Posted: July 2, 2002
Overview and Report Summary
Americans are not immune to the lure of violent ideologies. They join homegrown terrorist groups or sometimes enlist in distant movements - as with Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. More recently, Floridian Jose Padilla was arrested for allegedly plotting a "dirty bomb" attack in the U.S. for Al Qaeda.
According to news reports, Padilla became interested in Islam during or shortly after a Florida prison stay in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade he was in the Middle East meeting with senior Al Qaeda officials. Whether he converted to an extreme version of Islam while a prisoner or whether his prison time merely made him more receptive, it is likely that his imprisonment influenced his eventual conversion.
Though few American prisoners end up in Afghanistan, America's prisons are filled with potential extremist recruits. Angry, alienated, and often with little to lose, prisoners often prove receptive to extreme belief systems of all stripes.
For extremist groups, inmates represent a valuable source of potential; people who can carry on the struggle in prison and after their release. While right-wing groups tend to dominate prisoner recruiting, left-wing groups provide support to imprisoned members. Fringe groups and movements from all over the political spectrum including Muslim, anti-government, Christian Identity, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, skinhead, animal rights, anti-globalization, environmental and anarchist ideologies, among others, attempt to exert an influence within prison walls.
New recruits adopt their gang's violent, hateful rhetoric and animosity toward other races or religions and, in turn, gain access to new avenues of criminal activity. While many prisoners discontinue their association with extremist groups once they are released, many retain their fanatical position and commit new crimes based on their newly found extremist beliefs.
Ideologically motivated prisoners and followers in the free world transcend prison walls and communicate through newsletters, pen pals and extremist literature. Far more active and less isolated than one might imagine, they pose a dangerous threat to our nation and the world.
Extremist Recruitment in America's Prisons
Racist Rhetoric Masks Drive for Power and Profit
Gangs, long a part of prison life, typically unite and recruit along racial lines. Though the gangs (white, black or Hispanic) use racist rhetoric as a unifier, it is often the desire for power, profit and control that drives them to action.
Remaining Active Behind Bars -- The Order: A Case Study of Imprisoned Extremists
The nation's most notorious white supremacist terror cell provides one of the best examples of how extremists remain active behind bars. The Order was a 1980s group whose members robbed banks, counterfeited and committed murder in an attempt to launch a white revolution. Imprisonment has not inhibited members from continuing their mission: several have become prolific writers, contributing to a variety of extremist publications or even starting their own.
White Gangs Try to Create Illusion of the Aryan Ideal
White supremacist prison gangs want to give the illusion that they are the embodiment of the Aryan ideal, and, as such, may attempt to prohibit behavior that they believe to be characteristic of blacks, Jews or other minorities.
Aryan Brotherhood: Racist Gang as Organized Crime Syndicate
Aryan Brotherhood, one of the most notorious racist prison gangs evolved, over time, into a criminal syndicate responsible for violent attacks, drug trafficking and other illegal ventures.
How Prison Gangs Get Around Restrictions
In response to the efforts of authorities to clamp down on their criminal activities, established gangs recruit newer gangs to continue their operations. In California, as the Aryan Brotherhood faced growing restrictions, it built an alliance with the Nazi Low Riders. NLR has subsequently become associated with other smaller gangs.
Impact of Prison Affiliations on Released Prisoners
Many members of racist gangs, particularly those who joined merely for protection or profit, discontinue their association when released from prison. However, sometimes members remain ideologically committed, and both individuals and entire gangs have moved to the streets.
Extremists On The Inside
Because their beliefs often lead them to break the law, ideological extremists routinely enter the prison system.
Extremist prisoners continue their outside activities
Extremist prisoners tend to continue their activities in one of three ways. First, they may attempt to rally support for themselves. Secondly, they may attempt to recruit other prisoners to the cause. Thirdly, they may attempt to provide support or guidance to their associates in the "free world" - the world outside of prison.
Extremist Recruitment Of Inmates
For extremists groups, inmates represent a valuable source of potential recruits, people who can carry on the struggle while in prison and after their release. As a result, fringe groups and movements from all over the political spectrum attempt to exert an influence with in the prison walls.
Newsletters and other forms of written correspondence keep inmates informed of day-to-day events and provide a missing connection to the world outside.
One of the first white supremacists systematically to reach out to inmates was Richard Butler, founder of Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi and Christian Identity group. Aryan Nations established its "prison ministry" in the late 1970's, setting an example that many other Identity adherents would follow.
White supremacists in prison frequently claim adherence to various religious sects not just as an expression of racist beliefs but also as a way to circumvent prison regulations. Asatru, a Nordic religion widely practiced by non-racists, is becoming widely shared among white racists and is used as a venue for organizing.
In addition to Identity and Asatru groups, the World Church of the Creator is particularly active in prisons.
Support For "P.O.W.S"
Many extremist groups not only recruit prisoners but also provide support to members or adherent who are already in prison.
While right-wing extremists dominate prisoner recruiting, left-wing groups provide more extensive support to imprisoned members.
Because there are no overarching organizations dedicated to it, prisoner support from the extreme right tends to come mainly from individual groups and individuals. The skinhead group Hammerskin Nation provides a good example.