huelga bird

California officials frequently cite possession of black literature, left-wing materials, and writing about prisoner rights as evidence of gang affiliation. In the dozens of cases I reviewed, gang investigators have used the term “[BGF] training material” to refer to publications by California Prison Focus, a group that advocates the abolition of the SHUs; Jackson’s once best-selling Soledad Brother; a pamphlet said to reference “Revolutionary Black Nationalism, The Black Internationalist Party, Marx, and Lenin”; and a pamphlet titled “The Black People’s Prison Survival Guide.” This last one advises inmates to read books, keep a dictionary handy, practice yoga, avoid watching too much television, and stay away from “leaders of gangs.”

The list goes on. Other materials considered evidence of gang involvement have included writings by Mumia Abu-Jamal; The Black Panther Party: Reconsidered, a collection of academic essays by University of Cincinnati professor Charles Jones; pictures of Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, George Jackson, and Nat Turner; and virtually anything using the term “New Afrikan.” At least one validation besides Pennington’s referenced handwritten pages of “Afro centric ideology.”

As warden of San Quentin Prison in the 1980s, Daniel Vasquez oversaw what was then the country’s largest SHU. He’s now a corrections consultant and has testified on behalf of inmates seeking to reverse their validations. As we sat in his suburban Bay Area home, he told me it is “very common” for African American prisoners who display leadership qualities or radical political views to end up in the SHU. Similarly, he recalls, “we were told that when an African American inmate identified as being Muslim, we were supposed to watch them carefully and get their names.”

Vasquez testified in federal court in the case of a former inmate, Ernesto Lira, who was gang validated in part based on a drawing that included an image of the huelga bird, the symbol of the United Farm Workers. While the image has been co-opted by the Nuestra Familia prison gang, Vasquez testified that it is “a popular symbol widely used in Hispanic culture and by California farmworkers.” Lira’s validation was one of a handful to ever be reversed in federal court—though not until after he was released on parole, having spent eight years in the SHU. And though the court ruled that the huelga bird is of “obscure and ambiguous meaning,” it continues to be used as validation evidence.

Evidence used to send inmates to solitary indefinitely includes possession of books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Gang evidence comes in countless forms. Possession of Machiavelli’s The Prince, Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, or Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been invoked as evidence. One inmate’s validation includes a Christmas card with stars drawn on it—alleged gang symbols—among Hershey’s Kisses and a candy cane. Another included a poetry booklet the inmate had coauthored with a validated BGF member. One poem reflected on what it was like to feel human touch after 14 years and another warned against spreading HIV. The only reference to violence was the line, “this senseless dying gotta end.”

“Direct links” that appear in inmates’ case files are often things they have no control over, like having their names found in the cells of validated gang members or associates or having a validated gang affiliate send them a letter, even if they never received it or knew of its existence. Appearing in a group picture with one validated gang associate counts as a direct link, even if that person wasn’t validated at the time.

In the course of my investigation, I obtained CDCR’s confidential validation manual. It teaches investigators that use of the words tío or hermano, Spanish for uncle and brother, can indicate gang activity, as can señor. Validation files on Latino inmates have included drawings of the ancient Aztec jaguar knight and Aztec war shields, and anything in the indigenous Nahuatl language, spoken by an estimated 1.4 million people in central Mexico.

Some SHU inmates, aside from the “bona fide gang members,” are those “the guards don’t like,” says Carbone, Pennington’s lawyer. “They get annihilated with gang validations in order to get them off the main lines…The rules are so flimsy that if the department wants somebody validated, he will get validated.”