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Bigotry Behind Bars: Racist Groups In U.S. Prisons

This is an archived ADL report and may not reflect the most current facts or developments related to its subject matter. This report was originally issued in October 1998.

Read the full report: Bigotry Behind Bars: Racist Groups in U.S. Prisons (PDF).

Driven by a belief in their superiority, white supremacist prison gangs contribute to increased racial tensions and violence in American penitentiaries.

Not only do their activities undermine prison security, but their extreme rhetoric and animosity toward other races often stay with gang members long after their release.

Prison officials estimate that up to 10 percent of the nation's prison population is affiliated with gangs.

Since prisoners tend to segregate themselves by race, white supremacist gangs may appear more attractive to white inmates -- especially those seeking protection -- than they would outside penitentiary walls. Inmates already sympathetic to racist ideology become more radical in their beliefs in the racially charged prison environment.

One of the best-known racist prison gangs is Aryan Brotherhood, which emerged in the 1960s at California's San Quentin Prison. This violent gang has since spread to prisons throughout the United States and has been linked to a number of murders, both in and out of prisons.

A number of racist groups in the U.S. sponsor prison "outreach" programs that send tapes and literature filled with white supremacist propaganda to inmates. These extremist organizations encourage racist inmates by treating them as "martyrs," fueling their racist ideology through violent rhetoric.

White supremacist groups are not the only racist organizations active in prisons. The Nation of Islam, the Black Muslim group led by Minister Louis Farrakhan, has organized an extensive prison outreach program since 1984. NOI has fought, sometimes in court, to have its prison emissaries recognized as chaplains separate from the mainstream Muslim chaplaincy. Supporters of the prison outreach program argue that NOI's message of discipline and morality helps rehabilitate prisoners; moreover, NOI's prison emissaries help inmates find jobs and housing upon their release. However, critics worry that Farrakhan's rhetoric -- including a long record of anti-Semitic and anti-white statements -- may spill over into NOI's prison outreach program and radicalize prisoners.

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