Marked for Death

Trapped in a prison race war, Tony Francis had three choices: kill, snitch or run. He found another way out.

Francis kept running, but he was going nowhere. "When I escaped in 1993, I learned a valuable lesson," he says now. "The last thing it was, was freedom. I never felt as confined as when I was on the street, running from the law. I couldn't see my family. I couldn't tell anyone who I was."

After five months on the lam, he was captured near Seattle, outside an illegally parked motor home. According to news reports, he struggled with King County police officers and made an unsuccessful grab for one cop's gun. Inside the motor home, police found two handguns, an assault rifle and $27,000 in cash.

Francis caught a break on the sentencing for his escape and robbery spree, picking up a mere five years on top of the time he was already doing. He was soon back in Lewisburg, where his reputation had grown in his absence. He was no longer simply Tony Francis, escape artist. He was now Tony Francis, reputed member of the Aryan Brotherhood.

Hadley Hooper
For related stories see Crime and Punishment: Westword reporting on the Criminal Justice System and the Corrections Industry.

Anyone who knew Francis knew he wasn't AB. Regarded as one of the most dangerous and powerful of all prison gangs, the Brotherhood isn't a fraternity a man can join without bloodshed. ("It takes something to get into it," testified Saxon Taylor, "and there ain't no getting out. Fuck no.") Tony Francis lacked the tattoos, the racist ideology and the necessary penchant for violence. He was short in stature and also short in terms of the time he had left to serve, compared to many USP gang members, who are doing stretches of twenty years or more.

Inmates who knew Francis at Lewisburg remember him as quiet, "an isolationist" who kept to himself. They didn't consider him violent at all. In the criminal pecking order of a USP, a career in armed robbery is considered respectable but tame -- especially, as one of the witnesses at the Francis trial put it, "if you don't hurt nobody." Yet the AB tag stayed with Francis, a whisper behind his back. He could never quite shake it.

"In prison, it's really easy for rumors to get started, because there's nothing to do," a large, bullet-headed convict named Joseph Bryant McGee told the jury. "It's easy to put smut on someone."

Francis had reason to worry about his celebrity status. There was a race war stirring in the federal penal system. Two years after his return, it washed across Lewisburg, leaving a trail of bodies behind.

Q: What happened when you jammed up Tony Francis?

A: He was kind of snotty about it. Dude's a real trip. He alienated himself from people who think like me.

Q: What do people like you think?

A: I think like someone who's been in prison since he was twelve years old.

Q: Do you think the races should be separate?

A: In prison or in life? I don't know much about life. But you come to prison, I'll show you a reality you can't possibly imagine. -- Cross-examination of Joseph McGee

Estimates of the number of prison gang members in federal penitentiaries vary widely. Officially, gangs don't even exist. The BOP prefers the term "disruptive groups" and claims to have embarked on a comprehensive program to eliminate them.

A few years ago the warden of USP Florence told a reporter that more than forty disruptive groups operated in his prison, but it's likely that many of the groups have fewer than a dozen members. They range from well-known gangs with extensive street connections, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, the Bloods and the Mexican Mafia, to more exotic incarnations, including the Dirty White Boys, the Latin Kings and the DC Blacks.

Virtually all of the groups are forged along racial lines. They exist to deal drugs, terrorize other races and extort money or sex from their own kind in exchange for "protection." When racial troubles arise, it's not unusual for competing gangs to band together by color -- black against white, or sometimes brown and white against black -- for their own survival.

At the Francis trial, a procession of heavily guarded experts on prison culture took the stand to explain the nuances of gang behavior and cellhouse lingo -- for example, the difference between stepping to someone (bracing him to see where he stands on the gang question, to see if he knows what time it is), jamming up that person to see if he pees (challenging a convict, testing him to see if he's going to fight back or wet himself), or strapping up (arming yourself) and moving on him (beating or stabbing him).

Some of the prisoners wore their colors proudly, like 88 Skinhead leader Saxon Taylor, whose shaven head bears a large "88" tattoo on one side and a "100" on the other. The double eight refers to the eighth letter of the alphabet, as in "Heil Hitler," he told the jury.

"What about the "100'?" David Lane asked.

"One hundred percent peckerwood," Taylor said. "One hundred percent white. One hundred percent real."

Other witnesses had shaved heads and arms that were purple with prison art, but they claimed not to be affiliated with any gang. When pressed, they might admit to being "separatists," meaning they believe the races should avoid each other in prison. In this, they are strongly supported by the BOP itself, which has an unofficial but largely inviolable practice of strict segregation in USP celling in order to avoid racial fights.

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