Tom Diaz


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.

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] Fairly Civil explored in Part One and Two of this series, the illicit drug trade and the prison gangs that control it behind bars […]

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