Gangs thrive in maximum-security prison

Lesley Stahl reports on criminal gang activity behind bars

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Gratton says he was having misgivings about the gang when he was arrested for drug possession and faced another long stint on the SHU: "I had already wanted to walk away from the gang on my own. This just kind of sealed the deal."

"Robert Gratton was probably one of the most significant, if not the most significant cooperator in this case," says Gruel, who was the lead prosecutor in "Operation Black Widow," the largest and most expensive investigation of a prison gang in U.S. history.

"We already knew who they were. We knew who were the leaders. We knew who were the shot-callers," says Gruel, adding that they knew that the leaders were in prison. "We found that out. And that's the irony of this. We had to deal with a situation where the leaders were already behind bars."

He says the big break came when Gratton handed over the latest secret codes used by Nuestra Familia. They were written, in ultra-miniature script, on tiny pieces of paper called "wilas" that were smuggled out of Pelican Bay.

"Here's one he actually provided to us in it's original form," says Gruel. "It says, 'The following will be code words for drugs. We're going to call cocaine soda. And tennis shoes are gonna mean handguns. High tops are gonna mean a rifle. Boots, if you see boots in some sort of letter, it's gonna mean an Uzi.'"

"So this teeny, teeny writing. This is the way they would pass the new code, because they kept changing it," says Stahl.

"Right," says Gruel.

"Wilas" were regularly smuggled in and out of the most secure prison in all of California in things like a Thanksgiving Day card.

"Looks innocuous," says Gruel. "If you were a prison guard, would you think much of it? Nah, it's just another card, you know, no big deal. Now, we found this, and then we slowly started to peel some parts of the back and, what we found were three 'wilas.'"

Gratton says that when he sent messages into the prison, he used a variety of techniques to fool the guards, including writing in urine: "It's undetectable to the naked eye. If I had urine in a cup, I could write a message on a piece of paper which wouldn't be detected until it was heated."

Perhaps the gang's most brazen way of communicating, however, was through fake legal documents.

"It looks like something you would think is, you know, some sort of court document," says Gruel. "It's got the caption, etc. But if you start getting down to the second page, well within the body, 'The building up of this organization on the outside will be done in these three steps.' Bam."

"Who on earth wouldn't think that was a legal document?" asks Stahl. "And then, you're not supposed to scrutinize that in the same way as you do letters that they send in and out."

"This is, you know, a clear example of abuse of a privilege," says Gruel. "So that they can get their orders and functions out on the street."

Once the codes were understood and the messages intercepted, "Operation Black Widow" turned up 10 hit lists. The cops had to call 300 people to tell them there were death threats against them. Gruel says they prevented scores of homicides that were already in operation.

"For example, we uncovered that there was a plot to murder two district attorneys, you know, in California," says Gruel. "And as a consequence, we were able to identify those involved in that plot and arrest them and convict them."

In all, "Operation Black Widow" resulted in 150 arrests. But what to do now? Clearly locking them up together at Pelican Bay didn't work. So now what the government wants to do is disperse the leaders around the country in various maximum-security prisons in the federal system.

"We're going to move them to Indiana, in Florence, Colo., in Marion, Ill. And each prison will have one of these captains or one of these generals," says Gruel. "One of these lifers."

"But couldn't they start a whole new organization in whatever prison they're in?" asks Stahl.

"I don't think that's going to happen," says Gruel. "And the reason why is this. There are two essentially identifying characteristics of being a member of the Nuestra Familia: Mexican-American, the other is that you're from Northern California. So if you take a general, and put him in Marion, you know, Illinois, or in Minnesota, or some other institution in Arkansas, he's going to be a nobody."

"It's too late," says Gratton. "They've already re-established new lines of communication. New contacts."

"You're telling us that even if, from today, these generals have broken up, and one is in Connecticut and one's in Pennsylvania, they're still going to be able to run this criminal organization in Northern California?" asks Stahl.

"Not only are they going to run it, it's going to expand," says Gratton. "They're going to be able to recruit and they're going to prosper."

"I know what Gratton is talking about. And you know, we'll have to see. You know, I don't have a crystal ball to kind of tell you with certainty what's going to happen," says Gruel. "But I thought it was worse to do nothing. You had to do something with the situation. You couldn't let these guys, you know, go on with impunity."

But back at Pelican Bay, Lt. Steve Perez and the prison's senior gang investigator, Devan Hawkes, say leaders of Nuestra Familia - aware they may soon be split up - are already plotting.

"They're not ignorant men," says Lt. Perez. "They have a plan, a definite plan like any business organization that is successful. And they stay with that plan."

That plan was spelled out in a coded letter intercepted from the SHU. Hawkes showed 60 Minutes the letter: "And as you can see, we've highlighted where the code is. Before every comma is the word."

And what was the message? "The message is that the Nuestra Familia is reorganizing," says Hawkes.

New captains and generals have already taken over on the SHU, and as this deciphered message shows that the generals heading off to places like Indiana and Minnesota are going with a stated mission.

"It says, 'These carnales,' that's what they call an NF member, 'are mandated to organize our organization in the feds and place regiments in other states, other than California. They will do so under the authority of this new general,'" says Hawkes.

"This letter that you intercepted is mandating that these people who are being sent away from here around the country are to set up the same kind of internal prison gang system that you're trying to break up here," says Stahl. "And it's a mandate."

"Exactly," says Lt. Perez. "These men will go out into the federal system, and continue to branch out, to create new gangs and continue their gang activity."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will decide later this year whether to go ahead with the plan to scatter the gang leaders throughout the federal prison system. If he rejects that idea, they will remain at Pelican Bay, serving out their life sentences.

  • Lesley Stahl
    Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.