Prison yards have produced white supremacists like Dylann Roof for decades. High-quality ink permeates these yards: swastikas on foreheads and knuckles, the word “skinhead” neatly scrolled across chests, “Thank God I’m White” etched on the back of sunburnt necks. From 2006 to 2009, I was incarcerated in the heart of this old, Jim Crow world — the medium- and high-security prison yards of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The yards are violent; killings took place at double the national average from 2001 to 2012. Part of the reason was that the CDCR facilities have been breeding grounds for racial division and hatred. As a white elder, an O.G. (“original gangster” in prison parlance), and a lifetime anti-racist, I had to find a way to live with the power of white supremacy, with youngsters like Dylann Roof who had found it their mission to perpetuate hate.
Ever since I first saw Dylann Roof’s picture after the Charleston massacre, in which he killed nine people in a church shooting, I have been imagining what would have happened if he had landed in a California prison. He would certainly find instant camaraderie with the Peckerwoods, the Skinheads, the Dirty White Boys, the Nazi Low Riders. His admirers, men with handles like Bullet, Beast, Pitbull, and Ghost, would vow to live up to Roof’s example, either by wreaking havoc when they hit the streets or maybe even the very next day in the yard.
Roof’s newfound fan club would be ready to provide him with prison perks — extra Top Ramen, jars of coffee, a bar of Irish Spring. The guards, many with their own Roofish sympathies, would cut him some slack — an extra roll of toilet paper here, a few illicit minutes on the telephone there. If Roof were so inclined, the guards might turn a blind eye to his indulgence in illegal substances, from tobacco to papers of heroin to the carceral Mad Dog 20/20 known as “pruno.”
If Roof played by the convict code, he might quickly rise in the ranks of the white-power structure in the prison yard. Maybe after a few years, he would earn the status of “shot caller,” the highest rank within the racial groups. Then he could order hits on young white boys who defiled the race by playing a game of chess with a black man or offering a Latino a sip of his soda. Like all his white comrades, Roof would use the white showers, the white phones, the white pull-up bars. The yard might spark visions of a segregated utopia for Dylann, a wonderland where everyone was in their right place — separate and unequal.
But white supremacists in prison also live in a world of racial enemies. Fueled by paranoia and buttressed by complicit guards and administrators, Roof would be the target of personalized vengeance attacks. Just like on the streets, he would be constantly looking over his shoulder to fend off real and imagined enemies. In particular, he would realize that in a prison yard, there are plenty of black lifers who have nothing to lose and the muscle power to break him in half, like a dry stick. A warrior who took down Roof would get a hero’s welcome in the torturous isolation blocks at Pelican Bay or Corcoran. All this tension would no doubt make Roof a little uneasy, perhaps force him to remain “suited and booted,” armed with a razor blade in his mouth or a sharpened shank up his rectum.
But even with danger all around him, Roof might find solace in the fact that the prison authorities would not assign any whites and blacks to share a cell and would enable the segregation of day rooms and exercise spaces. This would be a refreshing change of pace for Roof.
Like the other white supremacists, he could carry on without ever confronting the notion that there is strength in racial unity. He could choose to ignore the commonality among the men on the yard. He could put out of his mind the fact that everyone has to inhabit the same concrete and steel cages, wear the same clothes, eat the same prison gruel, get locked in at the same time every night and get locked down when something “jumps off” — a fist fight, a stabbing, or a guard who has lost his coffee cup. Like everyone else on his side of the wall, Roof would have to submit to a strip search and hear the command, “Lift your nutsack,” before he could enter a visiting room to see his mother.
But of course, I’m hypothesizing about “ancient” history — an apartheid I left behind back in 2009 when I walked out of prison. My life is very different now. I can share my food with my black family and friends, and sit at any table I like without fear of recriminations. In the meantime, some gentle winds of change have blown over CDCR. Very gentle winds. The Dylan Roofs can still find comfort there, but the hunger strikes of 2011-13 introduced a measure of interracial solidarity. During that extraordinary time, when up to 30,000 people in California prisons refused food in protest of extended solitary confinement and a host of other issues, there was a call to renunciate racial hostilities from the highest echelons of the white supremacist hierarchy. The leadership of the Aryan Brotherhood joined their black and brown brothers in declaring it was time to end the stabbings and race-based melees.
At that time, Todd Ashker, an Aryan Brotherhood leader who had spent a quarter century in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, helped lead the charge for regime change. As part of the multi-racial Short Corridor Collective of men held in solitary, Ashker proclaimed the need for “similarly situated people.… to collectively unite to fight for the common good of all.” He went on to announce to anyone who would listen that he had been inspired by the works of Che Guevara, Howard Zinn, Naomi Wolf, Thomas Paine, and “other activists and revolutionaries.” He declared that he had become conscious “of the prisoner class as a microcosm of the working-class poor in this country” and “it was time to come together and utilize peaceful civil disobedience-type actions, in tandem with litigation, to try to force the changes that were long overdue.” Ashker’s transformation, born out of deprivation, shows that there is hope.
But the question remains, as it does in South Carolina today, how much more violence and suffering must there be? Mass incarceration has many moving parts: the War on Drugs, mandatory minimums, ruthless profiteering. But prisons and jails are also sites where values and ideas are born, bred, and circulated. If we want to stem the production of more Dylann Roofs, both in prison yards and on the streets of our communities, it is time to talk about white supremacy in prisons and call politicians and corrections authorities to account for their complicity in reproducing hatred and division.
James Kilgore is a visiting lecturer in the Global Studies Program at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He spent six and a half years in prison for crimes related to his participation in political violence in the 1970s and his subsequent period of more then two decades as a fugitive. Since his release from prison in 2009, he has published three novels, all of which he drafted during his time in prison. His most recent book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, will be published by The New Press in September.
An earlier version of this commentary asserted that the hunger strikes of 2011-2013 forced CDCR to ban the use of race-based lockdowns. In fact, the abolition of race-based programs and lockdowns came in 2014, in the settlement of a lawsuit.