The Aryan Brotherhood’s Grip on Prison Heroin

By Seth Ferranti 03/18/13

The racist ideology of America's most notorious prison gang has long been subordinate to its lust for drug money. Federal crackdowns have yet to break the Brand.

Michael "Big Mac" McElhiney (shirtless) and friends

Prison is a place where racial hatred is routine, where gangs rule the roost and heroin is the most valuable commodity. “A white person in prison is in deep trouble if he doesn’t have people to stand with him,” one prisoner tells The Fix. “The guards can’t do nothing. All they can do is prosecute the winner.” And there are few bigger winners in the feds than the Aryan Brotherhood.

Despite some high-profile crackdowns against the gang in recent years, its grip on many facilities remains strong. “I just came from USP Lompoc [in Southern California] and the AB is running that yard,” the prisoner says. “The drugs are flowing. They got Atwater, Victorville, Canaan, Hazleton, Florence, Marion, Big Sandy and Coleman on lock. They are all over the system. The feds can’t stop anything.”

The AB is one of the nation’s “big four” prison-born gangs, along with the Mexican Mafia, the Black Guerilla Family and the Nuestra Familia. The “Brand,” as it's also known, is estimated to have over 15,000 members and associates nationwide, half behind bars and half on the street. The gang was born in the violent California prison system of the ‘60s, reflecting the racial tensions of the times. “The mentality back then was ‘kill whitey,’” says an old-timer who did time back then. “In the beginning, the AB had one true purpose: to stop blacks and Mexicans from abusing whites. If you weren’t picked up by the AB, you were dead.”

“If you are going to spend the rest of your life in prison, why not be an AB member?" a correctional officer tells us. "They live like kings."

But if you wanted to join, all you had to do—belying claims of a merely defensive purpose—was to kill, or attempt to kill, a black or Mexican inmate. The Brand’s motto was “Blood in, blood out”—meaning once you spilled blood in order to join, the only way you were leaving was in a body bag. The AB’s leaders read Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Sun Tzu, Tolkien and the old standby, Mein Kampf. They touted their white supremacist ideals with tattoos, such as Nazi swastikas and lightning bolts (for the SS), and Celtic and Viking symbols to represent Anglo-Saxon and Nordic roots. The shamrock cloverleaf was a key ink ID.

But the AB long ago subordinated its racist ideology to the acquisition of money. “The leadership became much more interested in power than race and started muscling in on the gambling, extortion and dope rackets,” the old-timer says. As part of its bid to exert control over these prison “industries,” the AB adopted a structure in the ‘80s similar to the Italian Mafia—with a three-man ruling commission and a formal hierarchy, with orders sent down the chain of command. The gang started operating as a full-fledged criminal enterprise. The Brand eventually ran much of the drug trafficking, gambling and prostitution behind the walls, and plenty more on the outside. They use murder or the threat of it to enforce their authority.

The Brand’s prison trafficking operations are legend. Mules smuggle in heroin, marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine wrapped in balloons, condemns or cellophane, either by swallowing up to a dozen a time or by “keistering” them. Black tar heroin is especially profitable and easy to cop from AB’s outside sources. Serving life sentences, often in 24-hour lockdown at Pelican Bay or ADX Florence, AB kingpins still control the flow of drugs into prisons nationwide, by sending out “kites”—coded operational instructions passed through the mail or via bribed prison staff, visits, lawyers or other inmates.

The leaders also order stabbings and murders. Prisoners have been killed for transgressions as minor as making disparaging remarks about the Brand, as court documents show. According to the FBI, gang members constitute under 1% of the total federal prison population but commit up to 20% of the murders inside the system. “They have become a bloody organization that enforce their will through murder and chaos in prisons across the country,” a correctional officer says. “They will stab another inmate in full view of correctional staff. These guys do not play.”

Prison authorities often look the other way when it comes to the lesser evil of trafficking. The Brand’s leaders wield so much control that they effectively serve as powerbrokers to maintain order. “Prison is where these guys live. We only punch the clock,” the correctional officer tells The Fix. “If you are going to spend the rest of your life in prison, why not be an AB member? They live like kings.” That power is maintained largely by drugs. “Selling heroin to fellow convicts generates a lot of money for the Brand,” says the officer. “Several hundred thousand a year from a single prison. And how many yards do they control? You do the math.”

But the violence involved in running the drug trade is increasingly threatening the gang’s dominance, if not survival. A series of federal investigations into the Brand have had the effect of widely publicizing the brotherhood's activities. Some court records from 2007, for example, state that the Aryan Brotherhood sought “to launch a cooperative effort of death and fear against staff and other inmates in order to take over the system.” But even as AB leaders are dragged into court and convicted, the life sentences they often receive are mere slaps on the wrist for men who already know they will die behind bars.

One of the first and most notorious targets of the feds was Michael “Big Mac” McElhiney, who sits, to this day, on the Brand’s governing body. Having been in and out of the California State prison system for years, Big Mac was a long-time Brand member whose body was covered in tattoos—including a shamrock in the middle of his chest. In 1989 he became a federal prisoner serving 21 years and 10 months for possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute, conspiracy to murder a witness and illegal possession of a firearm. In fall 1994 Big Mac arrived at USP Leavenworth, known as "the hothouse" for its small, sweltering cells, where the Brand’s presence was already strong. Big Mac, already a prison celebrity due to his AB status, was immediately surrounded by a fearsome group on the yard and handed the keys to the white boy car.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.