Bringing Down the Brotherhood

Inside the fedsí war on the countryís deadliest prison gang: 16 murders, 21 death-penalty cases, and snitches galore.

"It was kind of scary quiet," he says. "All the doors and grills, and it takes you forever to walk from one side to the other. It was supposed to be safer, but things can always happen. Those bars, they're an illusion. I used to tell the young officers, ŒMake believe they're not there. Because when you start depending on them, you're going to start screwing up.'"

Crazies who'd assaulted staff at other prisons often wound up at ADX. Sure, they were behind double doors, but that didn't make them any less crazy -- quite the opposite. Now they had all day to try to figure out how they were going to nail you with one of their shit-piss cocktails. One inmate was known for stripping and oiling his body for the anticipated tussles with the extraction team; you could put him in a four-point restraint on his bed, and he'd still bite off a chunk of his shoulder and spit it at you. Just how were you supposed to "manage" wack jobs like that?

The place was different, all right. With all the cameras and rules, Principe couldn't shake the feeling that the staff was under the microscope just as much as the cons were. Lewisburg had been "old-school"; guards had a fair amount of discretion about how they dealt with inmates in certain situations, as long as they didn't violate security or common sense. But ADX was a high-tech, button-down, by-the-book tomb, and its atmosphere became even more stifling to Principe after the arrival of Michael Pugh, its fourth warden in five years of operation.

Barry Mills
Barry Mills
T.D. Bingham
T.D. Bingham

Pugh was a veteran administrator who made no secret of his belief that he had some "dirty" staffers at ADX, people who were being co-opted, blackmailed or paid by prison-gang leaders to look the other way. Principe was a union steward who saw merit in reaching an accommodation with inmates to make life easier all around.

"I did little things," Principe says. "If a guy needs some soap or toothpaste, I never had a problem helping him out with that. There are officers who do it, and there are officers who don't. But I guess that made me appear vulnerable or something.

"The way I look at it, they're already locked up. What are you going to do? If you make them miserable, they make you miserable. So there were little things, minor rules -- like this issue of passing, okay? Bureau policy says you don't pass anything from one inmate to the next. At Lewisburg, they didn't trip on little things like that. They're just happy if nobody dies on shift."

Principe knew who Mills and Bingham were. There was a notebook full of inmates' pictures that guards were supposed to inspect on a regular basis, listing gang affiliations, escape attempts, history of violence -- the problem prisoners' whole claim to fame. But he says he didn't extend any special courtesies to Aryan Brotherhood inmates, and he scarcely paid any attention to the notebook.

"A lot of guys sign it without really looking at it," he says. "After a while, you don't care. You do your eight, you hit the gate. It's a job. They want you to get more involved, but the job is miserable enough without poking around and peeking at everybody's deepest, darkest secrets."

As Pugh pursued his search for dirty staff, the relationship between the administration and the union quickly deteriorated. Principe posted an off-color limerick on the union website mocking the new warden. He and several other outspoken critics of the new regime soon found their loyalty under attack. "Federal agencies have no patience with First Amendment enthusiasts," he notes.

On August 16, 1999, Principe was getting ready to leave on vacation when a lieutenant summoned him to his office. "He handed me this paperwork saying I was assigned to home duty," he recalls. "No reason. To this day, I've never gotten a reason."

There were no particular duties associated with his new assignment. He merely had to stay at his house, a living, breathing testament to others on the folly of being a renegade. For the next seven months, he sat tight, drawing his pay and wearing the stigma of being "under investigation" like a badge.

Even after he was arrested and thrown in the county jail, the checks kept coming.

The Aryan Brotherhood started out in the early 1960s in the California prison system as a prison gang obsessed with race. It was perhaps a predictable response to the increasing presence of black gangs in Folsom, San Quentin and other state abattoirs. Supposedly, in the early days, you had to be part Irish to join; members sported shamrock tattoos as a sign of undying loyalty to their brothers.

But in time, prosecutors say, the organization's leadership became much more interested in power than race. They developed sophisticated gambling, extortion and dope operations; pimped out male inmates of all persuasions (despite their loud contempt for homosexuality); ordered hits on their own weak links; and forged uneasy truces with black and Hispanic factions. By the late '70s, several veterans of the California group, including Mills, had hit the streets and then moved into the federal prison system on new charges. Although never vast in numbers, the AB was now so far-flung, with hundreds of "associates" eager to align themselves with the group in exchange for protection and status, that it developed two "commissions," consisting of three members each -- one to oversee the California prisons, the other to run business in the federal pens.

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