Doctoral Dissertation Research: Organizational Emergence in the Era of Racial Risk: The Black Guerilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood in California

Project: Research project

Project Details


Conceptualizing prison gang development as a relational process occurring within an organizational field is a novel theoretical approach. This approach is used to investigate two empirical blind spots, the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerilla Family, both of which developed side-by-side in San Quentin State Prison. Previous scholarship suggests prison gangs develop as a result of both the demand for physical protection and market pressures in the prison environment (Beaird 1986; Buentello et. al., 1991; Crouch and Marquart 1989; Ekland-Olson 1986; Gamson 1988; Jacobs 1977; Skarbek 2012, 2014). What remains absent is an analysis of how inter-organizational relations and racial coercion contribute to the process of prison gang development over time. Preliminary study findings suggest the prison organizational field is dominated by two types of organizations: prison staff and prisoner paramilitary organizations. Prison staff include the warden, correctional administrators, and correctional officers. Prisoner paramilitary organizations are semi-militarized groups comprised of prisoners with a hierarchical leadership structure that employ military-like tactics and training, while indoctrinating members in a particular political ideology; these include religious and social movement groups such as the Nation of Islam and Black Panther Party and prison gangs like the Mexican Mafia. These preliminary findings inform the following study objectives: (A) Understand how social control in the prison organizational field coercively influences prison gang development; (B) Identify the processes propelling conflict or cohesion between racial groups in prison and the subsequent impact on prison gang development; (C) Ascertain how an organization's relationship to prison staff affects their development; (D) Trace how social, political, and economic changes in society affect the prison organizational field and prison gang development. The study methodology includes a combination of archival research and targeted snowball sampling. The benefit of this mixed methods approach is triangulation, which facilitates the validation of the data through cross verification from different sources, establishing the credibility of the qualitative analysis. The project uses (I) 42 interviews with organization members, formerly incarcerated men, prison staff, and social and political activists; and (II) an extensive archival database to analyze two polar cases, the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerilla Family. Data on other prisoner paramilitary organizations is incorporated as it relates to the two main case studies. The three time periods examined are 1961-1971, 1971-1990, and 1990-2000, which allow the study to measure organizational development across the turbulent social and political change of the 1960s, the war on drugs and the massive influx of prisoners in California in the 1970s and 1980s, and the effects of mass incarceration as seen in the 1990s.
Effective start/end date4/1/1711/30/18


  • National Science Foundation (SES-1703056)


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