The following was written by M.O., who has been incarcerated since 1994. He has been in isolation units for over 17 years in Oregon, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In this piece, M.O. discusses his involvement in white supremacist gangs in Oregon. He writes of the development of Aryan prison gangs in Oregon during the 1990s and the role that isolation units played in fostering racism and violence. He also writes of his experience leaving the gang he was involved in and reflects on his prolonged incarceration and isolation. –Sal Rodriguez
I have been incarcerated continuously since September 1994. When I first came to prison Oregon did not have any firmly established prison gangs. We had a variety of street gangs: skinheads, Crips, Bloods, Southsiders and Northsiders. None were overtly violent. Crips walked the yard with their rivals–as did all the street gangs. There were no “Wars” inside the prison like other states, such as California, were having. Friendships and loyalties were based largely on the county or town someone came from.
In 1994 there were only about 8000 prisoners, men and women, in Oregon prisons. In 1995 a state elected representative, Kevin Mannix, pushed for and got passed a law that became known as Measure 11. Measure 11 permitted the state to charge first time offenders as young as 15 with crimes carrying mandatory minimums without good time. Within a decade the prison population ballooned to more than 14,000.
I arrived at an Oregon prison in December 1995 with a life sentence. I would become eligible to parole in September 2014. All the Measure 11 cases had not yet started filling the prisons. It was my first arrest and criminal conviction. I had grown up in a lower middle class family. A close knit Irish family. I had never seen a gang member growing up, unless you counted the wannabe’s who popped up after watching “Colors.”
The first gang member I met was Kyle Brewster, a skinhead who was a founding member of the white supremacist skinhead group East Side White Pride (ESWP). Brewster, like me, grew up in a middle class family after he and other members of ESWP killed an Ethiopian student. It was a case that was internationally known. Brewster was a popular white prisoner and ESWP had gone from being a street gang to Oregon’s first white prison gang.
Brewster immediately took me under his wing. He taught me and told me things I had never heard before. I learned about Jews, Zionists, racialism and the various racist groups. He told me the right books to read and how to “read between the lines” of the newspapers. He had planted the seeds of racist ideology. I had never considered racism before and had girlfriends who were mixed race. My oldest daughter was a roll numbered Native American. What he taught me was I was brainwashed into being a race traitor and now that I knew “right from wrong” I could act differently.
At the same time my cellie, a person who had done more than 30 years in state and federal prisons had begun “schooling” me on the convict code. I quickly adopted the prison lifestyle. I was 20 years old and impressionable. They gave me something I had never felt before: identity. It was the first time I found something to be proud of and something to live for that, at the time, was greater than myself. I began seeing prison officials as “the enemy.”
I took to extortion, assaults, and stabbings quickly. The prison was not violent but I learned quickly that violence produced fear and power. My behavior kept me locked down in the newly vuilt Intensive Management Unit (IMU), a “supermax” unit holding the so-called “worst of the worst.” It was in IMU and being moved from prison to prison I learned the art of prison politics. Thanks to Brewster I had developed an ideology. But IMU and its isolation has a haunting way of distorting a persons reality even more. It was a corrosive environment that contributed to psychological decline and extremist thinking.
Back then “supermax” units were becoming a trend in the US and there was not a lot known about the psychological impact of those type of units (today there is a website dedicated to it: Solitary Watch). In Oregon it became a toxic cocktail that would lead to four of Oregon’s most notorious white supremacist gangs to form and grow. ESWP would become a faded memory and as Measure 11 filled the prisons with younger and younger first time offenders those new gangs would quickly grow to a violent culture. A culture that would spread from the prison walls and into the streets resulting in average citizens being slaughtered.
The first group, Aryan Death Squad was formed by a few IMU prisoners. It had no real goals but violence against prisoners and staff. The second group, Aryan Soldiers, was silimarly formed by IMU prisoners. The last, the European Kindred, was a less violent group concerned more with protection because of their fear of other prison gangs.
I was a member of the Aryan Soldiers. They were inspired by the violent acts of Aryan Brotherhood killings which were part of prison lore. They were also inspired by groups such as the Silent Brotherhood, a 1980s white terrorist group. The group was formed by Orin Williams, David Pedersen and a third prisoner who was expelled later. Williams and Pedersen would become my closest friends. Prospective recruits would have to do the minimum of a stabbing to be considered for membership. Our goal was to recruit in prisons to send people back out into the free world to pick up where the Silent Brotherhood (also called The Order) left off.
By 2006, my mother was dying from cancer, my kids were growing up and I didn’t even know them, prison authorities were keeping Aryan Soldiers members in isolation. My moms cancer and my daughters gave me the greatest pause. I had gone so far from who I really was that the identity I had adopted was nothing like who I was.
I had a choice to make. I could continue down that path and live and die by the sword or I could drop it and get back to being a human being. Prison had become all I knew. I also had many more years to do. I had been in prison since I was 19. I had gone so far wrong, even I didn’t think it was possible to change. What I did next would seal my fate.
When I told Williams I was done with AS and racism it didn’t take long for a vote to be held by my former friends. It was decided my life was forfeit. And so it stands.
Walking away as the best decision I ever made. I felt a sense of peace. It came at a cost, but I gained my sanity back. In May 2007, Oregon transferred me to Oklahoma and then in August 2010 to New Mexico. My decision to change my life was not lost on people. A large part of prison officials didn’t believe it. I don’t blame them. A lot of guys want to change, say they are going to change, but end up going back to their old ways. I knew it would be a one way path. There could be no slips. No going back.
I have done more than 17 years in “supermax” isolation. I know all too well the psychological damage it causes. I have nightmares and was diagnosed with PTSD. When the military sends soldiers off to war and the come back with PTSD society bends over backwards to get them help. U.S. prisons are daily doses of war. Except some of us spend decades in that state of war. Sometimes I’m scared of the thought of leaving prison–if I ever do. After decades of living in war how do you learn to function again in society when society does everything to marginalize you? There won’t be anyone bending over backwards to help me. No matter how much I’ve changed.