Behind Bars, But Still in Control

One of the four men on trial as a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang is accused of orchestrating a war on a rival prison gang while locked in solitary confinement at a federal Supermax prison. How did he do it? Chris Goffard of The Los Angeles Times discusses the case with Madeleine Brand.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeline Brand.

Here in Southern California, the trial of four men who allegedly ran the notorious white supremacist prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, is winding down. They're accused of murder and attempted murder of other inmates. Closing arguments are expected next week. One of the leaders, TD Bingham, is accused of ordering a race war against black prisoners in another prison. But Bingham was locked up in a federal supermax at the time, one of the most secure prisons in the country. Guards watched his every move. So, how did he allegedly communicate his instructions? Prosecutors say invisible ink. I spoke earlier with Los Angeles Times reporter, Christopher Goffard, who is covering the trial.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD (Reporter, Los Angeles Times): According to Al Benton, who is one of the brotherhood defectors, the message said, War with DCTD. Now this message, according to Al Benton, who testified at the trial in Santa Ana, meant that brotherhood members at the Lewisburg Penitentiary were to make war on members of the DC Blacks gang, which was a rival gang. The defense contends that perhaps this message was sent but it had an entirely different meaning from what the government contends. The defense says the message was merely a warning to Aryan Brotherhood members, rather than a call to go to war.

BRAND: But regardless, they did go to war and two people ended up killed.

Mr. GOFFARD: Al Benton, who was one of the brotherhood leaders at Lewisburg, armed himself with a knife and gathered some underlings at the prison, and in 1997, they went on a rampage at the prison and as a result, two black inmates were stabbed to death.

BRAND: Okay, let's get back to the invisible ink. How do you make invisible ink when you're in prison?

Mr. GOFFARD: The technique is actually ancient. You can make it with urine. You can make it with onion juice or citrus juice. And during the trial in Santa Ana, the prosecutor called to the stand a Bureau of Prisons expert, who actually gave a demonstration of exactly how this works in the courtroom. You write with one of these substances and heat up the piece of paper with a flame and the words will begin to appear.

BRAND: And there was another note that prison officials were suspicious of, the so-called Bubba note. What can you tell us about that?

Mr. GOFFARD: The agents at the supermax intercepted the Bubba note and they immediately suspected something was dangerous about the letter. The letter says, Bubba, well, I am a grandfather. At last my boy's wife gave birth to a strapping eight-pound, seven-ounce baby boy. So when supermax agents scanned this letter, they saw something unsettling in the numbers and they determined that the, one eight-pound seven-ounce baby boy, referred to 187, which is the California penal code for murder. So they intercepted this letter and they figured that they had stopped the trigger for the violence, which soon after was actually unleashed at the prison in Lewisburg. The Bureau of Prisons concedes that they missed how the message actually went out and it was in fact the invisible ink that Bingham used that triggered the actual violence, according to the government.

BRAND: So the baby note, that was a real note? He really did have an eight-pound, seven-ounce grandson?

Mr. GOFFARD: I think the prosecutors believed that was merely dummy text. Also, baby boy, according to prosecutors, was another part of the code. Baby boy meant go ahead with a hit, the prosecutors say, and baby girl, meant stand down.

BRAND: Well, I wonder if this is not a black eye for the Bureau of Prisons. Here is the federal supermax, one of the most high-tech prisons in the world, and still they weren't able to prevent a very rudimentary means of communication from one of their inmates.

Mr. GOFFARD: If you look in any book on codes and cryptograms you'll find that invisible ink and instructions on how to use it is mentioned. But nevertheless in '97, the Bureau of Prisons concedes that they weren't aware that inmates were using this. So I think in the years since, they have tightened up their monitoring.

BRAND: Los Angeles Times Reporter, Christopher Goffard, covering the Aryan Brotherhood trial here in Southern California. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. GOFFARD: My pleasure.

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