What do gang member hopefuls read in prison?
May 14, 2009 4:35 PM   Subscribe

Prison gang reading lists and what's on them. Does anyone out there know a concise answer?

Most people think you've got to be dumb to get sent to prison or stupid to get caught. But there is a small majority, mainly ex-cons, their families ... I won't bother going through the list here who know for a fact that some of the greatest minds in our country are behind bars. The personal views/politics end here.

I ask this question because recently The History channel has had a rash of shows about most of the larger and more organized gangs in the USA. Not surprisingly they have a very heavy presence in our American prison system. I started to notice a trend that happens when they initiate someone in prison; they often give them rules to memorize and reading lists (of books in the prison library) to learn from. Now, in one of these shows they actually had a quick flash on the screen of one of these lists (the show that day was about the Aryan Brotherhood if you're interested.) I don't have the show on tape and even if I did I doubt that anyone could make anything out significant from the blurry photo of what looked a photo-copy-of-a-photo-copy. I wouldn't be surprised if all of the gangs share very similar lists since they all seem to revolve around the same knowledge-set. This theory was enforced by the fact that the following books were mentioned in every show that had a blurb about "the reading list":

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Gray's Anatomy by Spalding Gray (et. al.)

Now this "list" that was flashed on the screen was on your typical 8x11 size sheet of paper, book names top to bottom, single spaced text @ 13-14pt. (not exact on the size but it was essentially normal hand writing). So, I can tell there is more on these lists than three books!

Please, ex-cons, cons, gang members, prison guards , ANYONE that knows what's on that list help a knowledge thirsty netizen out. I'm not looking for carnal knowledge here (since all of these books are apparently in the prison library system.) I'm just really interested in what these gangs have deemed "must read" literature.

Thanks in advance.
posted by monkishies to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Gray's Anatomy by Spalding Gray

posted by roll truck roll at 4:43 PM on May 14, 2009

Response by poster: Gray's Anatomy is apparently used by Aryan Brotherhood members to find the best spot(s) to "shank" a rival. The interviewed member said it was important to know since they often had to use things as thin as pencil lead to kill someone in one stab. So I guess knowing where exactly to shove that piece of wire or whatever was really darn important?
posted by monkishies at 4:51 PM on May 14, 2009

Gray's Anatomy is most likely on the list because knowing the body and its internal structures is key to knowing how to effectively and quickly kill someone with a sharpened toothbrush, or miss everything vital just to tech them a lesson. Of course, the Gray in question is Henry Gray.
posted by knowles at 4:52 PM on May 14, 2009

Gray's Anatomy by Spalding Gray

Are you sure they didn't mean Gray's Anatomy?

Don't be surprised if the list that you saw flashed on screen was just a prop generated for the use of the program, and the actual list is just a collection of rumor and supposition.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:53 PM on May 14, 2009

Response by poster: Yes , sorry for the name mix-up. I've got Grant's Atlas of Anatomy by James E. Anderson, M.D. and it's the only one I've ever used. I searched Amazon really quickly to get the really short list out of the way. The only other time I've heard about Gray's is in relation to tv show.

mr_roboto, you could be right but then again what would be the point of History Channel making a prop for a rather low key factoid causally peppered in most of the documentaries about gangs? To be honest I'd be really surprised if it were just a prop. Maybe you know way more about HC's documentation methods than I do, the population here sure is large enough for that to be true.
posted by monkishies at 5:02 PM on May 14, 2009

This isn't a direct answer to your question, but there are many organizations that send books to prisoners. Prison libraries often are extremely pared down or simply don't exist any more thanks to budget cuts. At the organization I volunteered at, books on Black history, Chicano studies, Native American history, the occult, and how-to books (especially in trades like woodworking or auto mechanics) were requested very frequently. Spanish-to-English dictionaries, too, were in extremely high demand. You might google "books to prisoners" and check out the wishlists of a few places from across he country.
posted by kelseyq at 5:12 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mod note: can we keep this out of the realm of total guessing game please?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:20 PM on May 14, 2009

Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power has been endorsed (not exactly the word I want, but you know what I mean) by, among others, members of the Black Mafia Family.
posted by box at 5:31 PM on May 14, 2009

According to this, the list you saw includes "The Art of War by Sun Tzu, Machiavelli’s The Prince, the basic writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.... Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, You Can Never Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe, and the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde."

I'd love to see that confirmed, though, as it is hard for me to believe Whitman and Wilde.
posted by Houstonian at 5:35 PM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

The episode appears to be available on major torrent sites, in case you're interested in downloading it and seeing if you can make out some names.
posted by box at 5:35 PM on May 14, 2009

The Thomas Wolfe book is called You Can't Go Home Again.

Whether that error is on the part of the blogger or the History Channel or the prison gang, I cannot say. I should probably just be happy they didn't confuse him with the Bonfire of the Vanities guy.
posted by box at 6:01 PM on May 14, 2009

The movie Blood In, Blood Out (sorry, I can't find the linky button for some reason - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106469/) had at least one scene where Miklo (young buck learning how to be in a prison gang) is reading an anatomy text, and I think we see Montana (elder gang member) doing some philosophical type reading. Top of my head I don't recall, but if you check out the movie more specifics might be mentioned.
posted by KAS at 6:13 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in reading actual gang propaganda, The Black Book - Empowering Black Families and Communities is written by Eric Marcel Brown one of the leaders of the currently-on-trial Black Guerilla Family
posted by electroboy at 7:04 AM on May 15, 2009

I've been in several county jails and one state jail. I never saw or heard about a reading list. My last stay- 20 days on old warrants- gave me time to finally read Ulysses, though. A friend sent that to me, along with a companion volume of annotations. I also read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, which was good.
I was forced to join a gang in the state jail. No book list, but I was in a riot and got pummeled by an Aryan Brotherhood guy and gassed by the guards. Their library mostly sucked, and I would probably describe the atmosphere as "anti-intellectual."
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 9:10 AM on May 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So it turns out that a local friend downloaded the show after I pestered HIM with my horrible brain-itch concerning this list (I'm terrible sometimes! But I get results! :) .) Neiter he nor I can make out some of the names, but the bulk of what was shown is:
Basic Writings of Fredrich Nietzsche
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Complete Works of Oscar Wilde
You Can't Go Home Again By Thomas Wolfe
Art of War by SunTzu
A Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
I hope someone will be kind enough to attempt a guess at the last two books on this list so it'll be complete?
P.S. Big thanks to Google and its' book hosting program!
posted by monkishies at 1:56 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Second-to-last is Aikido, by Morihei Ueshiba.
posted by box at 2:24 PM on May 16, 2009

Last one looks like it might be 'On Power: A History of its Origins and Growth,' but a little bit of (very casual and non-exhaustive) searching does not reveal a book by that name.
posted by box at 2:31 PM on May 16, 2009

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