Gangs Reach Out of Prison to Commit Crimes

Armando Frías waits in a courtroom.

Armando Frías waits in a courtroom while his lawyer negotiates a plea bargain that will determine the rest of his life. Frías faces life in prison for being the hit man in the 2001 barroom murder of an enemy of the Nuestra Familia prison gang. Janjaap Dekker/Courtesy Center for Investigative Reporting hide caption

itoggle caption Janjaap Dekker/Courtesy Center for Investigative Reporting
A messages with tiny handwriting.

The powerful Latino prison gang La Nuestra Familia, or NF, passes messages in legal mail and in scraps of paper filled with tiny, almost microscopic script. John Burgess/Press Democrat hide caption

itoggle caption John Burgess/Press Democrat

A federal judge in San Francisco is due to sentence five leaders of a California prison gang. The men have already pleaded guilty to drug dealing, extortion and murder across northern California.

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What's unusual is that the gang leaders were already serving life sentences in one of America's most secure prisons when they ordered the crimes.

California has the country's biggest prison system and the largest and oldest prison gangs. Most are headquartered at one facility: Pelican Bay State Prison. Experts say these gangs control crime far outside prison walls and across the country. Reporter Michael Montgomery of American RadioWorks spent six months following inmates and staff at Pelican Bay.

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