Learning Prejudice in Prisons Criminals' Code

By Kyle Johnson, | The Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 1998 | Go to article overview

Learning Prejudice in Prisons Criminals' Code


Kyle Johnson,, The Christian Science Monitor


A month after James Byrd Jr., a black man, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death on an east Texas country road, America still struggles to comprehend what dark forces could have sparked such a killing.

David Novak has an idea.

Mr. Novak spent a year in a federal prison camp for mail fraud, a place that left on him an imprint of racial intolerance as indelible as a set of fingerprints. It's the reason, he says, that the racially motivated killing in Jasper, Texas, evoked in him an unexpected feeling: compassion for the three white murder suspects, all recent parolees, and two of whom are alleged to have forged ties with white- supremacist gangs while behind bars.

"In prison it's easy to fall into such groups," says Mr. Novak, a self-described "pretty liberal guy" who nevertheless has come to some hard realizations about his own prejudices since his days as an inmate. "A lot of people come out of prison as bigots."

In the reexamination of race relations that followed Mr. Byrd's lynch-style killing June 6, part of the attention has fallen on the nation's correctional system. Citing the suspects' ties to prison hate groups, some civil rights organizations are calling for renewed scrutiny of the segregation policies of many state and federal prisons, charging that they inadvertently foment hatred and serve as recruiting grounds for supremacist groups.

"It's a Petri dish for the growth of extremism," says Gail Gans of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, which is urging the Justice Department to conduct a formal study of prison hate groups.

The department's only study of the issue dates to 1985. It identified 12,634 inmates within the state and federal systems as members of some sort of prison gang, "usually connected with racial superiority beliefs" - about 3 percent of the total population.

These days, Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne estimates, gang membership is between 5 and 10 percent of the population, or from 59,000 to 118,000 inmates.

Moreover, some race-hate groups have even obtained a measure of legitimacy within the system. By claiming religious ties to movements such as the Nation of Islam and the white-supremacist Christian Identity faith, some hate groups have won the right to proselytize their beliefs on First Amendment grounds.

"It's a growing phenomenon and a real concern for us," Ms. Gans says. "These people don't just shed their beliefs when they get out."

Links to prison hate gangs

Some of the most notorious hate crimes of the past 20 years have been linked to prison groups, she says. Most notable is the case of Donald Riley, a member of the white-supremacist Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, who was convicted in 1994 of the murder of a black marine in Houston. Gary Yarbrough, who in the late 1970s was a leader of a violent supremacist group called The Order, is also believed to have formed his racist ideology with the Ku Klux Klan in an Arizona prison, Ms. Gans says.

"Race is the fundamental dynamic of prison life," says Anthea Boarman, director of the International Association of Human Rights Agencies. Nationally, the 1.2 million prison population is 40.3 percent black, 29 percent white, and 27.4 percent Hispanic.

Prison officials, for their part, acknowledge that cell blocks are often segregated by race. Putting members of rival gangs together not only endangers the prisoners, but also the lives of the guards and the very security of the institution, they say.

"If putting two people together is going to result in a volatile situation, obviously {segregation} is an option you have to look at," says Jim Turpin, legislative liaison with the American Correctional Association in Lanham, Md. …

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