Penitentiary Politics: An Overview

This represents the second in a series of periodic posts in which I explain some facet of the prison system which may be helpful in understanding my stories and, as a result, the penal system as a whole. Feel free to post questions in the comments section.

I sneaked out of my cell after the 430 count and made my way to the San Quentin chow hall, acting like I knew what I was doing and that I was supposed to be doing it. It was my first day in prison and a White boy from San Jose had told me to do it.  So, I did.

Near the scullery beside the kitchen, I saw the other White boys (also called “Woods”) and headed in their direction. I met Rick, the shotcaller for the Woods from Santa Clara County. He asked if I knew the rules.  I didn’t know the rules. I was twenty years old and I was a fish out of water.

“Yeah,” I told him. “I know the rules. But why don’t you refresh me anyhow.”

“Its like this,” he said and paused. “Three rules.  Follow these, and you’re straight. Number one, don’t fuck with no n—–s. That means you don’t drink with them, smoke with them, eat after them, play games with them, hang out in their area on the yard, nothing.”

I swallowed.

“Rule number two, don’t fuck with no faggots. No Woods from Santa Clara County are gonna get their dicks sucked by no punks.”


“And rule three, don’t gamble more than you’ve got. Simple. You got it?”

“Yeah, I got it.” And then I was initiated. The guys sort of circled around me and made like they were gonna beat me up, but they didn’t. They threw some punches that didn’t hurt and embraced me in one way or the other. I then went around the circle and introduced myself to the guys who would have my back in that very scary place that had, suddenly, become my home.

I don’t imagine my story is particularly unique so far as prison initiations go. Sure, different races had different rules and I’m sure they were explained in a different manner and setting for everyone, but, at some point, every new convict had to get the run down. And it had to happen quick.

Every racial group within the California prison system has their own internal structure. I can only speak, personally, about the ways that the Woods organize themselves, though other racial groups must have similar, overlapping structures for the system to work. As a general rule of thumb, there were six major groups to speak of within the prison system: the Woods, the Nortenos, the Surenos, the Paisas, the Blacks, and the Others. Within each of these groups, there were subcategories which we can ignore for now because they tend to complicate things a bit.

As mentioned above, the Woods, short for peckerwoods, are the White boys. All Whites who come to prison are, in a general way, part of the Woods.  Skinheads and other White gang members may consider themselves separate and have their own political structure, but they still, for the most part, operate within the greater vehicle of the Woods. They have the same basic rules that they follow.

The Surenos are the gang-affiliated Hispanic population that tends to hail from Southern California.  The Nortenos represent the opposite side of the coin and tend to come from Central and Northern California. The Surenos and Nortenos are mortal enemies, and it is rare that one finds them sharing the same prison yard. They often have an “on sight policy”, meaning that their members are expected to beat up or take out any member of the rival gang the moment they ever find themselves in the other’s presence.

The Paisas are the non-gang-affiliated Hispanic population and they tend to be first and second generation, Spanish-speaking Mexicans.

The Blacks are about as self-explanatory as are the Woods. Rival gangs, such as Bloods and Crips, tend to have a peace agreement while in prison, though internal problems occasionally arise.

The Others racial group includes almost everyone else.  Asians, Pacific Islanders, Indians (from India), and other minority groups tend to band together, even while maintaining their individual group’s political structure (if they have the numbers for it).

What is important to know is the way that these racial groups ally themselves. Woods and Surenos are allies; Blacks, Nortenos, and Others are allies. On the prison yards where I lived, the Paisas tended to be allied with the Surenos.  When I was in the county jail, there was a severely strained relationship between Nortenos and Paisas because the Nortenos always seemed to suspect that there were Surenos “hiding out” within the Paisa population.

When groups are allies, they will not house together or share the same space on the yard, but they will play games, share food, and call on each other for backup if there are more serious issues.  Thus, as a Wood, I could be friendly and eat food with Surenos, but not with Nortenos, Blacks, or Others.  The consequences for transgressions of the rules are fairly severe, especially on the higher security level yards. A severe assault or death are the potential consequences of not following the rules.

The primary unit I was a part of was my “car”. A car contains all the Woods from my particular area of residence, so, in my case, Santa Clara County. Sometimes, cars get combined because a neighboring county may have a very small inmate population; at many of the prisons I went to, men from Santa Cruz County ran with the Santa Clara County car.  Everyone within my car was considered a “homeboy” (I’m sure many of you out there have wondered about the origin of this word).

The leader of any particular car is called a shotcaller, but is usually referred to as “holding the keys (to the car)”. So, when I was in San Quentin, Rick held the keys for the Santa Clara County car.  Obviously, when a convict goes to a new prison or a current shotcaller is transferred away, the keyholder changes.

The responsibility of the keyholder lies primarily in ensuring that the members of the car stay in line. The first line of business for the shotcaller is to ensure that his car’s membership contains no snitches or sex offenders (which is verified by checking a new fish’s court paperwork). If a member of a car violates one rule or another, it is the shotcaller’s responsibility to put that member in check, which sometimes involves using the full force of the other members of the car. Yes, this means that people will often get beat up by their homeboys.

Because a keyholder is responsible for his members, it is also his responsibility to confer with the shotcallers from other cars when an issue arises between two members of different cars. This hierarchy aims to prevent people from taking matters into their own hands, thus trying to avoid serious problems on the yard.

There is also a shotcaller or keyholder for all the Woods on the yard. He would be the one to make larger decisions involving the Whites as a whole and would also be responsible for negotiating with the leaders of different racial groups when tension arises.

The yard, itself, is divided into areas that are restricted to the members of a specific racial group. There are White, Sureno, and Black pull-up bars, handball courts, basketball courts, and card tables. In dormitory living, there are White, Sureno, and Black televisions (if there are multiple t.v.’s) or a  rotating schedule of White days, Blacks days, or Sureno days (when there is only one t.v.).  You may have noticed that I failed to mention Nortenos, Others, or Paisas. The Paisas usually share space and televisions with the Surenos and the Others share space and televisions with the Blacks. I never lived on a Norteno yard in prison, but I imagine the set-up would be similar.

Folsom State Prison has one of the smallest yards in the prison system and, as such, there was a lot of sharing going on.  For example, there was only one basketball court, so the Blacks and Others had half the court and the Whites and Surenos had the other. There was a bit of comedy in this. Whenever a ball would bounce onto the other side of the court, it couldn’t be followed; instead, one had to wait for someone from the other side to grab the ball and toss it back. Walking through the territory of another race is a not allowed. It is the equivalent of invading a foreign nation. Even Woods can’t enter the Sureno area without permission, and vice versa; a Wood would never, ever enter a Black or Other area.

This all sounds very orderly, I know.  The rules are fairly clear. Even the different territories on the yard are pretty easy to recognize. In some cases, white lines are painted on the ground between racial areas to designate the boundaries. But that doesn’t stop problems from arising.  There are always grey areas. There are always people who toe the line. And there are always people who cross the line.  What happens then?

There was a riot between the Blacks and Whites in Folsom during the fall of 2008. It started because a Skinhead took exception to the presence on the yard of a White Crip; in other words, he saw this guy as a race traitor.  The Skinhead confronted the Crip near the basketball court, challenging him to a one-on-one, and then every Wood and every Black on the yard ended up involved in the skirmish.  Let’s unpack this a bit.

At Folsom, there was a tenuous agreement between the Blacks and Woods regarding White Crips. If a White boy showed up at the prison who was running with the Blacks, the Woods had one week to take the guy out without causing a racial riot.  Of course, there were no guarantees, this was prison after all, but that was the gist of it.  The sooner someone is removed from the yard the less chance he has of making friends. Somehow, this White Crip survived that first week and had been living at Folsom for well over a month. The Skinhead who confronted him didn’t care. He had decided he was going to do something about it and challenged the White Crip to a one-on-one fist fight.

There are a lot of things wrong with this, but we will just focus on the practical aspects of it. There is no such thing as a one-on-one with a member of another race. It just can’t happen.  In some cases, it is strictly prohibited from occurring, but in almost all cases there is just no feasible way for a one-on-one to remain a one-on-one.  This has to do with the rules of war.

As a Wood, I was expected to protect any other Wood who was being assaulted or harassed by a member of a different race. If a fight started and it happened to involve a Wood and another race (even an ally), I had no option but to jump (See: “Shots On The Yard”). I absolutely had to get involved or I would face the wrath of my homeboys later. Every racial group in prison has a similar rule of engagement. Jump first, think later.

So, when the Skinhead challenged the White Crip to a fight on the yard, maybe he was hoping that other Woods and Blacks on the yard would think it was just White on White and nobody would jump. But that’s not what happened. The Crip had been on the yard long enough and his homeboys recognized him immediately once the tussle began. Blacks ran to the fight and started hitting Woods.  Woods saw Woods fighting Blacks and more Woods came swarming in. In very short order, the entire area surrounding the basketball court was involved in a full line brawl.

The riot came to an end within a few minutes once guards started firing block guns and smoke grenades, using pepper spray and billy clubs.  Many dozens more guards showed up, having been called over from the other prison across the street, and hundreds of men were led off the yard to the hole. The lockdown lasted more than a month, during which time Blacks and Whites were restricted to their cells and prevented from having contact with each other.

During a lockdown, there is always the fear that the fighting will resume once the lockdown is over. Resentments run deep in the penitentiary. The Department of Corrections has a way of trying to ease people back into the swing of normal, racially-integrated programming. First, they will allow members of one of the offending racial groups (often a shot-caller, or someone who represents him) to leave their cell and approach the cells of the rival shot-callers. Discussions and negotiations happen. Perhaps some promises are made.

You may be asking yourself: wait, does the Department of Corrections actually sanction the racial political structure and use known shot-callers to manage racial tension on the yard?  Yes and no. Its complicated. There is something called the Mens’ Advisory Council (MAC), which is the penitentiary’s equivalent of an elementary school student council. Each racial group elects their own MAC representatives who serve as the liaison between the California Department of Corrections administrators and the inmate population. In their official capacity, MAC reps voice grievances and propose changes to certain aspects of the prison’s functioning (such as what flavors of Top Ramen are available at the canteen). MAC reps are also the ones that the CDC often calls upon during lockdowns to negotiate with the other MAC reps.  The thing is, racial groups usually elect a keyholder, or somebody who has the capacity to represent a keyholder, as their MAC rep.  Thus, the CDC unofficially uses shot-callers to mitigate racial issues by officially utilizing the MAC reps.

So, after the shot callers qua MAC reps have made their rounds of negotiations, all the Whites and only the Whites are allowed to go the yard. This facilitates the dissemination of information from the top of the political hierarchy to all the Woods, letting them know whether the beef has been squashed. Even if there has been an agreement to end hostilities, everyone is advised to remain on guard and that there will be mandatory yard for all Woods on the first day of normal program, because anything can happen.

The next day of lockdown, all the Blacks are allowed on the yard by themselves, repeating the process. These alternating all-White and all-Black days on the yard usually signal the coming end of a lockdown.

When the lockdown ended at Folsom in October of 2008, nothing ended up happening. The fighting did not recommence, though the tension was palpable for most of that first week. Eventually, normal race relations resumed and everyone went about their segregated business until the next racial incident. And there’s always a next racial incident.

5 thoughts on “Penitentiary Politics: An Overview

  1. Thank you for writing eloquently about these realities. Would be interested to hear more of your opinion too, on what if anything could be done to fix the system. Also I’m curious what percentage of the population actually comes in with racial animosity or if that is sort of forced on most people

  2. Listened to your Sword and Scale podcast then ended up here. A friend of mine did 15 years in Federal and ended up a shot caller for the white boys a few years before he was released. Everything you described he has told me about in one story or another. I enjoyed your writing style enough that even though this isn’t new information for me it was still worth the read. He too has found his way to a “good life”. It makes me happy to know that others find there way to a “good life” also.

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