Prison Gangs In California: A Comprehensive Look

With over 130,000 inmates, California prisons are home to some of the most notorious prison gangs in the United States. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: California has a serious and entrenched prison gang problem, with major gangs like Nuestra Familia, Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and Nazi Low Riders involved in criminal activities both inside and outside prisons. In this in-depth article, we will explore the history, operations, and impact of major prison gangs that originate in California state prisons.

This article will provide a comprehensive overview of the most significant prison gangs that operate in the California state prison system. We will look at the origins and evolution of these gangs, their organizational structure and operations, the crimes and illicit activities they engage in, their impact on prisons and communities, as well as law enforcement efforts to disrupt these criminal organizations.

The Roots and Early History of California Prison Gangs

The Mexican Mafia forms at Deuel Vocational Institution in 1957

The emergence of prison gangs in California can be traced back to the late 1950s when the Mexican Mafia, also known as “La Eme,” was formed at the Deuel Vocational Institution. Originally, the Mexican Mafia started as a protection group for Mexican-American inmates, but it quickly evolved into a powerful criminal organization with a significant influence both inside and outside of prison walls.

The Mexican Mafia is known for its involvement in drug trafficking, extortion, and violent activities. Its influence has spread far beyond California, making it one of the most notorious prison gangs in the United States.

Nuestra Familia emerges in opposition to Mexican Mafia in 1968

In response to the growing power and influence of the Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, also known as “NF,” emerged in 1968. Nuestra Familia was formed by Northern California Hispanic inmates who were seeking protection and autonomy from the Mexican Mafia.

The rivalry between the two groups has resulted in decades of violence and bloodshed both inside and outside of prison. Nuestra Familia has established a strong presence in Northern California and has been involved in various criminal activities, including drug trafficking and organized crime.

Aryan Brotherhood forms at San Quentin Prison in 1964

The Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, was formed at the San Quentin Prison in 1964. The group’s primary objective was to protect white inmates and promote white supremacy ideology within the prison system.

The Aryan Brotherhood has been involved in numerous violent crimes, including murder, assault, and drug trafficking. Over the years, the Aryan Brotherhood has expanded its influence to other correctional facilities across California and the United States, making it one of the most dangerous prison gangs in the country.

Nazi Low Riders emerge in the California Youth Authority system in the 1970s

The Nazi Low Riders (NLR) is a prison gang that originated in the California Youth Authority system in the 1970s. The group was formed by white inmates who aligned themselves with Nazi ideology and sought to establish a white supremacist presence within the prison system.

The Nazi Low Riders have been involved in various criminal activities, including drug trafficking, hate crimes, and organized violence. Although their numbers may be smaller compared to other prison gangs, the Nazi Low Riders are known for their extreme violence and racial hatred.

How California’s Prison Gangs Operate and Organize

Prison gangs in California are highly organized and have established intricate structures to maintain control both inside and outside correctional facilities. These gangs, such as the Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, Aryan Brotherhood, and Nazi Low Riders, have developed unique systems to govern their operations and maintain their influence.

Mexican Mafia’s paramilitary structure

The Mexican Mafia, also known as “La Eme,” operates with a paramilitary-like structure that parallels that of a traditional criminal organization. The gang is led by a powerful top-tier group called the “La Eme’s Board of Directors,” which consists of high-ranking members who make crucial decisions and oversee the gang’s activities.

Below them, there are regional leaders known as “Carnales” who supervise operations in specific areas. The Mexican Mafia’s structure allows them to control drug trafficking, extortion, and other criminal activities both inside and outside of prison walls.

Nuestra Familia’s regimented hierarchy

Nuestra Familia, a rival gang to the Mexican Mafia, operates with a highly regimented hierarchy. The gang is divided into Norteños, who are primarily active in Northern California, and Sureños, who operate in Southern California.

At the top of the hierarchy is the “Nuestra Raza” or “Our Race,” which consists of high-ranking members responsible for making major decisions and setting the gang’s agenda. Below them, there are captains, lieutenants, and soldiers who enforce the gang’s rules and carry out its criminal activities.

This hierarchical structure allows Nuestra Familia to maintain a tight grip on its members and territories.

Aryan Brotherhood’s California leadership commission

The Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, is known for its California leadership commission, which is responsible for overseeing the gang’s activities within the state. The commission is comprised of high-ranking members who hold significant influence over the gang’s operations.

They make decisions related to drug trafficking, violence, and other criminal enterprises. The Aryan Brotherhood’s structure allows it to maintain a strong presence in California prisons and extend its reach beyond correctional facilities.

Nazi Low Riders’ structure rooted in white supremacist ideology

The Nazi Low Riders, a gang affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood, operates with a structure deeply rooted in white supremacist ideology. The gang’s hierarchy consists of a “Council of Elders” made up of high-ranking members who dictate the gang’s rules and regulations.

Below them, there are “Soldiers,” who carry out the gang’s activities within prisons and on the streets. The Nazi Low Riders’ structure not only reinforces their white supremacist beliefs but also helps them maintain control and influence among their members.

Understanding how California’s prison gangs operate and organize is crucial for law enforcement agencies, correctional facilities, and society as a whole. By studying their structures and strategies, authorities can develop effective measures to disrupt their activities and ensure the safety of both inmates and the public.

Crimes, Violence, and Illicit Operations of Prison Gangs

Extortion and drug trafficking within California prisons

Prison gangs in California are notorious for their involvement in illegal activities, particularly extortion and drug trafficking within the prison walls. These gangs utilize their power and influence to control the inmate population and exploit vulnerable individuals.

Extortion involves demanding money or other valuables from inmates in exchange for protection or favors. Drug trafficking, on the other hand, involves the smuggling and distribution of drugs within the prison system.

It is estimated that these illicit activities generate significant profits for prison gangs, further fueling their power and influence.

Directing criminal activities on the streets from within prison

Prison gangs not only engage in criminal activities within the confines of the prison but also extend their operations beyond the prison walls. Through intricate communication networks, they are able to direct criminal activities on the streets from within prison.

This includes orchestrating drug deals, ordering hits on rival gang members, and even coordinating large-scale criminal operations. The ability of prison gangs to maintain their criminal enterprises from behind bars poses a significant challenge to law enforcement authorities.

Inter-gang violence, assaults, and murders

Inter-gang violence is a grim reality within California prisons. Rival prison gangs engage in frequent clashes, leading to assaults and even murders. These violent conflicts are often fueled by territorial disputes, power struggles, and revenge.

Inmates who refuse to align themselves with any gang or who attempt to leave a gang are particularly vulnerable to targeted violence. The high levels of inter-gang violence create an atmosphere of fear and tension within the prison system.

Smuggling contraband like drugs, weapons into prisons

Prison gangs have mastered the art of smuggling contraband, including drugs and weapons, into prisons. This poses a significant threat to the safety and security of both inmates and prison staff. The smuggling of drugs not only fuels addiction and further criminal behavior but also leads to an increase in violence within the prison.

Similarly, the presence of weapons within the prison system puts the lives of both inmates and staff at risk. Efforts to combat the smuggling of contraband into prisons require constant vigilance and innovative strategies.

Using intimidation and violence to control other inmates

One of the primary ways in which prison gangs maintain their control is through intimidation and violence. They use fear tactics to assert dominance over other inmates, ensuring their loyalty and obedience. This can involve physical assaults, threats, and even murder.

The pervasive presence of prison gangs and their ability to instill fear among the inmate population creates a hostile and dangerous environment within California prisons.

The Far-Reaching Influence of California Prison Gangs

California prison gangs have a significant impact not only within the correctional facilities but also on the communities statewide. Their influence extends far beyond the prison walls, creating a web of criminal activity that poses a daily threat to both inmates and the general public.

Daily threat of violence creates dangerous prison conditions

Prison gangs in California are notorious for their involvement in violence and intimidation tactics. Inmates who refuse to join a gang or comply with their demands often face severe consequences, including physical assault or even death.

This constant threat of violence creates a hostile and dangerous environment within the prisons, making rehabilitation and reintegration efforts more challenging.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has implemented various measures to combat gang-related violence, such as increased security measures and intelligence gathering. However, the presence of prison gangs continues to pose a significant risk to the safety and well-being of both inmates and correctional staff.

Gang operations and networks extend into communities statewide

Prison gangs in California do not limit their activities to behind bars. These gangs have established extensive networks that reach into communities across the state. They engage in various criminal enterprises, including drug trafficking, extortion, and even murder.

The influence of prison gangs can be seen in the high rates of gang-related crime in neighborhoods surrounding correctional facilities. Communities near prisons often experience an increase in drug-related offenses, gang violence, and other criminal activities.

The impact of these gangs on local communities is far-reaching and contributes to the overall instability and insecurity of the region.

Criminal enterprises funded by prison gang activity

Prison gangs in California generate substantial profits through their involvement in illegal activities. These funds are used to finance their criminal enterprises, which often extend beyond the prison walls.

Drug trafficking, money laundering, and identity theft are just a few examples of the illicit activities that prison gangs engage in to sustain their operations.

The substantial financial resources at their disposal allow prison gangs to exert influence and control over various aspects of criminal activity both inside and outside of prison. Their ability to fund criminal enterprises contributes to the perpetuation of violence and further entrenches their power within the criminal underworld.

Public resources drained by ongoing law enforcement efforts

The fight against prison gangs in California requires substantial resources from law enforcement agencies. These efforts involve intelligence gathering, surveillance, and targeted operations to dismantle gang networks.

However, the ongoing battle against prison gangs places a strain on public resources.

Considerable funds are allocated to combating prison gang activity, diverting resources that could be spent on other vital areas such as education, healthcare, or infrastructure. The financial burden of managing and suppressing prison gangs has a direct impact on taxpayers and the overall well-being of the community.

Actions Taken to Combat California Prison Gangs

California has been grappling with the issue of prison gangs for decades. These violent and highly organized groups pose a significant threat to the safety and security of correctional institutions, as well as the communities outside.

To address this pressing concern, various actions have been implemented to combat prison gangs and mitigate their influence within the state’s correctional facilities.

Segregating leaders and members to disrupt communication

One crucial strategy employed by correctional authorities is the segregation of gang leaders and members. By separating these individuals from the general prison population, communication channels are disrupted, making it more challenging for gangs to coordinate criminal activities or recruit new members.

This approach helps to weaken the overall influence and power of prison gangs.

Joint federal-state investigations and takedowns

Another effective measure in the fight against California prison gangs is the collaboration between federal and state law enforcement agencies. These joint investigations aim to gather intelligence, gather evidence, and dismantle gang operations.

By pooling resources and expertise, authorities can identify key players, disrupt gang networks, and bring gang members to justice. The success of these operations has led to significant reductions in gang-related violence both inside and outside of prison walls.

Harsher penalties and sentencing laws for gang-related crimes

Recognizing the need for stricter consequences, California has implemented harsher penalties and sentencing laws for gang-related crimes. These measures aim to deter individuals from engaging in gang activities by ensuring that the consequences for such actions are severe.

By imposing longer prison terms and stiffer sentences, the hope is that potential gang members will think twice before joining or participating in gang-related activities.

Rehabilitation and education programs to deter gang recruitment

While law enforcement efforts are crucial in combating prison gangs, prevention is equally important. California has implemented rehabilitation and education programs within correctional facilities to provide inmates with alternatives to gang life.

These programs focus on job training, educational opportunities, and counseling services, enabling individuals to break free from the cycle of gang involvement. By offering inmates a chance at a better future, these programs aim to deter gang recruitment and reduce recidivism rates.


California’s prison gangs are complex criminal networks that pose an ongoing public safety threat within prisons and in communities across the state. After decades of entrenchment, these gangs are extremely difficult to eradicate. However, through continued law enforcement crackdowns, sentencing enhancements, inmate rehabilitation programs, and vigilant monitoring of gang activity, California hopes to weaken and contain the influence of prison gangs in prisons and beyond prison walls.

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