Cauldron of Hate

The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas: “Brutal, Deadly and Effective”

As the gang grew from a racist protection scheme into a big business, its reach spread beyond prison walls. Seth Ferranti reports.

In what increasingly appears to be an all-out fight between white-supremacist prison gangs and law enforcement, the feds are taking their incarcerated rivals very seriously. In a remarkable move, following the murders of two local prosecutors in Texas, a federal prosecutor reportedly withdrew Wednesday from a huge case there against the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, or ABT, for “security reasons.”

Seth Ferranti, who’s serving a 25-year sentence for drug trafficking and writes regularly about prisons and prisoners at Gorilla Convict, spoke to two Texas inmates with firsthand experience with the ABT:

The Aryan Brotherhood was formed in the cauldron of hate that raged at San Quentin prison in California during the volatile 1960s. Since its inception, membership has spread nationally as the group evolved from a racist brotherhood that protected white inmates into a big-time moneymaking operation and as splinter groups emerged in states including Texas, Florida, Montana, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.

The most notorious of these offshoots is the ABT, established in the early 1980s within the Texas penal system and modeled on the precepts and strict hierarchy of the originators, known in the California state and federal prison systems as “the Brand.” The Brand itself was largely undone by a massive 2006 federal racketeering indictment, and the ABT took a similar hit last November, when federal prosecutors unveiled a 43-page, 17-count indictment charging 34 members (15 of them already imprisoned) of the violent, whites-only, prison-based gang with everything from racketeering to murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, and distributing meth and cocaine.

When that indictment was handed down, the Houston Chronicle reported that the ABT has about 2,600 members in Texas prisons and another 180 in federal prisons, far surpassing their predecessors in size and stature.

“Brutal beatings, fire bombings, drug trafficking, and murder are all part of ABT’s alleged standard operating procedures,” an assistant U.S. attorney said when the charges were announced. “ABT used violence and threats of violence to maintain internal discipline and retaliate against those believed to be cooperating with law enforcement.”

“The ABT doesn’t play. They have chapters in every Texas prison and all across the feds. They are known to be brutal, deadly and effective,” said one current prisoner in the Texas system with knowledge of the group.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the ABT is known to have carried out about 100 killings and 10 kidnappings since it was founded in the 1980s. Leaders of the gang have instructed members to kill other members who have cooperated with law enforcement—and to bring back a finger to prove it.

“You don’t snitch on the ABT,” the prisoner says. “Retaliation is immediate. They don’t like anything to interfere with their business interests, which includes running meth labs outside prison walls” to sell on the inside, where limited supply means much higher prices.

The gang adheres to a very strict code of silence, reflected in the common expression “Blood in, blood out”—meaning to get in, a prospective member must kill or try to kill a black or Mexican inmate. And the only way out, they say, is to die.

“When you first hit the pound, the officers let it be known: you either have to fight, pay, or be someone’s bitch to survive. The cops tell you this in orientation,” says a second prisoner in Texas, speaking from firsthand experience. “The guards purposefully put white dudes in a cell with a black to see how he reacts. The whites won’t even talk to you when you first come in. It’s a heart check. The ABT are in with the cops. If you stand your ground, the woods will approach you. The woods are the white dudes that ride under the ABT, which is known as the family. You are either affiliated or a family member. No family members will approach you. The ABT will have the cops put you in dangerous situations to see how you react. If you fight, you’re good. They will bring you in, try to recruit you. If you don’t fight, they will throw you to the wolves. They have no problem letting white dudes get turned into punks. It’s a situation where only the strong survive.”

Once a white prisoner passes his “heart check,” he is accepted by the ABT and is a potential recruit. “If you fail, you are hit. It’s open season on you,” the prisoner says. “They do it like this because the whites are so few in numbers that the family wants to make sure there are no weak links. They want to make sure the white dudes got it in them to go at anytime. Because of this process that the prison system allows, the family is able to get the toughest, meanest, and most vicious white boys to join.” Once a prisoner’s mettle is proved and he is battle tested, he is sent back out to the world when his time is up with a new mindset that is heavy on the ABT’s politics and agenda.

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That screening means that ABT members are the cream of the crop of white convicts. In prison terms, they are the elite, and members become completely immersed in being career prison gangsters—leaving little time or inclination for any proclivities that don’t involve solidifying the gang’s power structure. In Texas prisons, the gang recruits like a college fraternity, searching out short-term prisoners whom they can influence and send on missions to further the gang’s agenda when they return to the streets.

“It’s all about manipulation, power, and control for these guys,” says the first prisoner of the gang’s leadership. “They prey on the weak minds of younger guys, looking for candidates to send out into the world as crash-test dummies to enforce their will and carry out their orders.”

These prospects have extended the gang’s reach and its drug business—making the ABT no longer just a corrections problem, but also a community problem. The power, prestige, influence, and protection the gang offers inside now extends to the outside world, as even in isolation cells ABT leaders manage to send out kites, greenlighting beat-downs and killings on whoever they want.

In December the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a statewide bulletin warning officials that the ABT was planning retaliation against law-enforcement personnel, hoping to inflict “mass casualties” on those who had helped secure the federal indictments. It is entirely possible that such orders were sent out from the Texas department of corrections’ most secure lockdown units. This is the culture bred into convicts. Texas prisons have long held the reputation as being the most brutal, racial, and divisive institutions in the nation and have become a vicious breeding ground for ABT gangsters who smash on-site enemy gang members and have no problem attacking guards or issuing death threats. The kill-or-be-killed, us-against-them mentality means shot callers doing life have no reservations about passing orders to the outside to handle their personal vendettas, even if that vendetta is against law enforcement. And with its leaders facing the death penalty due to the federal indictment, who knows what they are capable of?

“They could have sent the orders out,” the prisoner says. “I don’t know for sure though. That would be a brash move, but the means to pass kites out is in place ... They’re down for their cause, and they got nothing but time to perfect their plans and methods of implementing them. And they don’t like nobody disrespecting them.”

The ABT has a saying on the inside, “If you ever disrespect the AB, we will make sure you leave in a body bag.” And in prison parlance the feds disrespected the ABT’s leadership with the federal indictment.

“To them it was a slap in the face, a slight to their honor. And in prison, if you bitch-slap another man, be prepared for the consequences,” the prisoner says. “That is the mentality. Not to say they would do something to draw attention to themselves like this, but revenge is a strong motivating factor.

“It would be an extreme move on their part to order the killings of those prosecutors,” the prisoner says. “A dumb move really, but those dudes are crazy, I can attest to that. I was locked up with them, and the shot callers have been locked up in the hole for 20 years, so who knows where their minds are at?”

With the March 19 murder of Colorado prison chief Tom Clements by another ex-con with white-supremacist ties, the authorities have started a probe to investigate whether white-supremacist groups are marking public officials for death. It wouldn’t be the first time a campaign of terror had been conducted within our borders by a subversive group bent on the destruction of law and order.