When the late New York mobster John Gotti, the "Dapper Don," wanted retribution against a fellow inmate who had attacked him in the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., in July 1996, he knew whom to talk to. He went straight to the two inmates running the Marion chapter of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and told them he wanted the man killed.
They assigned the job to an Aryan Brotherhood member and told two other men to let the gang's "Federal Commission" know about the pending hit.
They got the message out of Marion, the prison once considered the nation's toughest, and the oral memo moved slowly west until September 1997, when it wiggled into Marion's successor institution - the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, the deepest, most heavily guarded, most closely watched hole in the federal Bureau of Prisons system.
Better known as "Supermax," the so-called ADX is the prototype for the nation's super-maximum-security prisons. And it's now the Aryan Brotherhood's home office, with two senior gang leaders incarcerated there, government prosecutors say.
Inmates Barry Byron Mills, 54, and Tyler Davis Bingham, 55, have been able to continue running the gang from inside ADX, a prison designed and managed to isolate the country's worst criminals. A recent federal indictment alleges that over 23 years, 32 murders have been ordered, 16 of them successful, though Gotti's was not.
Mills and Bingham have helped the Aryan Brotherhood develop many criminal enterprises outside of prison walls across the country, last month's 110-page indictment, unsealed in Los Angeles, alleges.
Once released from prison, Aryan Brotherhood members move marijuana by the truckload across the country, according to the indictment. They shake down drug dealers and other profit-makers on the streets, extending the gang's behind-prison-walls practice of "taxing" profit-making criminal enterprises run by other white inmates.
The gang also has entered into partnerships with Asian gangs to import heroin from Thailand, according to the federal indictment.
Motivated by its collective hunger for power and profit, the gang has dropped much of the racial animus present at its founding in the mid-1960s, the government reports. The gang has been partnering with gangs such as the Mexican Mafia for more than 20 years and has nonwhite members.
"The purpose of the AB is now power and is not a racial organization as it has been deemed in the past," the FBI reported in 1983. "The AB's continue to be aligned with members of the Mexican Mafia and certain motorcycle type inmates."
While officials have known about the Aryan Brotherhood for decades, that the gang is not only present in ADX but being run from there challenges the public perception of the prison as a place where the nation's worst criminals are sent, never to be heard from again.
ADX opened in 1994, and among its current 414 inmates are Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and several of the terrorists convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993.
Officials at ADX restrict inmates' ability to communicate. The hardest cases are locked down, alone, for 22 1/2 hours a day. Ramzi Yousef, the self-professed mastermind of the Trade Center bombing, is one such inmate, according to documents filed by his lawyer in U.S. District Court last week.
The Aryan Brotherhood's ability to function even at ADX, a place bristling with video cameras and microphones, confirms the worst suspicions of penal-system critics, said Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in Washington, D.C.
"Gangs are a huge problem in this country's prison system, and corrections (officials) just have to work harder to make sure that they're not running these facilities," she said. "When you have numerous gangs running the system, we have a major problem."
Gotsch said the rise of gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood is the ultimate proof that American prisons are failing to rehabilitate their inmates.
As for further restricting prisoners' ability to get criminal messages in and out of prisons, it probably would be unconstitutional to make ADX any tighter, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner in Los Angeles, who is helping prosecute the Aryan Brotherhood case.
"As a practical matter, unless you cut off all contact with the outside world, people have the ability to send surreptitious messages," he said. "That's essentially impossible to cut off."
According to FBI records, inmates planning crimes often use code words when speaking to visitors and on the telephone.
Some also write letters to people on the outside using "invisible ink." The text of an Aryan Brotherhood communique intercepted in 1984 at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., was visible only after being pressed with a hot iron, according to the FBI.
It was written in urine, and even that message may have been coded.
Experts also attribute the success of prison gangs to their ability to buy the cooperation of guards. The Aryan Brotherhood indictment alleges that happened at ADX.
Aryan Brotherhood leaders there received key help from former ADX guard Joseph Principe, 42, prosecutors say.
The indictment says Principe filed a false report at the request of Aryan Brotherhood inmates. It also accuses him of arranging for gang leaders to meet, unobserved by other guards, to discuss gang business.
Principe denies both allegations.
He never helped the gang, and it would have been impossible for him to do so, Principe said, adding that the ADX system monitors guards as closely as inmates.
"That's out of the question," Principe said at the state Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison, in Crowley, where he is now an inmate, convicted of assault and menacing outside the prison.
The Aryan Brotherhood evolved in the mid-1960s from the Blue Bird Gang, a collective of white inmates at San Quentin, a California state prison. By the mid-1960s, after watching black and Hispanic gangs gain prominence across the California state prison system, Blue Bird members decided to change their name and increase their stature, government reports say.
But it was in the federal system that the Aryan Brotherhood found its first significant revenue stream - from Gotti's predecessors in Italian-American organized crime groups, known collectively as La Cosa Nostra.
Often older than other inmates and serving long sentences, those gangland convicts paid for Aryan Brotherhood muscle to keep them alive in some of the country's most dangerous maximum-security prisons.
"In return, the mobsters were safe while inside the walls and were obligated to offer the AB members a 'slice of the pie' on the streets when they were paroled," said a 1983 report from the FBI in Los Angeles.
In 1980, with approval from the Aryan Brotherhood leadership in California, members who had wound up in the federal system formed the Federal Commission to run the gang in federal prisons.
In the early 1990s the Federal Commission formed a middle-management "council," which now runs the gang's day-to-day operations, freeing up Federal Commission members to consider long-term issues, the indictment says.
Inside prisons, the gang has maintained large gambling and extortion operations, and also oversees the buying and selling of "punks," inmate jargon for sex slaves, the indictment states.
The Federal Commission also presided over race wars that pitted the Aryan Brotherhood against African-American prison gangs such as the D.C. Blacks, wars that raged across the federal prison system in the early 1980s and again in the 1990s, government reports say.
A government informant made a suggestion in 1984, after Aryan Brotherhood members murdered prison guards at Marion and at another prison in Oxford, Wis., that may be connected to the presence today of so many top gang leaders at ADX.
"He feels that the murders of the correctional officers will spread like cancer lesions, and the way to stop these murders is to localize the members of the AB and put them all in a single prison," the FBI reported. "This will stop the spread of the cancer."
Another theory is that prison officials have brought gang leaders to Florence to better study their operation. Officials at ADX for years have gathered information on the Aryan Brotherhood and other prison gangs from prisoner informants housed in a tier of cells called H Unit, Principe said.
ADX inmate John Greschner filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver in 2000 alleging that the same H Unit intelligence-gathering operation Principe described was violating his civil rights.
That "snitch" program - which ADX officials would not confirm exists - is probably the source of prosecutors' belief that he was involved with the gang, Principe said.
He said cooperating inmates often make things up to win privileges from investigators, and that is how his name ended up in the indictment.
ADX Warden Robert Hood declined to comment. His executive assistant, Wendy Montgomery, said she couldn't comment on Principe's allegations because they were the subject of an investigation.
She also refused to talk about how prison officials gather intelligence at ADX or how they ensure its validity.
But Dan Dunn of the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., said investigators are aware of the games inmates play and have ways of verifying intelligence offered by inmate informants.
The Aryan Brotherhood indictment is the result of a six-year investigation led by federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents in California.
That investigation saw the participation of every ATF office in the country and of other federal and local law enforcement and corrections departments, said Latese Baker, an ATF agent in Los Angeles.
Though they say they consider the indictment a significant achievement, prosecutors are only tentatively optimistic of what effect the case may have on the Aryan Brotherhood and the larger prison culture.
"If in fact some of them are given the death penalty and that represents a large portion of the leadership, that will certainly change the Aryan Brotherhood," said federal prosecutor Jessner from Los Angeles.Experts say the effect will be little, if any - and short-term, at best.
If the indicted prisoners are somehow taken out of the loop, others will simply assume their leadership roles, experts say.
"It's not going to be broken up," said Robert Walker, a retired South Carolina corrections official and gang expert who now consults prisons on gang management. "The groups are not going to go away."