The Aryan Brotherhood’s Grip on Prison Heroin
(page 2)“For the whites, anything that we did, we had to answer to Big Mac," the younger prisoner, who was there at the time, tells The Fix. "He likes to have everybody know he’s God.” Big Mac soon complained about the "lack" of drugs on the yard. So he started to canvass the population for vulnerable prisoners: drug addicts and men who were in debt, or simply scared. “He could sway the weaker inmates to have their people bring in drugs,” the correctional officer says. “The visiting room is the main route for drug smuggling into the prison.”
In the visiting room at Leavenworth, prisoners and their girlfriends or wives—and other women, desperate for money—can kiss once when they greet each other and once when they part. A balloon containing two grams of heroin is smaller than a marble and can easily be passed mouth-to-mouth. The prisoner swallows the balloon and later regurgitates it or lets it pass through his body. Those kisses form part of a major entry port, with an estimated 95% of Leavenworth’s drugs entering through visits.
The prosecution wanted the death penalty, arguing that since many of the defendants already had life sentences, nothing else would deter them.
“Big Mac had it set up so that five prisoners would be out on the dance floor copping on the same day,” the prisoner says. “He knew that even if one got caught the other four would make it through. He got a piece of everything.” Heroin flooded in; in 1995, the year after Bic Mac’s arrival, Leavenworth registered 1,200 positive urine tests. Even prisoners in solitary confinement could get it. “Over three-fourths of the yard used heroin,” the prisoner estimates. “Heroin deadens everything. You’re feeling no pain and Leavenworth was not a nice place.”
Big Mac’s crew would cut the heroin into quarter-gram pieces, then distribute them to prisoners who sold them on. Each gram, which cost $75 on the street, brought back as much as $1,200. Big Mac transferred much of the cash to California by money order and Western Union. There, dealers would arrange to transport the heroin, packaged in balloons, to prison visitors, starting the cycle over again. Thousands of dollars of heroin a month were moved through an elaborate system of payoffs and profits—all funding the Aryan Brotherhood’s activities and leadership.
In fall 1995, Michael “Big Mac” McElhiney was charged with conspiring to smuggle heroin into Leavenworth. At the trial in 1998, he acted as his own attorney, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie; his tattoos were visible only as he was cuffed and shackled to leave the courtroom. When Big Mac delivered his summation, he told the jury that because the prosecution had no solid evidence, it was prosecuting him on the basis of his alleged membership of the Ayran Brotherhood. His motivation to smuggle heroin into prison, he said, was entirely magnanimous. “The biggest conspiracy the evidence shows is I’m trying to help my brother get a shot of dope. I don’t use heroin. He’s my friend, he does. I will help him.” He was convicted of conspiracy to possess heroin with intent to distribute. Thirty years were added to his original sentence. But although Big Mac seemed all about his defense (which was even commended by the judge for its high quality), he had an ulterior motive.
“He used the trial to bring members of the Brand together by calling them as defense witnesses,” the prisoner says. “The government and Warden goofed and allowed everyone that Mac had subpoenaed to be housed together in an isolated segregation unit known as building 63.” In this way, the AB effectively held a summit to share information and plan future endeavors. Under 24-hour lockdown, they still communicated easily, by "using strips of torn sheets to pass kites from cell to cell," the prisoner says. "Also by draining water out of their toilet bowls, they could use the sewer system pipes as a makeshift telephone line. They talked directly into the empty toilets."
The feds were not through with the Brand. In fall 2002, following a three-year investigation, 29 leaders, including Big Mac, were charged with 32 murders or attempted murders, drug conspiracy and racketeering. The RICO laws, designed to prosecute Mafia families, were now being used against AB’s systematic business of murder, gambling, extortion and narcotics trafficking. The massive indictment asserted, among many other crimes, that the AB was importing heroin from as far away as Thailand through a partnership with Asian gangs. The prosecution wanted the death penalty—indeed it was the largest death penalty case in US history—arguing that since many of the defendants already had life sentences, nothing else would deter them from continuing their bloody operations. Instead, everyone was convicted and sentenced to life.
The convictions and headlines count for little, though. The Brand is still running the heroin trade in the feds and California state system today. They often use young guys in smaller gangs, like the Nazi Low Riders and the Dirty White Boys, as proxies to do their dirty work. “Most of the AB dudes are dinosaurs now. They need fresh blood,” the prisoner says. “These other gangs act as the minor leagues for the brotherhood. Only the most vicious, lethal and go-hard white boys are selected for full membership. And when they get that shamrock, it’s show time.”
Still, the crackdown continues. In November 2012, 34 members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas were charged with a barrage of crimes, including murders, racketeering and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and cocaine. Four “generals” face the death penalty.
Seth Ferranti is serving 25 years for drug trafficking. He's a columnist for The Fix. To learn more about prisoners, check out gorillaconvict.com. Seth's new book, Gorilla Convict, a compilation of his writing about prison gangs, the mafia, hip-hop and hustling, is now available.
Home page image via.