Running With the Aryan Brotherhood: “You Have to Kill a Black to Get In”

The Aryan Brotherhood formed at San Quentin prison in the California Department of Corrections in 1967 to protect white convicts from the predatory gangs that were taking root in the system. It was a volatile time in the United States and this volatility was amplified a hundred times over in the man-made netherworld of chaos and violence. It was go hard or check into the hole like a punk.

“What really got them originated was the white boys had to come together for protection purposes. The blacks were acting like they ran shit, so the white boys got together to say you can run it, but you ain’t running us,” says Dog, a penitentiary veteran and long time AB associate. “They formed to take care of the whites in the California system because of the black prison gangs. It was a way for them to make money – a protection racket.”

The white supremacist group, which later adopted the moniker ‘The Brand’ due to the shamrock tattoo they used to signify membership, was made up mostly of prisoners with Irish, Scandinavian and German backgrounds. Convicts from 1950s biker gangs like the Diamond Tooth and Bluebirds formed the crux of the newly formed organisation. The Caucasian inmates consolidated under a neo-Nazi banner to watch each other’s backs, show unity and handle their business on the yard. They were representing for the white race and making sure that no white inmates were exploited on their watch. By 1975, the gang was prospering inside the fences of the CDC, making power moves, calling shots and protecting their own.

San Quentin prison viewed from the air
San Quentin prison viewed from the air

“In the beginning, the AB had one true purpose, to stop blacks and Mexicans from abusing whites. If you weren’t picked up by the AB, you were dead,” says an old-timer, who has done stints in both California and federal prison says. “The mentality back then was ‘kill whitey.’”

The 1960s were a radical time in America, with the black power movement in full swing and minorities marching for civil rights. Behind the walls of the CDC, where blacks, whites and Mexicans were crammed together like sardines, racial tensions were definitely over the top.

George Jackson, who legend holds formed the Black Guerrilla Family, wrote the celebrated prison memoir Soledad Brother. In his book he describes instances where black inmates would attack whites on the tier just because of the colour of their skin. The former Black Panther had an unhealthy hatred of the system and all things white. In the depths of America’s gulags black prison gangs were making a power move.

With the Black Panthers holding iconic status in the urban centres in the radical 60s, that mentality spilled over into the prisons, where race wars raged on unabated. The cauldron of hate created an atmosphere of tension at San Quentin, evolving into an all out melee that erupted across the whole Californian system. The end result was the rise of the big four prison gangs, divided along strict racial lines, which provided a measure of safety for their members. Another author, Edward Bunker, a con who went Hollywood when he got out (both as an actor and screenwriter, famously appearing as Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs), wrote about life in the CDC in his book, Education of a Felon, which documented how whites came together to hold their own.

Aryan Brotherhood members talking at a table on prison yard, from a National Geographic documentary
Aryan Brotherhood members talking at a table on prison yard, from a National Geographic documentary

Blood In, Blood Out: Aryan Brotherhood Recruitment

Along with the other race-based gangs, the Brand took their place in prison legend and lore as one of the fiercest and most violent gangs to ever grace a California mainline. But the Aryan Brotherhood wasn’t for everyone. Exclusivity was the rule. They were very selective in who they let join, choosing prospective members with a great deal of scrutiny. “You can’t sign up for the Brand,” Dog says. “They have to pick you.”

The Brand’s motto was “Blood in, blood out,” meaning once you spilled blood in order to join, the only way you were leaving was in a body bag. And if you wanted to join, all you had to do was to kill, or attempt to kill, a black or Mexican inmate. The AB offered an exclusive membership to only the most violent, cunning and loyal convicts. The elite of the white race, as they saw it.

“You have to kill a black to get in. Blood in, blood out. There’s nothing wrong with that in my mind. We believe in being separatists,” Dog says. “We got freedom of speech, freedom of religion. Being a separatist is a form of religion. It’s like them old bylaws – blacks can’t eat here. ABs do time the way we want. We get high when we want to get high. We drink when we want to drink and we fight and kill when we want to fight and kill.”

The Aryan Brotherhood believed themselves to be a brotherhood of soldiers on the front lines of the prison race wars. They conditioned their bodies, minds and souls to go full blast at a moment’s notice. A law enforcement official likened them to special forces, saying, “The AB is the most lethal killer this country has produced outside of Delta Force. With their thick bull necks, massive forearms, knit caps pulled low over their eyes and walrus-like moustaches they resemble Viking warriors or Old West outlaws.” A fearsome sight indeed. An image cultivated to instil fear in the environment they found themselves in.

One of the prisoners shows his white power tattoo, from a National Geographic documentary
One of the prisoners shows his white power tattoo, from a National Geographic documentary

“A riot could happen over the smallest thing between races in the California prison system. A misunderstanding that became disrespect could get inmates seriously injured and even killed,” says Bumperjack, a long time Aryan Brotherhood member. “I got involved with the Brand in 1985. 30 years ago at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California. I had to get a green light on a guy who had jumped me in the county jail with two Northern Mexicans and he was the shot caller. They put me in the hospital after I beat him in a hand-to-hand altercation over me not paying rent on a pack of Camel smokes. This hit I made was my indoctrination into the Brand and I was credited with the initial part of making my bones.”

Harsh Reality: Aryan Brotherhood Violence

“The system in California back 30 years ago when I entered was no joke, if you came into the system and had a problem with another inmate you had to get permission from the Brand if you were a white inmate. The prison gangs had control of all the prisons. There were a lot of stabbings and some fistfights,” Bumperjack says. “In the California prison system as a white guy you didn’t have too many options of who to run with. If you become a race traitor you were a target when the first riot jumped off. If you were white, let’s say, in a black gang.”

The Aryan Brotherhood has been responsible for organised violence against black inmates in federal penitentiaries at USP Marion in Illinois and USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. But despite their racial leanings the AB has become more of a racketeering enterprise over the years. “It’s a criminal organisation first and foremost,” the law enforcement official said. “The AB has used murder as discipline. They used murder to keep their members in line and to spread fear and terror amongst the prison population.” And in the process they became prison celebrities.

A chance to see a real AB put in real work was bigger than watching the Super Bowl for those inside the belly of the beast. And the Brand didn’t disappoint, they killed by garrote and bludgeon and prison-made knives. They killed black inmates, white inmates who didn’t do what they said and even their own members who got out of line. They were violent, disciplined and fearless – a prison officials’ absolute worst nightmare.

“They wouldn’t sneak up and stab you,” Dog says. “They’d do it right in the open. If a brother told you he was coming to kill you he was coming to kill you. They were not scared of nothing that I ever saw. Lots of killings. Putting hits on baby rapers and snitches. They don’t hide from the police – they’re doing life sentences. Even if their guy was wrong they ride with him. They don’t fight fair. They’ll all jump on you. Shit, they’re like the Musketeers, all for one and one for all. They got shanks all over the yard. Easy access.”

A member of the Aryan Brotherhood works out in his cell
A member of the Aryan Brotherhood works out in his cell

And as the gang expanded into the federal system and other prisons across the nation in the 80s and 90s their reputation preceded them.

The AB’s leaders read Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Sun Tzu, Tolkien and the old standby, Mein Kampf. But the AB long ago subordinated its racist ideology to the acquisition of money. “The leadership became much more interested in power than race and started muscling in on the gambling, extortion and dope rackets,” the old-timer says. As part of its bid to exert control over these prison industries, the AB adopted a structure in the 80s similar to the Mafia, with a three-man council and a formal hierarchy that sent orders down the chain of command.

The Brand’s leaders wielded so much control that they effectively served as power brokers in the California system and Federal Bureau of Prisons. Maintaining order and dictating who could walk the mainline and the yard. “Prison is where these guys live. We only punch the clock,” a correctional officer says. “If you are going to spend your life in prison, why not be an AB member? They live like kings.”

Brand Awareness: Aryan Brotherhood Rackets

The Brand eventually ran much of the drug trafficking, gambling and prostitution behind the walls, and plenty more on the outside. The gang operated as a fully-fledged criminal enterprise, using murder or the threat of it to enforce their authority. This power was maintained largely by controlling the drug trade. “Selling heroin to fellow convicts generates a lot of money for the Brand,” says the correctional officer. “Several hundred thousand a year from a single prison. And how many yards do they control? You do the math.”

In the federal system they established ties with jailed Mafia crime bosses like Oreste ‘Ernie Boy’ Abbamonte, ‘Little Nicky’ Scarfo and the late John Gotti, the Teflon Don. Associates from other gangs like the Dirty White Boys, Nazi Low Riders and Mexican Mafia do their bidding. They flood every compound they’re on with heroin, shipping the proceeds back to California to be disbursed between other jailed members and leaders of the gang. The two commissions, one in California and the other in the feds, call the shots. Though never vast in numbers, the AB make up for it with violent acts which have led to a fearsome reputation. Their far-flung associates, who number in the hundreds, exert power in whatever prison compound they are on to further the influence of the gang.

“The state of the Brand in the California system has been letting others do their bidding,” Bumperjack says. “Because they are locked away in Security Housing Units, you can only have control to a certain degree as I see it. In 1989, they built Pelican Bay and in 1988, they built Corcoran to take back control of the California prison system from all the prison gangs. And they didn’t really succeed because the Brand uses others do their bidding on the mainlines. In the feds, they have all the power of the Brand locked up in ADX Florence, Colorado and prison officials think that if they take the head then the body will die. The Brand has been around along time so they have a lot of influence, but overall they have slowly been losing control in both the state and federal prison system due to new cases, infighting and age. A lot of the leaders are dinosaurs.”

One of the members of the Aryan brotherhood shows off his tattoos, from a National Geographic documentary
One of the members of the Aryan brotherhood shows off his tattoos, from a National Geographic documentary

End Game: The Future of the Aryan Brotherhood

On 28 August 2002, Assistant United States Attorney Greg Jessner indicted virtually the entire leadership of the gang. The indictment reached back 20 years spanning three decades and 32 murders. 40 members were indicted of federal racketeering charges in a 140, ten count indictment. The majority of the gang members were already doing life sentences, so 23 of them were eligible for the death penalty. “This is a homicidal organisation,” Jessner announced. “That’s what they do. They kill people. I suspect they kill more people than the Mafia. They may be the most murderous criminal organisation in the United States.”

The indictment was the largest capital case in the history of California and the AUSA indicted the Brand with laws originally passed to target Mafia leaders. “Inmates and others who do not follow orders of the AB are subject to being murdered as is anyone who uses violence against an AB member or anyone who cooperates with law enforcement,” the indictment read.

A main component of the case was the ongoing race war with the DC Blacks prison gang in the feds. The race wars in the federal system started on 22 November 1981 when the body of Robert M Chappelle, a member of the DC Blacks was found dead in his cell at USP Marion. Thomas ‘Terrible Tom’ Silverstein was the killer and Chappelle’s death worried Bureau of Prisons officials who thought it might spark a war, which it certainly did. Raymond ‘Cadillac’ Smith, the alleged national leader of the DC Blacks was the next person killed. In the Marion control unit on 27 September 1982, Terrible Tom stabbed Cadillac 67 times, dragging his body up and down the tier so that those locked in their cells could see.

Aryan Brotherhood leader Tyler Davis Bingham
Aryan Brotherhood leader Tyler Davis Bingham

The race wars against the DC Blacks raged across the feds in the early 1980s and again in the 1990s when two DC Blacks were killed at USP Lewisburg by AB members who stabbed them 35 and 34 times. Barry Mills and TD Bingham were accused of ordering the killings at USP Lewisburg from their cells at ADX. The case reached back 40 years to include stabbings, strangulations, poisonings, contract hits, conspiracy to commit murder, robbery and narcotics trafficking. Mills, Bingham, Silverstein and 39 other members of the AB received life sentences on top of the life sentences they were already serving. The prosecutors won the case but the jury refused to sentence the leaders to death for their convictions.

The truth of the matter is that the Aryan Brotherhood is not as powerful as they once were, but they have spawned imitators and in prison systems across the nation the Brand has members and associates.

“The legacy of the Brand is the most dangerous white prison gang in the world,” Bumperjack says, and long time members like have come to see what it’s really about. “If you join a prison gang in California its, ‘Blood in, Blood out’ so in reality you just sold your soul to the devil and should plan on living the rest of your existence incarcerated or getting killed by the gang,” he says, succinctly summing up the story of the Brand, the most infamous prison gang in America.

For more insider accounts from some of the world’s most notorious gangs, pick up the latest issue of Real Crime or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price.