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.
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.