Two young men recently asked me, “What gang are you in?”
I am an “old-timer.” The fact that I have survived over 36 years in Florida’s worst prisons without compromising my principles is a matter of awe to other prisoners, most of whom weren’t even born when I began serving this wrongful LIFE sentence.
I’ve learned a lot about gangs without even trying.
California prison gangs developed decades ahead of Florida, but in the past twenty years Florida has been catching up. The police claim over 150 prison gangs operates in Hillsborough County (Tampa) alone.
The largest and most well-known prison gangs in Florida are Latin Kings, Folk Nation, Gangster Disciples, Crips, Bloods, MS 13, Mexican Mafia (“La Eme,” or “M. M.”), the Outlaws biker gang, and unnamed white supremacist groups mostly affiliated with larger gangs out west. These groups recruit members in prison, and police themselves, enforcing their own moral codes. Snitches, homosexuals, and thieves are not tolerated. Swift punishment can occur.
Today, prisoners join gangs for profit, protection and a sense of belonging.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE
MONEY SMUGGLING, STUPID
The major prison gangs in Florida are organized to facilitate profit-making illegal activities inside and outside of prison. Trafficking in drugs, tobacco, and cell phones is highly profitable. Smuggling contraband in quantity into prisons can only be accomplished with collusion by prison guards or other staff.
Cigarettes are sold in prison for $50 — $100 a pack, and many prison staffers have few qualms about sneaking in cartons of cigarettes. Gang members need cell phones to conduct their activities with accomplices outside. With cheap prepaid cell phones going for $300 — $500 each, low-paid staffers are easily tempted.
Once the prison employee has compromised himself/herself by handing off a pack of cigarettes to a prisoner, it is difficult to get off the hook. The staffer will be coerced to bring in drugs, or risk being exposed and arrested.
In August 2014, before I was transferred here, prison officials made a major bust of thirty-eight packs of cigarettes, seven cell phones and a half-pound of “K2,” the synthetic chemical marijuana that is causing hallucinatory chaos in prison.
How in the world could someone smuggle in such a trove of contraband, you ask? A snitch told them about a hiding place in the kitchen storeroom. The illegal items had been delivered to the outside prison warehouse, then secreted inside a fifty-pound bag of potatoes. When the tractor driver hauled in a cart carrying several tons of potatoes, the special bag slipped in with the food delivery. No telling how much contraband from the original delivery had already been sold before the bust.
Such activities could only be done by coordinating with a well-financed group outside the prison. Such a bust would be a temporary setback, the cost of doing business. You can be sure that within a week other gang members stepped up to replace those locked up for investigation, and another pipeline into the lucrative prison market was opened. Multiply that single example by hundreds or thousands of state and federal prisons nationwide, and the scope of the problem is revealed.
The money involved is mind boggling.
IS IT HOPELESS TODAY?
The situation can only get worse. Prison officials have limited options and few ideas. Prison gangs are becoming more organized and coordinated with outside members, even maintaining up-to-date membership lists on computers. So much money is involved, the temptations are so great, that stopping the ever-increasing criminal activities seems an impossible task.
Florida prisons have staff members trained to monitor and keep track of gang members and gang activities. They photograph tattoos that identify gang membership and interview the prisoners. Little can be done until some overt act occurs, such as four Mexican gang members attacking and stabbing two opposing gang members over nonpayment of a drug debt.
A prison lockdown and mass transfer of thirty or more gang members to several other prisons might alleviate the immediate gang violence, but by scattering so many gang members to other prisons, in effect, pollinating the other prisons with new blood and new leadership, the ultimate problems only increase over time.
IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: THE EARLY DAYS OF PRISON GANGS
Prison has changed greatly since I came into the system in 1978. There was little gang presence in Florida then, except for biker gangs, some white supremacists like the “A. B.’s,” Aryan Brotherhood, and some small black gang presence.
In some prisons with strong adversarial gang presences, prisoners would be forced to choose which group they would join, or risk violent “beat downs.” Some black prisoners would join the Nation of Islam, a Muslim religious group, rather than join a violent prison gang. The Muslims looked out for their own.
Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans would hang together in their individual groups, but they weren’t organized like today. Black prisoners separated themselves mostly by their hometowns — Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Tampa, St. Pete, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Pensacola. Fighting between themselves was more prevalent: Miami versus Jacksonville, Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) versus Orlando, and so on. Jamaicans and other “islanders” kept to themselves.
PRISONERS NEED MORE ALTERNATIVES
There are alternatives, but besides heavy-handed repression that creates even more ill will, the prison system is bankrupt for ideas.
And most prisoners are strapped for cash.
“If you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The Feds and many states pay pittances to prisoners for prison jobs, enabling them to earn enough dollars a week to buy canteen items such as shampoo, soap, deodorant, coffee and food. Florida has a law authorizing such payments, but the only prisoners who have paying jobs work in the limited PRIDE prison industries program or are canteen workers or shoeshine boys, being paid from canteen profits. Meanwhile, as they cut back the food budget to $1.54 per person per day, hungry prisoners watch gang members feast on purchased food and want in on the largess.
Although there is a state law still on the books that permits prisoners to make and sell arts and crafts as a means to earn money, most prisons have shut down hobby craft programs that provided a means for many prisoners to make and sell artwork, leathercraft, woodwork, and other handicrafts, relieving them of getting involved in illegal activities to earn spending money. In past years some prisoners helped support their families that way.
Perhaps state officials and politicians would better serve their constituents by re-evaluating their approaches to gang membership and violence, smuggling, and corruption, by plowing back some of the millions of dollars in profits that are kicked back for canteen sales and inmate telephone fees. The present system is broken, hobbling along, and serves no one’s best interest except those associated with gang activities.
Charles Norman has been serving LIFE in Florida since 1979 for 1st degree murder, a murder he maintains he didn’t commit.
Charles Norman #881834
Tomoka Correctional Institution
3950 Tiger Bay Road
Daytona Beach, FL 32124