These striking images give an intimate portrait of life inside America’s most dangerous prison gangs – and those who dared to turn their back on them.
The California Department of Corrections (CDC) houses approximately 162,000 inmates, the most dangerous of whom serve their time in Level IV maximum-security facilities.
Within these walls, gang affiliation supersedes all else, including family, friends and human contact.
Every gang has a hierarchy, and those who are gang affiliated follow orders from the leaders who are deemed gang ‘validated’ – a status attributed to only the most brutal and most feared inmates.
Leaders of gang hierarchy manage daily operations such as murders, assaults and narcotic trafficking inside the prison.
When the CDC identifies a validated gang member, the prisoner is moved into a solitary confinement cell called a Security Housing Unit (SHU) or Administrative Segregation Housing Unit (AdSeg).
When placed in solitary confinement, the inmate has effectively given up all his rights to serve his gang.
Because racial tensions are so high at Level IV maximum-security facilities, validated gang members and other residents of AdSeg spend their exercise time in 15 x 7 foot cages, called “dog runs.”
Even though inmates are segregated and separated by the cages, they refuse to exercise simultaneously.
Instead, inmates alternate their workout routines, waiting until rival gang members have finished.
Since 1999, the CDC has seen a dramatic increase in requests from inmates seeking special protection for dropping out of prison gangs.
Those who drop out have decided that the demands of prison gang life are unjustifiable.
Deleon, aka Diablo, was one of the most feared enforcers for the Nuestra Familia prison gang in Northern California.
In his world, he was the self-proclaimed God–his word determined who lived or died.
After spending almost 16 years in solitary confinement/SHU, he lost respect for the collective decision-making of the gang and chose to drop out.
He now resides in a Sensitive Needs Housing Unit–a unit set up inside Level IV facilities to protect inmates who would face certain death for choosing to renounce their gangs.
The exclusive units inside Sensitive Needs Housing provide a safer environment, free from gang activity.
The transition out of gang membership is dramatic.
Corrections officers, as well as inmates, report a considerable reduction in racial violence and segregation, allowing for more freedom and respect for one another.
Although inmates of the Sensitive Needs Housing Unit are no longer gang affiliated or validated, the fact remains that they are some of the most hardened and dangerous men behind bars.
Some racial segregation is still self-imposed by the inmates, and they are routinely stripped and undergo full-body cavity searches for weapons and narcotics.