerly incarcerated, called the agreement 
"monumental." He explained to Truthout how it has reduced racial 
violence and changed the nature of the dialog among people in the 
prisons. The first signatory on the agreement was Todd Ashker, labeled 
by prison authorities as a former leader of the Aryan Brotherhood. 
Ashker has spent more than a quarter-century in solitary. He was joined 
in signing the agreement by one Black man and two Latino men: Sitawa 
Nantambu Jamaa, Arturo Castellanos and Antonio Guillen.

Ashker described his path to solidarity to Democracy Now! in 2013. After 
reading the works of Che Guevara, Howard Zinn and Thomas Paine, Ashker 
said he "became more class-conscious of the prisoner class as a 
microcosm of the working-class poor in this country, and that it was in 
our best interest to evolve our strategies and come together and utilize 
peaceful civil disobedience-type actions, in tandem with litigation, to 
try to force the changes that were long overdue."

While Ashker's example as a transformed racist is inspiring, individual 
converts to revolutionary ideology are not enough to consolidate a 
movement. According to LaFontaine, conversations should shift toward 
considering some kind of truth and reconciliation process where white 
groups not only "make a stance," but work toward "repairing the harm 
they have done." That would require not only individual changes of 
consciousness, but reaching into marginalized white working-class 
communities, the waters where Donald Trump is currently fishing.

To forsake anti-Black, anti-immigrant and homophobic/transphobic 
ideologies for such a process involves imagining a different form of 
democracy and equality than what we have seen to date. However, in 
moments where social justice movements are active, the possibilities for 
new forms of unity open up rapidly. Moreover, in a time of escalating 
poverty and inequality overall, the imperatives of bonding together key 
elements of the bottom tiers of the 99% make building unity across 
racial lines, without capitulating to white supremacy, imperative to a 
transformative project.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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