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Incarcerated Interactions

A Theory-Driven Analysis of Applied Prison Communication


Edited By Erik D. Fritsvold and Jonathan M. Bowman

Incarcerated Interactions: A Theory-Driven Analysis of Applied Prison Communication is an innovative, applied edited book that uses core interdisciplinary social science theories to analyze and describe the social psychology and sociology of communicative interactions amongst incarcerated individuals. Beginning with the fundamentals of human interactions, this edited volume allows scholars across a variety of disciplines (such as criminology, sociology, communication studies, social psychology, anthropology, and economics) to become familiar with and apply the core principles and the requisite terminology of human communication within a criminological context. Each of the four sections of the text not only build upon the knowledge structures of previous chapters, but also function as stand-alone analyses and/or applications of extant scholarship within essential contexts. From a general discussion of core social science theory to the specific application of that theory in a range of scholarly contexts, this book addresses relevant issues such as mental illness and wellness, the gendered experience of inmates, recidivism rates, violence, the criminogenic effect of incarceration and the large-scale implications of prison gangs and their associated cultural influence, to name a few.

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7. The Power of Secrecy: Cryptography in Prison Gangs : Monica Ramakrishnan

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7. The Power of Secrecy: Cryptography in Prison Gangs


The transformation of prison gangs from a means of protection to a complex, subversive, and covert criminal enterprise has effectively revolutionized the concept of communication between incarcerated gang members. In order to effectively understand the development of the cryptic models of the intricate communication, it is imperative to first recognize the fundamental characteristics of prison gangs. Broadly, prison gangs run covertly under the radar in order to operate without reprimand. To preserve the high levels of secrecy from the prison guards and administrative system and in order to maintain their degree of influence over organized crime, prison gang leaders use multifaceted mathematical algorithms to encrypt and decrypt messages, known as cryptography. Cryptography involves the analysis of techniques for secure and protected communication in the presence of external parties (Kavanagh, n.d.). The immense levels of intelligence needed to encode messages can be found in many of America’s foremost prison gang leaders. When an organized group feels that their secrecy is compromised, the invention of a complex and systematic algorithm arises. The idea of secrecy and its reflection of knowledge drives the notion of power within prison gangs. Thus, the need to preserve that power and to effectively create a barrier against outside factors comes in the form of cryptography. According to Eric Jankiewicz, a leading expert of inter-gang communication, “Codes are substitutes for the letters in our English alphabet. They could be anything—in addition to numbers, they use ornate symbols, a Chinese pictogram, or Mayan or Aztec symbols. Or they create their own symbols” (Jankiewicz, 2013). These codes are then used to encrypt and transmit secret messages within an organized and systemized institution. In essence, cryptography keeps unwanted ← 67 | 68 → personnel from reading sensitive data by converting decipherable information into an encrypted string of deceptive and superficial nonsense. Combing theories of power, identity, group mentality, prison policy, and prison culture with the intelligence levels of high functioning inmates leads to the development of an effective and elaborate rehabilitative system through the use of cryptography.

States with determinate sentencing policies often have more accounts of encrypted messages between prison gang members. Because determinate sentencing offers a bridge of communication from inside the prison to the outside world, it essentially perpetuates the development of cryptograms in order to make for facilitated underground intercommunication. The Aryan Brotherhood, for instance, smuggled a series of encrypted codes to contacts on the street, who then transmitted the message from prison to prison, creating sovereignty over prison gangs. These codes mostly carried orders pertaining to their large drug regimen (Jardin, 2006). The hybrid between determinate sentencing and the development of encryptions primarily provides a direct link and connection for prison gang leaders to run outside criminal activity, simultaneously driving the power of cryptography.

This type of cryptography generally encompasses the well-established rules, history, and identifiers of traditional prison gangs. Since these elements are so ingrained in the philosophy of the gang and its members, it regularly surfaces in their inventive codes. Looking specifically at incarcerated members of the Black Gangster Disciples, one of the largest and well-structured gangs in the United States, the consistencies between their cryptograms and ideals are extremely evident. Larry Hoover managed to run their entire empire from behind bars, thus leading the development of their own systematic codes (Black Gangster Disciples, n.d.). In honor of David Barksdale, one of the gang’s leaders who died as a result of gang violence, the gang uses the Star of David as a symbolic identifier in order to commemorate “King David” (Klivans, 2012). Another well-known example involves the use of the Bilateral Cipher by the Aryan Brotherhood. This revolutionized prison gang transformed the traditional binary code to a systematic permutation of A’s and B’s as a symbolic use of their initials (Jardin 1). The development of a prison gang’s “code” defines a distinct identity for a specific group of people. Their furtive and veiled use of symbolic cryptography speaks to their identity, something that fuels the perception of authority and association. Interestingly enough, on the exact opposite side of the spectrum, incarcerated Blood members omit the gang identifiers letters “B” and “C” from their codes, in order to preserve anonymity, thus simultaneously creating their distinct identity (Klivans, 2012). The select few gang members privileged enough to ← 68 | 69 → understand the encryption now have a sense of entitlement, power, influence, and supremacy.

First, considering the kinetics of the human mind, humans logically and inherently seek peace. Rebecca Trammell’s countless interviews with previously incarcerated males in Enforcing the Convict Code, leads to the conclusion that inmates do not want to anger or upset the guards for fear of lockdown (Trammell, 2012). Overt communication creates suspicious behavior and thus, warrants underground and subversive communication leading to the creation of cryptic codes. In this context, prison gangs operate and feed on the fear of prison lockdown because inmates lose their connection to outside of the prison. For example, Aryan Brotherhood leaders Barry Mills and Tyler Bingham employed a 400-year-old binary alphabet system called the Bilateral Cipher in order to transmit a smuggled command to Al Benton, who then executed a gruesome murder (Jardin, 2006). By the government’s account, the Aryan Brotherhood leaders ran the gang’s transmission network by adapting skillfully to the stringent surveillance conditions found in maximum-security prisons. Consequently, the gang employed an elaborate system of codes and cryptograms, further maintaining, propagating, and preserving their power. To further understand the power that lies within cryptography, a comprehensive and philosophical analysis of power is utilized through an extensive Hobbesian and Machiavellian approach.

Thomas Hobbes introduces the concept of power and the restless human appetite to achieve it in his book, The Leviathan. He states, “I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire for Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death” (Hobbes, 1998, p. 52). In regard to Hobbes’s theory on the state of human nature, humans, especially prison gang members, exploit this subliminal form of power in order to preserve themselves. The state of nature is predicated on a conflicting struggle between fear and power, in which power is the primary stimulator of human fear, while fear operates as a protecting factor of human lives. Due to the fact that humans are naturally wary of death, this central fear drives newly incarcerated inmates to consider joining a prison gang. The vital reasoning behind the substantial quantity of power collected by members in prison gangs is the element of ability to instill such a powerful feeling of apprehension in their targeted subjects, in this case, the correctional officers. Now, applying this notion to the use of cryptography, the sense of entitlement stemming from the ability to communicate over a safe channel essentially fuels the sense of superiority and implants power within the prison gang because they now have something that protects them from the administrative system. This type of protective entitlement that safeguards secretive messages further pushes the power of ← 69 | 70 → cryptography. In a sense, the targeted fear toward the correctional officers revolves around the clandestine methods of communication within prison gangs. For example, according to prison guards in the Tennessee Department of Correction, not knowing what a code says leaves a lingering feeling of apprehension and fear. In one instance, officers confiscated six pages of suspected gang code that was then forwarded through a series of law enforcement channels. After officials unmasked the complex decryption algorithm, they discovered that the message “cheap ass calif crap,” referring to associates in the Los Angeles Crips. At this point, the Tennessee Correction officers realized that such a covert form of communication could easily have been an encoded message of specific instructions for homicide, escape, or threat to law enforcement officers (Klivans, 2012). Thus, such concealed operations essentially elevate and perpetuate the dominance of prison gangs.

Current media portrays gangs as violent, malevolent social groups by simply exacerbating the severity of the crimes they commit. The media is manipulated in such a way that that twists the reality of gang activity into imminent, uncontrolled movements. Gangs have earned the reputation of precarious and unjustifiable groups that fuel their external power through fear. Hobbes expresses, “Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war: because the way of one competitor, to the attaining of his desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other” (Hobbes, 1998, p. 54). He elaborates on the idea if two forces have the same desire, it will eventually result in war—that desire being cognitive authority over prison systems, whether it be a gang controlled regime or an institutionalized facility. Power derives itself from the abilities of the body or mind, such as physical and psychological strength, as seen in gang structures while instrumental power develops from acquired faculties based on reputation. Both prison gangs and prison guards yearn for the submission of the opposition in order to gain that command and respect from their rivals, which is exceptionally crucial to the development of power within a political prison system. While prison guards have legitimized power and authority, prison gangs have the power of knowledge and physical strength that can counter the power of a guard. Therefore, each group respectively engages in ruthless behavior in hopes that the other will surrender their authority and one specific group will eventually dominate. In this context, prison gangs are at a large disadvantage due to their lack of freedom, resources and most importantly, lack of privacy. The intrinsic desire for power and disbarment of the opposite group compels prison gangs to develop their own personalized system of communication. Covert communication offers the prison gang members a methodological system of collaboration. The power of cryptography comes in ← 70 | 71 → the form of knowledge that trumps physical strength and legitimate authority. In an interview conducted with Thomas Angel Porter, a well-known member of the Bloods, he spoke to the unique set of “words, handshakes, gestures, tattoos, sounds, and graffiti” that composed of the intricate system of operational communication (Jankiewicz, 2013). Though the Bloods are not specifically a prison gang, rather known as a disruptive group, Porter’s report of the use of cryptograms was predominantly found within the prison unit. He describes the ongoing development of a secret language used to transmit important messages and instructions to other gang members. This elaborate, obscure, and convoluted classification of detailed codes allowed Porter to gain the sense of belonging, and thus, bound his loyalty to the gang. Because humans have a natural and intrinsic desire to feel needed, being apart of a large criminal organization that utilizes concepts of high-level mathematics instills that perception of power, knowledge, and privilege that shapes prison culture and communication.

According to Niccolo Machiavelli, in The Prince, it is easier to maintain control over a new principality if the people within that community share the same language and customs as the prince (Machiavelli, 1532). Applying his theory of principalities to prison gang activity, the gang leader serves as the prince while the members act as a commonwealth. The prince has the responsibility of maintaining power to the satisfaction of its members. The commonwealth are required to bear the costs in order to attain the collective good. In this case, the use of elaborate cryptograms serves as the “language,” that essentially allows the prison gang leader to connect with his members by bestowing a level of information and secrecy upon them, thus producing a sense of security. Further elaborating the previous case of Thomas Angel Porter, he states, “It was cool to speak a language that no one else know” (Jankiewicz, 2013). His words speak to the power encompassed within a clandestine language that drives the unity of an organized group structure. In exchange, the members are in turn expected to comply with gang leaders in order to achieve power as the collective good. This essentially highlights the fact that gangs are their own cultures and societies with their own personalized language system.

Through a mathematical and objective standpoint, researchers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation have deemed the cryptograms created by high-ranking prison gangs as more complicated and intricate than the German Enigma, a mechanical machine used during World War II to encipher and decipher secret messages. Thus, one can conclude that “low-life” convicts with little to no formal education on the art and theory behind cryptography are essentially inventing codes that surpass the intricacy of any federal ← 71 | 72 → government encryption. Mathematically speaking, if a gang were to apply one and only one alternate definition to one letter in the English alphabet, then there would only exist twenty-six alternate definitions to the standard alphabetic system. However, gang leaders with an instinctive knowledge of math created multiple symbols for one phrase or letter, hindering the use of letter frequency charts. For instance, Gary Klivans describes a code that consisted of approximately forty symbols. In this case, the letter “E” had three different symbols, while the letter “T” had two (Klivans, 2012). This exponentially increases the number and permutations and combinations that the FBI would have to consider while attempting to decrypt complex gang codes. While combinatorial methods of mathematics and computer science (the branch of mathematics concerning the study of finite or countable discrete structures) have decryption algorithms that allow the computation of such permutations, the level of sophistication of prison gang codes suggests that members often have an extraordinary and natural aptitude for mathematics. Thus, this cloaked method of communication serves as a way for gang members to demonstrate their own expertise and natural intelligence in order to contribute to a larger purpose, a criminal enterprise. This intelligence for groundbreaking cryptography serves as driving factor behind the complexity of encrypted messages because it allows for the creation of a language that is unique to the identity of a prison gang. Prison gangs continue to use the same codes until police crack it, and then they have to create a new one thus, propagating a cat and mouse game. Consequently, utilizing aspects of the philosophical ideology revolving around the power of secrecy coupled with gang member’s natural ability and aptitude can have a substantial effect on prison reform.

While it is virtually impossible to pinpoint the exact number of prison gangs who use cryptography, the evidence suggests that the majority of these gangs use clandestine methods of communication. Some of the country’s most notorious prison gangs use code communication such as the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia, and Black Guerilla Family (Jardin, 2006). Thus, the evidence insinuates a rehabilitative system that stems from a person’s innate desire for power, identity, natural inclination toward complex mathematics, and need for group culture and mentality. The goal of such programs would be to successfully reduce recidivism rates and inter-prison crime while providing high functioning inmates an outlet for their high intelligence levels. As shown, many inmates have an intrinsic predisposition toward high level ciphers that match the levels of FBI encryptions. If prisons with a large prison gang population implemented rehabilitative programs to redirect the group mentality toward a less destructive use of intelligence then the state ← 72 | 73 → can ideally transform organized crime communication to patented encryption algorithms. Members with a knack for codes can be given the proper channel for their intelligence, and thus create numerous cryptograms that can be used for government encryption or data security. The group mentality needs to shift from a ruthless, hierarchical system toward a communal purpose for the betterment of products in the business industry. If rehabilitative programs find a way to foster a system in which inmates are rewarded for creating inventive and intuitive cryptograms, then correctional facilities have the opportunity to deter crime by shifting the energy to the educational purposes. This essentially has the potential to significantly lower inter-prison violence, because the inmates are now focused on creating complex cryptograms. Because most inmates view rehabilitation as a punitive and disciplinary measure, a revolutionized system that draws upon inmates’ natural propensity toward cryptography instills power, entitlement, and supremacy in a nondestructive, healthy, and productive manner (Benson 46). The rewards system effectively offers a mechanism for controlled inmate behavior by providing positive reinforcement for critical analysis. A revolutionized power dynamic where inmates feel in control of the work that they do would effectively transform the mindset of malicious, violent gang inmates.

As previously described, power is linearly dependent on knowledge. Since prison gang members are so adept at creating proficient codes, the evidence suggests that this could directly translate into a skill for cryptanalysis and decryptions. The FBI, amongst many other large corporations and government facilities, are continuously searching for cryptanalysts. Since formal education is not necessarily required to have an aptitude for code breaking, this presents itself as a perfect opportunity for prison inmates to apply their skills. The restless human thirst for power is especially prominent in inmates and thus, such a rehabilitative program would draw upon the power of knowledge. The power of comprehension of coveted complex decryption algorithms substitutes the power derived from physical, violent, or illegal operations. The empirical and analytical evidence surrounding the uses of cryptography and the power derived from such methods and channels of covert operations indicate the success of such a reformative policy. Because this shift in mentality would discourage criminal tendencies, the hope is that recidivism rates would significantly decrease as well.

Through the essential characteristics of power as described by Hobbes and Machiavelli, prison gang activity to an interminable and incessant competition for eternal socialistic power. Applying theories and philosophies from these two well known authors regarding human nature helps researchers comprehend, on a more profound level of analysis, why prison gang members create ← 73 | 74 → complex encryption algorithms to encode messages in order to enhance their accumulated power. As the driving force of many of their actions, the power of cryptography allows for covert communication, a way for gang members to harvest their intelligence while behind bars. The high levels of intelligence needed to construct such complex cryptograms combats the stereotype that all low life criminals are incompetent, and allows for further development in cryptoglogical science. By providing a perception of entitlement, identity, and privilege, cryptography holds a type of power that is imperative to the intercommunication growth within prison gangs. The resemblances of prison gangs to the power dynamic and hierarchical structures found in philosophical theory lead to a comprehensive rehabilitative program that utilizes cryptography skills. Since power is the driving factor behind many covert operations, the analysis indicates that such a transformation would have an astronomical effect on crime and recidivism rates. Thus, given its deeply personal nature, and its layered reflections in prison culture, Hobbes and Machiavelli’s multifaceted and intricate analysis of power coupled with the use of cryptography in prison gangs can transform into a rehabilitative program that has the potential to decrease inter-prison crime and recidivism rates.


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