Sending Greetings From All the Gang
When the Crip gang member nicknamed Salahudin celebrated his birthday in state prison, his homeboys marked the occasion with a ritual straight out of a suburban office park.
They passed around and signed a birthday card.
But this was no Hallmark. On the front of the homemade greeting was a cartoon of a gangster holding a MAC-10 automatic pistol. The card was bordered in blue, the Crips’ signature color. And because Crips avoid the letter “B” at all costs -- due to its association with their rival gang, the Bloods -- the card happily announced “Happy C-Day.”
The card may have warmed the convict’s heart. But it also proved to be a rich vein of intelligence for investigators at the state prison in Lancaster. Many well-wishers signed with their nicknames and gang affiliations, offering a detailed registry of the active Crips on Salahudin’s cellblock.
“That’s where you get a lot of your information, from these birthday cards,” said Officer Steve Preciado, a Lancaster gang investigator. “A lot of times their family members won’t send them nothing. But the gangsters will put their nicknames on these cards, and where they’re from, like ‘Shorty from Pacoima.’ So your job is to find out who Shorty is.”
On birthdays, the California Department of Corrections doesn’t spoil its 161,000 inmates with cake and ice cream. Yet, like anybody else, most incarcerated felons have an irrepressible urge to mark the occasion.
“Well cellie what can I say,” says an entry inside a card to a member of a central L.A. street gang. “Happy Birthday homie. I got nothing but love for you.... Homies will celebrate later, I promise you. All right then fool. Your cellie, Drifter.”
With their mix of heartfelt camaraderie and chilling criminal allusions, homemade gangster greeting cards are among the stranger staples of California’s prison folkways. Lt. Bruce Jones of the Corrections Department said the cards could be found in nearly every lockup in the state -- even though the cards, like all gang-related items, are considered contraband in state prisons and are usually confiscated in cell searches.
Officer Randy Clemons, another gang investigator at the Lancaster prison, 75 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, figures that many of the prisoners know the cards ultimately might be useful to authorities, but simply can’t help themselves.
In the gang-unit office at Lancaster, an exhibit of confiscated cards presents visitors with a weird parallel to a typical drugstore greeting-card aisle. Not that the display is meant for public consumption: The office is located deep within the high-security prison complex, whose electric fence dissuades its 4,200 inmates from escaping into the surrounding Mojave Desert.
The art on the cards offers a familiar mix of bathos and broad humor, party jokes and soft porn, borrowing liberally from the superhero mythology of Stan Lee, the pinup fantasies of Alberto Vargas and the kinds of wacky cartoon creatures employed in junk-food advertisements.
Not surprisingly, there is usually an outlaw twist. The sillier cards are full of cars and girls and stylized homeboys smoking pot or drinking “pruno,” the noxious homemade prison wine. The serious ones are more likely to feature buxom pre-Columbian princesses, fantasy-themed collages or the laughing and crying clowns that symbolize the highs and lows of the gangster lifestyle.
Inside the cards, messages from well-wishers offer a rare glimpse into the closed society of the convict. To an outsider, it is a world that seems both exotic and mundane: While even the color of ink can be a coded gang symbol, the messages themselves are usually quite ordinary.
“You have been respersenting the LBC [Long Beach Crips] for a long time,” wrote a friend of Salahudin’s, an inmate named Fred Tidmore, who was found to be a member of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang, and eventually transferred out of Lancaster. “In fact you was representing when knowbody was. And you are still pushing strong. So I give you my love and respect. And it is my pleasure to say happy ‘C’ day homie.”
Investigators say the sometimes-cryptic information on the cards helps with a crucial peacekeeping task: determining which inmates have moved on from membership in street gangs, like the Crips and the Bloods, to more troublesome prison-based gangs, which are responsible for the bulk of the system’s organized violence and drug trafficking.
In state prison, claiming membership in a street gang does not bring censure from prison officials. But if investigators can verify that inmates are members of a prison gang -- such as the Mexican Mafia or Aryan Brotherhood -- the inmates can be sent to highly restrictive special housing units at the maximum-security Corcoran or Pelican Bay state prisons.
The information found in the greeting cards is often used by members of the prison’s Institutional Gang Investigative Unit as they collect evidence of prison-gang membership. The process, called “validation,” includes searching cells for evidence, studying inmates’ records for gang patterns in drug deals or fights, and even reading the inmates’ mail.
“Say we’re looking at somebody and trying to validate him,” Clemons said. “We might find out who thought enough about him to send a card.”
Condolence cards also are considered fair game for investigators. Clemons showed one which had been given to an inmate named Hannibal. On the outside was a fierce portrait of the historical Hannibal, clutching a black dagger inscribed with “RSC” -- for the Rollin’ 60s Crips.
“Big U: Mr. Half Dead right here for you and the family,” one message inside the card said. “I’ll always keep you and your little brother in my prayers. Please keep a cool head Big Homie.”
To Preciado and Clemons, the cards are full of arcane signs that an outsider might easily miss. Clemons pointed to a tiny detail on one card with a muscled Aztec warrior on the cover. Hidden in the clothing patterns was the word “Eme,” Spanish for the letter M and a reference to the Mexican Mafia.
Another card shows a young man in a wizard’s hat holding a set of keys: a sign that the recipient is a “llavero” -- the shot-caller who “holds the keys” to big decisions in the yard.
About three years ago, investigators confirmed that the recipient of the card, Evaristo Garnica, a former member of Los Angeles’ Cypress Park street gang, was an associate of the Mexican Mafia, Clemons said. Garnica is currently in the special housing unit at Pelican Bay.
Preciado said he was not surprised that inmates sometimes leave obvious signs of gang activity.
“A lot of these guys can’t let it go,” Preciado said. “They’re making thousands of dollars” -- by controlling the sale of drugs and other contraband -- “and they don’t want to give up that money. It’s all about the power and the money.”
For those inmates with a knack for drawing, the production of prison greeting cards is a more modest way to earn some extra cash. Lancaster inmate Joseph Marquez learned the prison-art aesthetic from his incarcerated father. The 33-year-old, who is serving seven years for robbery, said he can make about $3 for drawing a simple birthday card, and as much as $10 for one with a complex collage.
The finished product is usually passed around the cellblock, then presented to the birthday inmate with a spread of snacks from the commissary and, usually, a fresh batch of pruno. Sometimes, prison officials say, inmates will chip in for a dose of heroin, currently the favored intoxicant among those California convicts who use drugs.
But Marquez says it is the cards that make an inmate feel that life, for a moment, is almost normal again.
“A card makes a big difference,” he said. “It makes a guy feel a lot better.”