In the racially divided world of prisons, even the slightest misstep may lead to trouble.
A Hispanic gang sells drugs to a white gang's customers. A white guy uses the black guys' urinal. Someone sits at the wrong table.
So it came as no surprise to those who study the nation's prisons that racial slurs aimed at blacks by a group of white supremacists may have set off the riot that left two dead at a Florence prison Sunday.
"It's an incredibly volatile mix," said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, who has studied prison gangs and extremist groups. "You can have people killed, literally, over nothing." Racist comments, he added, would be considered among inmates as "a definite provocation."
Bureau of Prisons officials declined to comment Tuesday on what exactly occurred before Sunday's riot, or on the prevalence of gangs or white supremacist groups at the prison.
But a 2001 report by Bureau of Prisons researchers studied at least two dozen active gangs in the country's federal prisons, with many of those groups having multiple subgroups. The study determined that of a group of about 82,000 inmates, about 9 percent, or 7,400, were identified as gang members.
Majority not in gangs
Membership levels varied from full-fledged members - including some who have to kill to join - to "associates," or inmates who conduct business or look out for the interests of the gang but haven't joined, or can't join because of their race.
Inmates affiliated with gangs were more likely to be violent, the study found. Many prison-gang members enter a facility with an established affiliation. Others join up once inside, sometimes for protection.
But Pitcavage said it is a myth that all prisoners are in a gang. The majority of people in the prison system are not, he said. Instead, they simply choose to align themselves with members of their same race. In some cases, racially separate gangs - including white supremacists and Hispanic gangs - will work together to sell drugs or commit other crimes, forming alliances against other races.
Rocky Mountain News